How important (really) are “relationships” in Construction Marketing

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Consider these two headlines:

It’s All About Relationships = Total Nonsense (Matt Handal — SMPS LinkedIn Group)

I’ve heard numerous people and presenters say that marketing success is “all about relationships.” It’s simply not true.

From Brian Tracy:

“Fully 85 percent of the happiness and success you enjoy in life will be determined by the quality of your relationships with others. All of your selling success today, and for the rest of your career, will be based on the quality of the relationships that you form with your customers.”

Who is right?

Well, in part Handal and Stone (with Brian Tracy) are speaking to two different audiences.  Stone is addressing primarily residential contractors who seem to be struggling, pounding the pavement for jobs only to lose to under-the-table or absurdly low-priced competitors.  Handal (HelpEverybodyEveryday.com), meanwhile, is addressing the ICI market through the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) where marketers have been taught, over and over, that you can’t hope to win the work if you don’t take time to build “relationships” well before the RFP/public bidding process begins.

Matt Handal

Handal will probably win this argument, at least semantically, because he wisely points out that “relationships” really need to be broken down into more scientific and measurable components.

He observes:

1. You can make a pitch or price so compelling, it negates any relationships. I’ve seen it done on numerous occasions.

2. Especially in this economic environment, everybody is “preselling” the job. The “it’s all about relationships” statement wrongly assumes that only one firm has a good relationship. If three firms have good relationships with the client, relationships are no longer in the equation.

3. Research on human behavior does not support the notion that relationships play that big a role in the decision making process.

4. All the data you see supporting this statement is from surveys. Surveys are notoriously bad at reflecting reality. In addition, linking data like incumbent win percentage with client relationships seems logical..but it is not.

In further observations, Handal notes:

Research indicates that once we make a choice and take a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. That’s why you typically go to the same doctor and buy the same toothpaste. That’s why it’s so hard to change a person’s mind, even after you prove them wrong.

Because of this pressure to behave consistently, once a client has chosen a firm it’s much easier to choose them again. That’s why it’s hard to knock out an incumbent. Clients don’t realize that the pressure to make consistent choices is so strong. It’s what science calls a “fixed action pattern,” a mental shortcut our minds rely on to make decisions.

I’m not even sure what measurement you would use to determine the “best relationship.” The concept of a relationship is not very tangible. I’m sure if the decision makers like your project manager, that’s going to play into the decision .  . .

So, Handal is suggesting that what we might superficially believe is the relationship advantage may more accurately relate to certain behaviours and patterns we experience in our lives (like seeking consistency) and our biggest challenge in marketing is to learn which approaches and techniques may help us to either preserve this consistency (if the clients are already using our services) and break it (if they aren’t).

I believe there are many factors that go into deciding who to hire. Just looking at my own hiring decisions, I think the term “relationships” doesn’t describe why I hire people. But if I like them; if I feel like I owe them a favor; if others I know have hired them; whether they offer something unique and compelling; pricing; their location; their ability to give me a “warm and fuzzy” and whether they have worked for me in the past are all part of the equation. Some might categorize much of this under the general term of “relationships.” But I believe that those who say if you don’t have a relationship, you don’t have a chance are misleading our industry. That bothers me to no end.

OK, that may help, but lets go back to Stone’s blog now:

Would you believe that many of your clients are looking for a relationship with a professional contractor? Many homeowners would be interested in someone who can help them maintain and improve their home. They don’t know what is needed to keep their home properly maintained, and they don’t know how to tell when something is wrong. They would like a professional who can help them protect their investment.

He goes on to promote a service which I’ve referenced elsewhere.  Since I’m not receiving any affiliate marketing commission from the other service provider he is promoting, I’ll leave you to find out who this individual is through Stone’s own blog.

Hmm.  So can we look beneath the hood a little and think about what is really going on here?

Handal has a single-minded objective:  To debunk some of the common assumptions and myths within our industry and within stereotypical sales and marketing processes. (He is writing a SMPS Foundation White Paper on the topic.  As well making a presentation at the association’s annual convention in August.  I’m also writing a White Paper — on a different topic, Strategic Alliances.)

Handal may succeed, but look at this posting on another group from someoone whose name and company I am removing:

Make A Difference

Our company’s motto to provide our past, present and future clients “Superior Client Service” in all the services we provide. Check out (engineering practice’s name and website removed). If you have any questions or comments about any of the services that we offer, please feel free to contact me here or at our office. If I don’t know the answer, we have a complete and competent staff of personal that will. Hoping for a great year for everyone.

The individual here posted this cliche-ridden “pitch” in a public forum (I won’t name it because I don’t name specific individuals or organizations in a negative light in this blog).

Surely, my first reaction is, doesn’t this guy have the foggiest idea of how marketing really works — how important it is to build meaningful relationships by sharing, giving and contributing valuable information and resources, first.

Then I thought about Matt Handal’s observations.  Well, he isn’t saying that “sharing, giving and contributing valuable information and resources, first” a bad idea — but Handal would argue that the recipricity principal (something that Brian Tracy, Michael Stone and others also advocate) actually has some scientific merit — if you apply it properly.  (Unexpected generosity followed by a request for action will generally produce really good results — and your generosity doesn’t need to correlate with the value of the recirpocal request.)

I agree with Handal that we can all do with some more “science” in our marketing — but if you are just starting out and are pounding the pavement with cliches, spam postings and “grind em out” RFP responses, let’s not worry about the science just yet.  In these situations, remember that relationships really are important.  You have to start somewhere (and if you are in the U.S., and involved in the design professions, take some time to understand that subjective factors rather than price are crucial, at least in jurisdictions where the Brooks Act applies.

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