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This Land of Strangers - Robert E Hall

This Land of Strangers

"..the most important book of the decade." — Richard Boyatzis, co-author of best seller Primal Leadership

Relationships, in all their varied forms, have been the lifetime study of Robert Hall. He brings a rare combination of experience as a researcher, consultant, writer, teacher and CEO in dealing with the real-world relationship challenges of modern organizations. When coupled with a decade of hands-on experience in the gritty world of inner-city homeless families it translates into a tapestry of vivid stories, well-researched and oft startling facts, and strategic insights that weave together the yet untold narrative of society's gravest risk and most stellar opportunity.

Relationship Status: Un is the Loneliest Number

Relationship status…this is what drives life in college…are you having sex or aren’t you, it is why people take certain classes, sit where they sit, do what they do…that is what Facebook is going to be about…people are going to log on because after the cake and watermelon there’s a chance they might actually get…a girl. – Mark Zuckerberg, in the movie, “The Social Network”

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Relationship status is not just important in college. It is vital in our home, work, political, and faith lives, which not coincidentally mirrors the title of my latest book, This Land of Strangers: The Relationship Crisis That Imperils Home, Work, Politics, and Faith. The book’s central message is that the status of our society’s relationships is in steep decline in all four relationship arenas.

The collapse of relationships at home over the past few decades is startling: the rate of marriage is down 50 percent; divorce is up 50 percent; the births to unwed mothers jumped over 700 percent and now represent over 50 percent of births to those under 30; and, the number of people who report no close friends with whom to discuss important matters tripled while the average number of close friends dropped a third.

The relational trend in business organizations where we work and buy goods and services are equally troubling: customer defection rates rose 30 percent from 2003 to 2007; 86 percent of consumers have become more distrustful of corporations than five years ago; for the five years prior to the recession the turnover of managers, salespeople, and skilled workers doubled while CEO turnover jumped 170 percent from 1995 to 2003 and continued to rise prior to the 2008 recession; and, likewise, 75 percent of all workers and 82 percent of managers were scouting for a new job.

There are similar stats that reflect alarming political and religious polarization that now sows divide, distrust, and dysfunction. Voters are defecting from political parties and congregants from organized religion in droves. Explicitly or implicitly, “un” – unconnected, uncommitted, and uncooperative – is the emerging relationship status at home, work, politics, and faith.

Those general trends are evident in the world of financial services. J.D. Powers found that 9.6 percent of customers in 2012 indicated they switched their primary banking institution during the past year to a new provider. This is up from 8.7 percent in 2011 and 7.7 percent in 2010. That represents a nearly 25 percent increase in the rate of switching since 2010. Relationships are increasingly transient. When Powers examined customers leaving over higher fees they found three out of five who left described their bank as having poor service while only 16% of those who had high in-person satisfaction were likely to leave. As technology proliferates, any increase in the incidence of high in-person satisfaction would certainly buck the prevailing trend.

It’s not like business aren’t attempting to find ways to improve relationships. Yelp is an online service that connects customers with great local businesses, and it has caught on in a big way: over 66 million inquiries and 25 million customer-written reviews. But Yelp focuses primarily on the quality of the product or service – great food, attractive setting, and even friendly waiters. Yelp just tells you what makes it popular, it doesn’t tell you what kind of relationship it develops with customers. Just because you can tell what car I drive and where I purchased it, doesn’t  mean you know how I feel about the dealership or how committed I am to repurchase there. Various loyalty programs attempt to incentivize repeat business like airline frequent flyer programs, but per one of my favorite sayings, “loyalty is what’s left when the bribes are all gone.”

And, we can’t confuse knowing the status and intentions of an on-going relationship with metrics that report the outcome of transactions. We can see when customers buy our products, close out accounts or lodge a complaint, or when employees resign. But this information is often too early or too late to inform relational actions or decisions not to act.

Facebook users have taken the concept of Relationship Status mainstream. In the world of Mark Zuckerberg, relationships can be boiled down to six categories: single, in a relationship, engaged, married, it’s complicated, and an open relationship. Complex and dynamic relationships are captured and can be broadcast – depending on your settings – to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people.

What if the relationships between our organizations and our customers, or between us and our employees, were so plainly recorded?

My book provides access to a “The State of Your Relationships” quiz which helps readers assess the depth, breadth, and duration of genuine relationships across the four domains of home, work, politics, and faith. Questions include: How many local providers (banks, restaurants, retail stores, etc.) call you by name when you enter their establishment? For how many might you ask a special favor (stay late 15 minutes, etc.)? Would you consider asking for or granting your employer special accommodations (i.e. trade work days around for special circumstances, etc.)?   Obviously, where you live (rural vs. urban) and the type of job you have affect the relationship status.

Relationship status is a causal indicator of customer and employee retention, development, referral, and future growth. What kind of relationship we currently have and what kind we might have is very important. In the business world, we are still much like the world of college pre-Facebook. We spend a lot of time struggling to understand where we stand or where we might stand with existing and prospective relationships – and for many, we still have not had that “relationship” talk.

By most measures relationships have gotten more difficult and transient. If we are serious about advancing the quality of our business relationships, we must find a way to more clearly identify, understand, and discuss our relationship status with our customers and employees. Whether by accident or on purpose, if it is “un,” we need to know.

(Column appeared originally in ABA Bank Marketing magazine – May 2012)


Not to be reproduced without written permission. All rights reserved. © Copyright Robert E. Hall 2012

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