The November issue of Harvard Business Review highlights Kevin Peters, Office Depot’s president for North America and his bewilderment at a puzzling set of facts – declining sales but customer service scores going through the roof. How could they be “delivering phenomenal service to customers, yet they weren’t buying anything?”
What he discovered, by spending several weeks walking around 70 stores in 15 states, was that the customer satisfaction scoring was asking the wrong questions! They were asking about clean floors and bathrooms, none of which customers cared about. What they did care about were being ignored, lack of relationships, inability to find what they needed or solve a problem they came into the store for. So Peters came up with three insights:

  1. He had to reduce the size of the stores – give them less of what they don’t want!
  2. Improve the in-store experience for customers – in a commodity world, the only real differentiation
  3. Look beyond office products to provide other services customers wanted – like copying, printing, and shipping; help installing software and fixing computers.

What can you take away about your strategic relationships? They become relevant when you start asking better questions and become a priority on their radar. I’ve found a direct correlation between other people’s responsiveness, investment in the relationship, and longevity of the relationship with how much value you provide in every interaction. You become of particular value if they can’t get that value from many (or any) other sources, and your value is particularly impactful to their aspirations.

So if you want to build more strategic relationships in 2012 and beyond, start asking better questions. Only then, will you uncover opportunities to become a strong asset to their efforts and build a solid foundation for the relationship moving forward.

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