Innovation

Holidays and customer relationship-building

It’s December, and I’m in a Christmas kind of mood; I have in front of me a stack of Christmas cards that I need to send out. However, this stack is not for relatives and friends; it is for my customers. You don’t send holiday cards to your customers and key contacts? If not, you are doing yourself a disservice.

You see, as much as we like to think that our jobs are about technology—a great deal of our work is about relationships and relationship management. This is particularly true as you move higher up the management food chain.

Good relationships can allow you to be successful in impossible situations; save your rear when things don’t go as intended; bring resources to bear that you don't have on your own; assert influence when and where needed; and present opportunities for collaboration and success, as well as promote cooperation.

Bad relationships, on the other hand, can cause you continuous troubles. It can impede funding, cause people and organizational units to avoid your policies and procedures or defy them outright. It can make you a lone voice at the management table, a pariah among your peers, and give you zero chance for success.

Not having relationships is almost as bad. If you are invisible, people will take you and your organization for granted, or at best, be neutral towards you.

And before you think that Christmas cards are some kind of magic relationship bullet, they are not. That being said, the holidays are a great time to improve your relationship-building. Generally speaking, people do get the holiday spirit and they are more open to your advances of friendship and collegiality. The holidays also give you an excuse for sending that first card that can break the ice and build a healthier relationship with a client.

So what kind of card do you send? We can start with the no-no’s. Absolutely do not send a religious card of any kind. You do not know people’s religious affiliations and tastes and you do not want to offend them. In short, you need to be politically correct. A card depicting an outdoor scene with a generic saying such as, “best wishes for the holiday season” or “season's greetings,” are always good.

You also need to try to avoid humor. What you think is funny is not always everyone else’s idea of humor. So forget about the cards with grandma being run over by a reindeer, etc.

Next, you need a good pen. Why? Because you are going to be taking the time to write a thoughtful note to each person you send a card to. Forget about just signing the card and then placing a laser printed address label on it. You want to make it obvious to the person receiving your card that it is worth your to write a short note. If your handwriting is as bad as mine, that means taking the time to write as slowly as possible so that what you are writing is actually legible. I find that a very fine tip pen is best for this kind of work.

Now, what do you say? Keep it simple; something along the lines of: “I just wanted to drop you a note to let you know how much I have enjoyed working with you and your group over the last year,” is a good way to start. If you can add something personal like, “I wanted you to know that I really appreciated your support on X project,” or something like that—it adds tremendous value to your card. It shows that you remember them and their particular contribution.

If you are trying to start a relationship, you can add something to indicate that you would like to meet them for lunch sometime or spend a few minutes with them to get to know their operations better—anything that gives you a next step in making contact.

If you are trying to mend fences, this is also a good time to offer an olive branch to an adversary. They may wonder why you are being nice to them by sending them a card, but that’s the whole reason—to start a new dialogue. Making the first move is honorable and costs you nothing other than a little time.

Lastly, relationship building is a year-round effort. You don’t send a holiday card and that’s the end of it. That’s why I keep a stack of Thank You cards in my desk, and why I pick up the phone, and also why I get my rear out of my chair to go visit people.

It’s too easy in this day and age of impersonal communications to forget that there are human beings on the other end of these computing devices. The most effective managers know that they get more significant things accomplished by working with and through people—whether they are your employees, colleagues, or customers.

So use this holiday season as a reason to improve your relationship building and networking skills. You may find that by next year at this time, you will be reaping the benefits of good working relationships and feeling better about yourself in the process!

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