Maintaining long-term personal relationships is hard work. It takes conscious effort and constant focus in order for any relationship to survive. What’s often even harder, however, is rebuilding a broken relationship. Any relationship therapist will tell you that the inability to rebuild trust is what ends up destroying a relationship for good. This sentiment holds true in the business context as well.
Recently, I began to work with two medtech clients that were faced with similar relationship troubles. One is a wound-care company under private-equity management that cut it to the bone to dress the income statement for an imminent buyout that never came. The other is a med-surg company struggling to overcome a disastrous acquisition that forced it to focus internally and underinvest, doing significant damage to its European operations. Unsurprisingly, both made the decision to replace their executive leadership teams in an attempt to alter their trajectory.
The first things the new leaders noticed were customer relationships, and ultimately a market reputation, that were in significant disrepair. The telltale signs of a relationship breakdown were apparent in both cases: scarce communication, insufficient support, limited flexibility and a lack of quality time. The executives quickly realized that before they could do anything else, they needed to repair the organizations’ credibility in the eyes of the market.
Much like a personal relationship, reestablishing trust with customers after years of neglect is not easy. However, regardless of your business context, there are seven steps that any organization should take to begin the process:
- Address the root of the problem: We cannot begin to change the market’s perception until we have addressed the fundamental issues. In medtech, there tend to be common problems that affect many organizations’ market perceptions. For instance, product quality issues, FDA consent decrees, delivery glitches, service lapses and/or product supply delays. All of these have a significant impact on our relationship with the customer.
- Admit your mistakes: Admit to your customers that, as an organization, you have lost your way. Be honest and straightforward. This is not about communicating excuses but instead should be focused on acknowledging what the organization has done to damage its credibility.
- Make the customers feel heard: Give the customers a chance to articulate their frustrations and concerns. Understanding what went wrong from a customer’s perspective ensures you’ve sufficiently covered all the issue areas. Use any leadership change as a chance to start a fresh dialogue.
- Involve customers in the solution: Engage the customers in helping you to define a change plan. Don’t tell them what you are going to do to rebuild the relationship. Instead, ask them how you should best accomplish it.
- Make a splash: Recommit to the market and the customer in a highly visible manner. Give them a concrete reason to believe things are different.
- Be accessible for ongoing feedback: Establish frequent touch points with your customers to ensure your plan has been and continues to be implemented effectively.
- Be patient: Like any relationship, it takes time to destroy and it will take a long time to restore. Do not waiver on resources or hedge your bets on investments. All in is the only way to be.
Within an organization, it is not down to only one team to make these commitments to a better relationship. Although the sales team is the face of the organization to the customer, reps are also the people who have felt the brunt of the customer’s dissatisfaction. Do not assume that a credibility program can only be rebuilt via the sales organization as members typically lack confidence in the organization as well. Instead, it is the HQ team that must become more visible to the market to drive confidence that a change is underway (to both our customer and our own team).
All these steps are critical to repair a relationship, but where a company may need enhanced focus depends on the situation. For instance, the wound-care company needs to drive awareness by making a splash within the market. While the med-surg company’s key move is going to be listening to customers.
Whether your organization has customer bridges to repair or relationships are going well, it never hurts to do a little customer maintenance TLC. Rebuilding is always tougher than maintaining.