Companies succeed when they build good products and/or provide quality services. They leverage technology and create systems that work to meet customer expectations. They understand where they fit in the marketplace and they define themselves clearly so their target audience knows how and what to think of them. These are the fundamentals. But when companies stand out and rise significantly above their competition, that kind of success depends on more than just fundamentals. What spells the difference for these companies is how well their key relationships are built, and more importantly, how well they are managed.

Relationships with customers, employees, suppliers, and anyone else that can influence those relationships are in play for every company that wants to be seen, in their industry category, as the standard to emulate. Relationships that reflect on the company, but which are not in its direct control – such as relationships between independent distributors and customers – also represent important alignments that help to cement the company’s image in the minds of it constituents.

Customers see what works and what doesn’t – even if not directly – based on their experience. They can feel the essence of how well the company’s employees across various departments relate to one other. They don’t know the details, but they know the outcomes. They know the outcome when a manufacturing function aligns with and support sales, or when sales and customer service see eye-to-eye. And when the I.T. function understands what the operating departments require and delivers the appropriate technologies in a timely fashion, they can’t see it happen, but they know the outcome – that things are working right.

And what they sense – what they experience – is that the underlying relationships are working well.

Managing all of these relationships are a challenge, since they are varied and they have different dynamics. But, there are some common elements to each and every one of them:

            •  People approach all relationships with a set of standards – namely, their values-based expectations – which they use to calibrate the quality of the relationship. In fact, values standards are the yardstick by which people hold relationships accountable. When they perceive the standards as being met, their commitment to the relationship goes up – when the standards are not being met, they psychologically withdraw and hold back their support and their “discretionary effort.”

            •  All relationships experience “bumps-in-the-road” from time to time. In fact, there isn’t a meaningful relationship that can avoid such disruptions. When negatives occur, the only question is whether or not the participants are motivated to get to the other side of the impasse. If commitment exists, they move forward. If not, they wallow in the negative dynamics and often get stuck.

            •  All meaningful relationships, and the commitment on which they are built, sustain and grow through ongoing dialog which clarifies and aligns individual values and expectations. Without dialog, people use perceptions of the behaviors and attitudes of others to draw conclusions and make judgements. Left solely to their own psychological devices, most people will eventually misperceive the intentions of others during one or another critically important interaction.

Many organizations leave relationship building to chance – putting the onus of mastering the intricacies of human interaction directly on the shoulders of individual employees – hoping that, if they’re truly “quality” individuals, they’ll know exactly what to do, or they’ll figure it out. After all, “it’s just a matter of common sense.” Isn’t it?

If common sense really existed, everyone would have it...but they don’t – including the people who otherwise seem to be pretty smart. Everyone has their own filters, their own perspective, and their unique biases. Some people – the really good ones – can get on top of these differences intuitively. They have a knack for it. But, if organizations look to their own experiences with all the people they manage, they will find that the ones with this “gift” are in the minority.

To varying degrees, most people need a leg-up to go beyond the basics, in order to leverage the important relationships that drive the success of the business. And, when employees are required to relate to others in a different organizational “silo,” the dynamics become geometrically more difficult – requiring more and more structure and rules to keep things running smoothly. Too much structure can rob an organization of its agility and competitive edge and ultimately tarnish its reputation for being able to deliver on its fundamental brand promise(s).

There is a way to get a better handle on the relationship building necessary for a company and its brand to be successful over time. It’s the M.A.S.T.E.R program from Zimney Associates.

Copyright 2001 Stephen A. Zimney. All rights reserved.