many hands, each holding a lego play figure

Three essential relationships that help us deliver great services

March 25, 2021

Relationships are the invisible forces that bind our customers, employees and other stakeholders together. By taking the time to understand the challenges and needs faced by each of these groups,we are much better placed to develop services that will each deliver towards their desired outcomes.

When we fail to understand the relationships that exist between our organization and the people that interact with it - we compromise our ability to deliver great services.

In this article we will take a broad look at these three different relationships and how they affect our ability to deliver great services. We will look at how organizations are able to support their customers as well as their employees, then we will broaden our perspective by looking into the extended network of stakeholders and the role they play in successful service delivery. In the upcoming second part, we will explore three guiding values (communication, adaptability and support) that can help us build and enhance our existing relationships and strengthen our ability to deliver successful customer-centered services.

For those who feel in a hurry, here's the quick overview and navigation:

Relationships with our customers

Could an organization exist without its customers? It's hardly likely. Knowing this, how regularly does your organization spend time working on this relationship? How much effort do you invest in understanding, communicating and supporting the needs of the people your organization relies on to survive?

Much like with personal relationships, when we lose sight of why a relationship exists, our ability to provide relevant support decreases. Sadly, for many organizations, this is already the case.

Most organizations are conceived with a close proximity to customer needs. However, this customer-centered focus can diminish over time, leaving in its place ways of working and services that are based on assumptions about customer experience rather than facts.

A commonly observable effect of organizational growth is this increased gap between the people delivering services, who interact with customers on a daily basis, and the people within the organization making decisions about service delivery. This distance can have a negative impact on service delivery as offers can progressively become out of touch with the needs of customers, thus reducing their impact and relevance.

Distance up the vertical hierarchy of an organization shouldn't equate to distance from the experience of our customers

The quality of the relationship that an organization maintains with its customers can vary wildly and depend on a range of factors, including:

  • The level of drive that an organization’s leadership teams have for understanding and empathizing with their customers
  • How much its customers actually need the help and support an organization is providing
  • How committed frontline staff are to providing great customer service
  • An organization's ability to communicate effectively with its stakeholders
  • The willingness and curiosity of an organization’s leaders to integrate human-centered principles into the culture of this organization and inform service delivery

Good relationship management is a process that requires constant communication and understanding. And this isn't a once or twice a year activity, but rather an adaptive, ongoing process of learning and discovery. What is required is deep communication that can develop an understanding of our customers’ experience and how they need to be supported. By revealing these needs, we are able to provide support in relevant and effective ways that grow and strengthen the relationship we have with our customers.  

Even though the journey towards developing better customer understanding and relationships may seem daunting, our best chance of success is by starting simple, with questions and curiosity.

Key questions to ask about our customer relationship

  • What challenges do our customers face and what do they need help with?
  • How can we incentivize our customers to be open and transparent about their experiences?
  • What channels offer us the best opportunities for communicating with customers?

Relationships within our organization

No, we're not talking about the budding relationship between two of our colleagues as they connect over the watercooler (or through zoom, in our changing world). Rather we need to look at our employee experience and the ways in which our staff coordinate their skills to deliver great service experiences to our customers.

Customer-centered approaches are not limited to external customers who use our service - they also apply to our internal staff who work together to deliver those services. Much like in a sports team, understanding and skill coordination are critical if a group of people are going to achieve a shared goal together.

Within an organization exist a range of different relationships. At a high level, there is the relationship between the employee and the overall organization vision, between employees and their superiors, as well as between different employees within departments.

  • Do employees understand the context of their work? The relationship an employee has with the vision of an organization can determine the sense of purpose they have within their role.
  • How do employees interact with their superiors? Whether a superior is condescending, empathetic or supportive towards the people they are managing will have a range of different effects on productivity and service delivery.
  • How well do people in different departments communicate? Different skill sets and roles often come with different ways of working and thinking. Being able to foster common links and ways of communication can help to break down work silos and improve the levels of support each department is able to provide in strengthening the whole organization.

Like our customers, our employees are all navigating through their own journeys. Perhaps our staff are experiencing stress, time pressures or technology-induced frustration. Even worse, they might not understand the vision of the organization they are working for and what they are trying to achieve.

By seeking to understand their experience, we gain important insights into the challenges that affect the ways in which staff relate to one another and ultimately what affects the coordination and flow of our organization's service delivery.

Key questions to ask in employee relationships

  • How aligned are our employees under the overall vision of our organization?
  • In what areas of their lives are they facing challenges, do they feel frustrated or have the need for better support?
  • Do they know what is required of them, and do they have the tools to complete the work?
  • If we are looking at the relationship between different employees - do they understand how they rely on each other? Do they know who to ask for help and do they know how to support each other in their roles?

For more on the subject of employee experience, please check out this article.

two hands holding two puzzle pieces to visualize a good connection

Relationships with other partners and stakeholders

A stakeholder is someone who is invested in the outcomes that result from our work as an organization. This doesn't have to be exclusively a financial investment either, in many cases stakeholders can be emotionally invested in a customer's journey. The range of potential actors is as diverse as the experiences you are trying to create and includes our customers themselves, our staff members, board members, community groups, suppliers, businesses and anyone else who is connected to the results of our service delivery.

Simply put, we are talking about people who have something to lose if our customers don't reach the experience we intend to deliver to them.

When we understand that our customers exist within the context of a range of different actors, it can change the way we think and develop relationships within our stakeholder network.

Our vision as an organization may be deeply reliant on the services, financial support or advocacy of different groups of people. By making the connections and understanding the needs of these different actors, solutions can be designed that are formed within this collective web of support.

If we look towards the sector of government services, we can quickly uncover case studies where outcomes rely on the relationships between a multitude of different stakeholders. For example, if we are to look at experiences of urban poverty, one can identify a diverse network of stakeholders, from families to government services, education providers and non-profits who are all involved in the vision of helping to alleviate poverty and supporting  people in their effort to achieve better living conditions.

stakeholder map visualizing the network for a homeless person in a city

Strong, supportive relationships within our stakeholder network have the ability to add resilience to our service delivery and ensure our customers are supported in different parts of their journeys. By identifying and improving these relationships, we not only strengthen our own organization, but the network as a whole.

Taking proactive steps to develop relationships with our stakeholder groups begins with identifying and mapping out the extended network of different actors that exist around our organization. Luckily, there are  a number of great tools and resources that allow us to develop compelling stakeholder maps, from which we can make sense of and improve our connections.

Key questions in our relationship with stakeholders

  • Who are the critical stakeholders that we rely on in order to deliver our vision to our customers?
  • How do other people rely on us and the services that we provide?
  • Which stakeholders do we need to connect with and form valued relationships with?
  • What are the core motivating forces for our different stakeholders?

Summary

Strong relationships allow us to understand our customers, enhance our service delivery and increase the resilience of our stakeholder network. By taking the time to identify and understand the types of relationships that exist within our organization and around it, we are able to grow the fundamental forces on which our service delivery depends.

By mapping the different relationships that exist between the people inside and outside of our organization, we can give ourselves greater clarity on the types of relationships we need to focus on and improve.

In the next article, we will focus more specifically on three relationship values and how we can use them in a practical way to grow and improve the connection between different actors in our stakeholder network.

Learn more about relationships in our recent webinar