Relationship Reciprocity in Business is Important (Please Love Me Back)

6 minute read

If I love you a lot, and demonstrate that to you clearly through my actions, then I think it is only fair that you love me back. If you don’t want to love me back, or if for some reason you feel you can’t, we would probably both be better off if you would be upfront with me and tell me that. Actually, it would have been better if you told me that at the outset (before I loved you a lot) so I didn’t waste all that love on you – but that may not have been possible. Maybe you didn’t know what you wanted.

If you’re a frequent reader of my blog (thank you!) you know that I don’t write much about personal relationships. That’s not my thing. But when we think about the relationship between customers and their suppliers – we are all just humans after all – there are a lot of analogies that we can use and lessons that we should be able to transfer from personal to business relationships.

Personal relationships work best when there is a reasonable degree of reciprocity. Relationships will never be completely equal. 50/50 never happens – at least not from your perspective, because after all it is your perspective and that will always be different from mine. Accepting that though, we can still both accept that a relationship with a fair degree of reciprocity (somewhere in the 60/40 range is ok) is better than one that is one-way or unbalanced.

And some things are always true:

  • Everyone wants to be treated fairly – and it’s better that way
  • We all want and deserve respect
  • Nobody likes being lied to
  • Just because you can ignore someone never means that you should
  • Being rude is not good
  • My time is not more important than yours
  • The more you listen, the more you understand
  • What we get from the relationship is a combinatorial function of what we both contribute

That’s how it is in personal relationships and also in the relationships between customers and their suppliers. (It is never just business – it is always personal.) The relationship cannot be optimally valuable to either party without open collaboration, respect, and trust. The complexity of the purchase and the organizational impact of its deployment shades the absoluteness of this statement. But in every case, from when you are ordering a burger or a coffee to when you’re buying a new ERP system for your company, the core tenets of reciprocity and respect apply.

Why Reciprocity in Business Relationships is Essential for Success

As a customer you know that this is true; when you are nice, polite and respectful to the ticketing agent, you will likely encounter more flexibility when the flight is overbooked. When you don’t click your fingers at the waitress and always remember to acknowledge helpful service, she is less likely to accidentally spill wine on your shirt! That’s not the reason to be respectful – but it just tends to work out that way.

As a supplier, there are times when the prospective customer does not treat you fairly – or at least from your perspective to looks and feels that way. That might be the time to disengage and look for a different relationship or determine (using the Customer Impact Architecture) that you want a different type of relationship.

The bottom line for a supplier is that you should always look for reasonable reciprocity from the customer; the more ‘strategic’ the customer, the more evidence of customer reciprocity that’s required. If you are investing a lot in the relationship then you need the customer to hold up her end.

Let’s take an extreme example:

How Reciprocity Works in Executive Sponsor Programs

I have written a lot recently about the value that a company can derive from an Executive Sponsor Program – marshaling the company’s executive leadership to actively engage with your most important customers. (My post The Case for the Executive Sponsor would be a good place to start if you are interested in that.) In most companies, Executive Sponsor Programs are only used at the highest strata of customers where both supplier and customer invest in the partnership for mutual benefit. But of course the Executive Sponsor Program cannot be successful without customer collaboration and that will only happen when the customer sees the value of applying extra resources of their own to their engagement with you.

Of course, the invitation to participate in your Executive Sponsor Program should clearly describe the exclusive nature and value of the program, why they have been selected, and the benefits to their company. But if you expect reciprocity – as you should – you will need to call out what you need from the customer for the relationship to be optimally valuable to both parties. The table here is an example of what that might look like.

Table outlining the customer commitments required for a successful executive sponsor program, highlighting joint business planning, strategic planning, and communication.

(This table first appeared in my latest book: Digital Sales Transformation in a Customer First World.)

We have to fit together

I was prompted to write this post when helping a company discover their Ideal Customer Profile.  It turns out that Cultural Compatibility was an attribute of the target company that was very important.  As is the case with any sale where the solution comprises material intellectual property, in this instance it was clear that this company’s customers were most successful with the application of their solution when there was a full collaboration between supplier and customer.  We ended up discovering that they never won a deal where the customer didn’t ‘let them in’. Cultural Compatibility turned out to be one of the key attributes of their Ideal Customer Profile and guided both their go-to-market strategy and the opportunity qualification process.

Like all good relationships, we all need a little give and take.  Whether you are typically a buyer or a seller it is equally important to remember that if I love you a lot it is reasonable to expect that you will love me back, or tell me why you cannot.

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