Inclusive Behaviors Create New Pathways to Customer Relationships

By stepping back and incorporating multiple perspectives, we gain a more complete picture that includes our customers.

Michael Welp


For most companies, developing and leveraging customer relationships is critical to their success. Yet for many organizations, deeper customer relationships remain an aspiration rather than a reality. When asked, customers often reveal that they don’t feel heard, valued or understood. Why do customer relationships remain elusive?

We don’t know what we don’t know

A successful, results-driven business culture can actually get in the way of customer partnership by overusing its strengths—strengths derived from the dominant white male culture. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the dominant business culture—indeed it creates much success—a strength overused can become a weakness. Without recognizing and talking about the culture to understand its impact, we are powerless to respond to the strong forces that can block connection with others. Here are some ways that the dominant culture shows up and may be overused in our client relationships:

  • A strong tendency to problem-solve and fix (instead of simply showing up, being present and listening).
  • Jumping too fast into action that may be based on an incomplete understanding (rather than slowing down, reflecting and gaining a broader perspective from the customer).
  • Because advocating for a position is more valued in the dominant culture, we advance a solution or action instead of using inquiry as a way to gain more intimate knowledge of customer needs. It is hard to build customer relationship when we promote our own agenda—subtly or not—with our customers. They are turned off by our arrogance.
  • A preference for rational thinking over feeling that leads us away from connection.
  • Prioritizing status and rank can feel competitive and get in the way of a relationship based on understanding and partnership.

When we don't examine the unconscious cultural water we swim in every day, we remain unaware of the self-limiting ways we inhibit deeper partnerships with customers. This is as true in customer engagement as it is in promoting inclusion and equity in the workplace.

Inclusive skills and behaviors that build customer partnership

The journey to grow customer relationship, like those used to build inclusive partnership, starts as we shift our mindsets, develop awareness, and build new skills and behaviors. Based on our 17 years of experience working within organizations, we’ve identified eight critical leadership skills and behaviors that build inclusive cultures and foster relationship and partnership. These skills work to engage employees across difference and they apply to our customers as well.

Seeing and Thinking Systemically. By stepping back, thinking broadly and incorporating multiple perspectives, we gain a more complete and nuanced picture that includes our customer. If we choose to hold only one perspective—our own—we discount our customer’s reality and they will feel we don’t get their world.

Balancing Key Paradoxes. This skill allows us to get out of our “either/or” mindset and explore the complex contradictions customers are actually experiencing and talking about.

Leveraging Ambiguity & Turbulence. When we have the ability to manage the tension of continual change and remain patient with confusion, we’re better able to tap the possibilities, learning and growth that are inherent in customer partnerships.

Integrating Head and Heart. Building a connection on an emotional, heart level (along with the rational thinking and knowledge level) creates openness and authentic connection with customers.

Listening. Listening to understand furthers collaboration and helps leaders learn how best to engage their clients. As a result of fully listening, customers feel heard and valued.

Managing Difficult Conversations. When customer feedback may be hard to hear or a client project has not gone as planned, it’s crucial to acknowledge what is not working and then move forward to achieve a better outcome without blame. Staying present in a difficult conversation shows a commitment to real partnership with customers.

Being an Agent of Change. When we see change as a journey we’re better able to learn and grow from our mistakes. Our visible journey can influence others to take action that brings valuable results to our customers.

Courage. Courage ensures that we act in spite of our fears and any risks involved. We meet our customers with the courage to ask the difficult questions and to say, “I don’t know” when necessary. This type of courage builds trust within the partnership.  

I’ll use my own experience as a consultant to give you an example. Consultants are supposed to be experts and to show absolute confidence in their field, guiding their client toward the optimal solution. Yet the “expert-knows-all” approach is often disingenuous and doesn’t recognize and tap the wisdom and experience of the client. By choosing to stay in questioning mode and resisting the urge to give a short-term solution the client may be most comfortable with, we show our willingness to create a broader, more sustainable partnership. It requires courage to slow things down, to listen, inquire and connect. This form of client partnership leads to a deep and trusting relationship.

The skills that build diversity partnerships and inclusive cultures are the same skills needed to create lasting customer relationships. You can apply these insights in your families and your communities; you can apply them toward retaining employees, tapping latent talent and improving morale; you can apply them toward creating deeper customer relationship and partnership. When you change your core habits in one area of your life, you open new pathways in all areas of your life.

Posted by Michael Welp on Mar 5, 2014 3:33 PM EST

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