Assumptions and Termites

“Assumptions are the termites of relationships.”

That quote was from the leader of an educational session I attended last week on leadership of boards of directors at non-profit organizations.  The session had nothing to do with branding and marketing, but I jotted down the quote because I thought it was such a powerful thought.  On the ride home, I thought about how assumptions damage our relationships, whether personal and professional, and, by extension, with customers and prospects.

Before I get into that, a few words about termites.  Termite colonies live in and feed off wood.  They create a hole and then work away quietly in the interior of the tree or the wood of a building without anyone noticing.  Usually the damage is detected only when the wood structure fails or is discovered by an inspector.  The termite inspector will poke a screwdriver in the sill plate (the wood that rests on the foundation).  If the screwdriver sinks in, it means termites have compromised the plate and it is going to cost big money to fix.

So what does this have to do with branding and marketing?  Sometimes we assume we know everything about our customers, but the relationship is being undermined by those assumptions.  This is sometimes seen in a bunch of executives sitting in a conference room making decisions that impact customers without any input from those customers.

I remember one of these occasions, when I sat in on a business unit’s monthly leadership meeting (I was in a corporate shared services group at the time).  After listening to the issues and the course of action the business unit planned to take, I asked “Has anyone talked to any clients about this?”.  Silence.  After some discussion, it was agreed that one of the business unit leaders would call a few key clients to get feedback about the proposed action.   The executive later reported that the clients he spoke with understood what the company wanted to do and appreciated the opportunity to give feedback.

Asking customers about key initiatives and changes before they are implemented not only gives you an opportunity to fine tune the implementation, but it can create stronger relationships with customers because it shows you value and trust their insights.  If you adjust your plans to account for their thoughts, it can also help gain buy-in to the changes.

How do we avoid the assumption game?  One way is to always be testing customer satisfaction.  Don’t assume customers are happy because they continue buying from your company.  They may have other reasons for buying from your company, such as the pain of change, and they just haven’t reached the tipping point of dissatisfaction.  I think about New York Mayor Ed Koch’s trademark “How I am doing?” question that he asked of people he met anywhere in the city.  People often told him the unbridled truth, which gave him a real sense of his constituents’ (customers’) feelings on his performance.

Most importantly, use the method your customers are most comfortable with.  For some this can be a formal survey and for others its will be an informal chat.  You can ask them how they prefer to give input about the relationship, which in itself can be a powerful relationship-building tool.  The key is to capture the information so it can be used to improve your company’s performance and its relationship with customers so you can keep the termites at bay.


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