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The Power of Feelings: Building Resilient Customer Relationships

May 24, 2011 12:37:00 PM

Many customer relationships are in a sorry state today. While it might be easy to look at the past few years and blame the economy and cuts in staffing or service levels, our research indicates an unexpected root cause. Many customers are unhappy, and at risk, simply because they do not feel a connection to their most strategic providers. Using words I have heard too often in executive interviews: “They don’t get me. They don’t get what I need. And it’s not a partnership. It’s just about them.”

Who are these customers?

They represent a wide audience -- a group as broad as Fortune 500 executives to successful business owners in communities around the U.S. We’ve also seen this loss of connection between consumers and providers of products and services as varied as casual dining, personal computers, entertainment, and air travel.

What’s really going on?

A missed opportunity: the companies they work with have failed to create a compelling customer experience. Most critically, they have failed to create an experience that effectively addresses each customer’s emotional needs.

Think about it. Think about the last time you visited a grocery store, had dinner at a restaurant, or made a decision about the best products or services for your business. In addition to ensuring you got the features you needed, and paid a fair price, there were probably a few other factors that came to bear on the decision process:

    • Who makes you or your business the priority?

    • Where do you feel most comfortable?

    • Who is easiest to do business with?

    • Who delivers on time (or tells you when things are going to be late)?

    • Who admits when they have made a mistake?

The above questions are examples that illustrate the impact of our very rational (and very human) tendency to consider our own feelings in a decision process, even in a decision with significant business constraints. Logically then, the companies that create the most compelling customer experiences seek to optimize both their ability to deliver value and to manage how people feel throughout the experience.

Speaking broadly, there are two main ways to manage emotions in the customer experience.

Maximize the Positive

Strong positive feelings like happiness and surprise can delight customers, and differentiate products and services even in highly competitive markets. Consider, as an example, the retail sales professional who knows her customer well enough to find the perfect intersection of her style and the latest season’s trends. A few specific choices before the customer arrives for an appointment make the visit surprisingly successful. The customer is delighted because she finds the right pieces, quickly. This positive experience drives both a larger-than-expected immediate sale and more important significantly increased likelihood of a return visit next season: a positive outcome for both the sales professional and her customer.

Minimize the Negative

Depending on the business context, the best strategy might be minimizing the downside of the experience for your customers. These companies are passionate about understanding what causes customers to become frustrated and committed to engineering these out of the experience. For example, are you in a highly time-sensitive business where any wait is almost immediately frustrating? If so, what specific actions can the business take to ensure customers aren’t becoming angry? A service guarantee of lunch within 20 minutes? A phone call if a print job is running late? Free shipping if the needed products aren’t on the loading dock within 48 hours?


Thinking about the emotional state of customers isn’t always easy, but the results are clear. When customers realize value from a provider who gets what’s going on for them and takes steps to improve their experience, the payoff is beyond loyalty. It’s what customers call a partnership and it offers a critical element we call relationship resilience.

What do we mean by relationship resilience?

…your competitor cuts prices and your customer still doesn’t want to talk to them.

…your company stumbles in the press and your customer gives you the benefit of the doubt.

…your account executive isn’t getting the job done, and rather than just switching, the customer calls you to try and work it out.

The bottom line: taking the time to understand the emotional experience customers need is a critical component of building long-term, profitable customer relationships.

Read more about establishing resilient customer relationships here.
Liz Ryan
Written by Liz Ryan