How to make business a handshake rather than an arm wrestle

Too often, as a business grows the customer gets left behind. When a brand is understood to reflect the relationship between the buyer and the seller, then a thoughtful, fair, and fruitful exchange is much more likely to be the result, which makes for better business all-round.

This article first appeared on in February 2023

Even the occasional listener to national talk radio will hear stories of disappointed customers fighting with their service provider to fix broken promises and honour hollow guarantees. Whether the service has been cancelled, disrupted, or simply falls far short of what has been sold, the complaints always sound the same: the customer is driven to air their grievances because the business keeps them at arm’s length to ignore them, fob them off, or deny them any resolution. Why is it that, as a business grows bigger it often tears up the solemn vows it’s made, leaving the unhappy customer to pick up the pieces?

In my experience, small businesses typically don’t behave in this way. Maybe it’s more difficult to ignore the unhappy customer when they are standing across the shop counter, rather than at the far end of a long supply chain. Face to face, it’s not so easy to hide from obligations. Too often, as a business grows and the supply chain is extended, the unfortunate customer gets left behind. Vital interactions are consigned to the agent or go-between, or even worse to the dreaded customer-service phone menu or smart – but never smart or human enough – chatbot. When the seller loses sight of their customer in this way, things can easily go wrong and doing business can quickly turn from handshake to arm-wrestle.

So, how can a growing business better keep their customers in plain view? Deepening their understanding of their brand is a good starting-point. In over thirty years as a business owner, I’ve heard brand defined in many ways. Some define it as a mark of origin or quality, others as image or reputation. I’ve heard brand described as a proposition or promise, but even this doesn’t go far enough in representing the two-sided nature of the exchange between the buyer and the seller in the marketplace. When the brand is seen as something that belongs only to the business and is used to deliver sales, then it’s not surprising that the customer has little say in how the business behaves. And as the business adds numbers to its sales outlets and its teams, it’s all too easy for it to see the customer as just another number on its balance sheet and to ignore its commitments and obligations.

On the other hand, when a business understands its brand to reflect the two-way relationship between the person buying and the person selling, then a thoughtful, fair, and fruitful exchange between the two is much more likely to be the result. Whilst big business often plays lip service to the importance of customers, it’s only when they build their brand around the relationship that underpins the exchange between them that the customer is seen and heard as a trading partner rather than just a consumer. This will almost inevitably change the dynamic of the relationship. When trade is done between partners, each of whom has stepped up to the shop counter with something of value to exchange and sees the other as their equal, then it becomes much more difficult for one to ignore the other. When a business builds its brand in this way, then its customers are much more likely to be heard when things go wrong as they sometimes do even in the best of relationships, and much less likely to take to the airwaves to vent their frustrations.

Ritz Carlton’s co-founder Horst Schulze famously reflected this philosophy when he described their brand relationship with its guests as ‘Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen’. Apart from being a clever nod to the standard of service that Ritz Carlton promises, this goes much deeper and further in speaking of how the business understands its relationship with its guests as a partnership of equals. It’s especially powerful in a service industry such as hospitality where the receptionist or cleaner is often expected to adopt a servile attitude when taking care of the guest. No-one benefits in the long term when the relationship is so unequal that one person gets what they want at the expense of the other.

A business that builds its brand in this balanced and respectful way is unlikely to hide from its customers behind frontline staff who are powerless to do the right thing or customer service labyrinths that send callers down blind alleys. Finding the right balance isn’t always easy but thinking of the relationship in this way changes the popular customer-service catch-cry ‘the customer is always right’ – often said through gritted teeth – to the much more reasonable and manageable ‘the relationship with the customer is always right’.

This is the win-win that underpins the very best trades in the marketplace. For the customer, the benefits are obvious, and are enjoyed not only when things go right but also when things go wrong. When things don’t go right in a respectful relationship, both sides work hard together to put them right as quickly as possible. Neither side wants to kick the problem further down the road or hope that it simply goes away. For the business too, there are many benefits, some of them less obvious. Fixing something that’s not working on the spot is usually far less costly than trying to fix it later. This is even before the expensive loss of invaluable goodwill and reputation as resentment festers is accounted for.

It’s also highly unlikely that the business that puts its relationship with its customers first and makes that the basis for how it structures its organisation and plans its policies and procedures, will find itself and its customers fighting bitterly on air. Matters will simply never go so far. And whilst happy customers are far less likely to broadcast their satisfaction, the business that puts its relationship with customers first is usually the subject of many personal conversations and, even more importantly, enthusiastic and heartfelt recommendations.