Relationships are emotional rather than intellectual. Therefore, rather than treating customer relationships as business agreements, approach them as an interaction between your emotions and those of the customer. This requires mastering three emotional skills:

1. Self-awareness

Emotional openness strengthens relationships. However, you can't be emotionally open if you're not fully aware of your own feelings.

Self-awareness allows you to understand and identify the emotions you're feeling and predict how those emotions might affect your behavior. You can compensate so that you don't do or say something that you'll later regret and even use your emotions to build a stronger bond.

For example, suppose you're frustrated and angry that an important customer stood you up. If you lack self-awareness, you might go into your next customer meeting with a chip on your shoulder.

However, if you're self-aware, you might start the meeting by telling the customer that you are "having a tough day and so if I seem a little out of sorts, be assured that it's not about you."

2. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to feel what the other person is likely to be feeling. For example, suppose, during a routine sales call, you discover that the customer's firm just announced layoffs. There are at least three possible responses:

  1. Proceed with the sales call as if nothing had changed. (After all, it's not your problem.)
  2. Try to find out whether your customer will still have buying authority after the layoffs. (In order to make your numbers.)
  3. Take a moment to imagine the fear and confusion that's an inevitable result of layoff announcements and, depending on the situation and your reading of the customer, decide whether the customer would prefer to commiserate and complain or (alternatively) be distracted from the entire situation.

The first two responses will create the (probably correct) impression that you're a jerk.  The third response, based upon empathy, builds a stronger relationship.

3. Realistic Optimism

Ultimately, customer relationships are built on your ability to satisfy the customer's needs. While those needs often pose as business issues, in many cases the real needs are emotional (such as a need to be reassured that your company is reliable.)

The best way to simultaneously satisfy both a customer's business and emotional needs is to combine realism and optimism into your selling process. You do this in three steps:

  1. See the customer situation as it really is, without assuming that your offering will solve the customer's problem. (This is the "realism" part.)
  2. Work with the customer to visualize how the customer would like the situation to be in the future. (This is the "optimism" part.)
  3. Devise a way to move the customer from the way things are today to the way the customer would like them to be. (This is the "selling" part.)

The trick here is to use both your realism and your optimism to help the customer--regardless of where the conversation leads, rather than let yourself become merely a conduit for your firm's products or services.

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