Guest Blog: How Good Are Your Customer Relationships?

Umbrella Marketing TEAM are proud to introduce Nigel Clark as our guest blogger. Find out more about Nigel at the bottom of this article.

I work principally with professional services firms – lawyers, accountants, property management, etc. – where there has long been an obsession with client relationship management (for some reason, professional services firms refuse to use the term ‘customer’), but it seems that ‘relationship’ has been a buzzword and constant calling for some years now for all marketers, irrespective of the sector they work in.

Given the interest in focusing on, developing and managing relationships, I thought that most people would share a view on what a good relationship looked like, but from my experience that is not always the case. So, in the interests of improving customer relationship management, here’s my views on what ‘good’ looks like!

As a starting point, I will step out of the business world and think about the characteristics of a good relationship anyone may have with a friend, partner or family member. Humans are (mostly) sociable animals and we thrive on relationships, so we should recognise the makings of a good relationship when we see one. My list is not exhaustive, but I would say a good relationship:

  • Involves people (that may seem obvious, but I explain below why I think it needs stating)
  • Is mutually beneficial
  • Is not hierarchical
  • Is not hard work, but does need time and commitment from all parties
  • Endures over time and survives ‘bumps in the road’
  • Is precious and should be cherished

Let’s now compare those characteristics with how a large number of businesses approach ‘relationships’ with their customers and see if we all agree on what ‘good’ looks like.


I appreciate not all businesses have the luxury of establishing 1-1 relationships with their customers. That is an opportunity most professional services firms fortunately do have. Many businesses need to rely on processes, systems and data to manage relationships. In fact, for all businesses those aspects of relationship management are important, but I believe there still has to be a personal element. Whether it is a relationship manager for your most ‘important’ customers or friendly, welcoming staff on the phone or in the branch/shop/office/hotel for all your customers, I don’t think relationships can even start unless people connect. Strong human connection may not be sufficient for a good business relationship, but I think it is necessary.

Mutual Benefit

There is lots of talk about sales potential, profitability improvement and reduced cost of sales that goes with customer relationship management. Everyone knows the stats about how much easier it is (supposedly) to sell to an existing customer over a new customer. But where’s the equivalent discussion about the benefit of a relationship to a customer. And don’t just give me loyalty cards or 2 for 1 offers. We should all give to and take from a relationship and, based on an understanding of each other’s personality and preferences, think as much about what’s in it for the other person as ourselves.


Parent/child relationships may look hierarchical, although I sometimes doubt who is the ‘boss’, but most great relationships do not have one person superior or dictating terms to the other. It’s a relationship of equals. I appreciate customer-supplier relationships often don’t look very equal and we preach ‘the customer is king’, but it shouldn’t feel or look like that. If there is mutual benefit and the customer wants you to thrive too, then any sense of hierarchy should fade away.

Hard Work

We’ve all seen relationships, maybe experienced them, where one side seems to have to work much harder at keeping things going. Equally, we’ve probably also seen a good relationship fade away just because one or other side has neither been willing to or able to commit time and effort to it. For those people with families, try and list all the friends you’ve lost contact with since the kids came to dominate your life! Sadly, even the best relationships don’t keep going without some effort, but if it feels like hard work it was probably not that great after all.


Some relationships are ‘perfect’ and never stumble, although I’m struggling to think of one! I don’t want to sound trite or break into the lyrics of a power ballad, but the test of a good relationship is often how well it survives a disagreement or that ‘bump in the road’. Ultimately good relationships endure and bad ones don’t.


There is great research on how many relationships we are all able to sustain. There is even a name for it – Dunbar’s Number. That number is supposedly 150 and, maybe somewhat surprisingly, that number has not been increased by the power of social networks to help us connect and stay in touch. I know businesses and individuals are different, but the former is just collections of the latter, so I would suggest 2000 ‘friends’ on Facebook is somewhat similar to having that many ‘customers’ in your CRM system – you don’t value them all the same and neither do they all think the same of you.

Using these characteristics, and maybe with a few more added if you want, I would urge you to consider whether you and your business are thinking seriously about customer relationship management. And rather than using a marketing textbook or your CRM system as a guide, just compare the approach you take with your partner or best friend to your largest or most profitable customers.

About Nigel Clark

Nigel Clark is the co-author of “Professional Services Marketing Handbook: How to Build Relationships, Grow your Firm and Become a Client Champion.”

He has nearly 30 years of experience working within various areas of marketing, including: strategy, marketing, communications and client development.

Nigel has led teams in both strategic and operational roles in financial services, management consulting, legal, environmental, business services and engineering firms. He now advises and offers interim management services on strategy, marketing and business development.

He is a course director and marketing tutor with Cambridge Marketing College, the UK’s leading provider of accredited marketing courses and qualifications.

He recently joined the Professional Services Marketing Group (PSMG) as a non-executive director to advise on research and education programmes as part of their enhanced membership services.

In his book, “Professional Services Marketing Handbook: How to Build Relationships, Grow your Firm and Become a Client Champion,” Nigel talks about the changes in the market for professional services and consulting firms. He makes the point that the majority of the changes are driven by evolving and more demanding client requirements.

“Legal, accountancy and other professional services firms are now looking for a new breed of leaders with the insight to help deliver those requirements,” he said.

The handbook uses ideas, case studies and experience from leading firms across the professions in both the UK and internationally. Through focusing on the five key themes of growth, understanding, connecting, relationships and management. It also shows how the marketing and business development professional can develop their role into that of a ‘client champion’ – the voice of the client – to both shape and deliver a firm’s client solution and experience.

Nigel and Umbrella Marketing TEAM’s Head of Marketing, Claire, worked together at Alfred McAlpine and Carillion.


Image: Albright, Yee & Schmit


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