Gratitude should be the foundation of our relationships

January is typically when we reflect on the past year and set goals for the next one.

In making New Year resolutions we may focus on what we want to achieve, not the people who supported our business. Building on the theme of showing gratitude in the workplace I discussed in December, I now want to ask: "Did you show enough gratitude to your clients, partners, vendors and other stakeholders in 2021?".

Customer appreciation

Showing gratitude is a key part of our emotional intelligence and if you connect well with people who are externally involved with your business, you will build long-lasting relationships with them, ensuring the longevity of your business. "Customer appreciation" is a standard marketing strategy — by thanking your customers for choosing your business you show you value them, you strengthen brand loyalty, boost customer retention and increase customer satisfaction levels.

Thank-you card creator Hallmark cites research that 91% of respondents of a top brand survey (including customers of Google and Apple) said they were more likely to do business with companies that appreciated their customers. However, only 62% said companies did it well.

You can find countless blogs on how to thank your customers or clients, even on how to write the perfect thank you note. How one business shows gratitude will look different from another.

For example, if you own a coffee truck you might offer a customer a loyalty card with the sixth coffee they get from you being offered for free. Yet, if you have a SaaS (software as a service) company... well, that would be sort of strange.

Effective customer appreciation is not measured by monetary value or how good your branded giveaways are. It is more about knowing exactly what your customer needs and going above and beyond to add extra value for them.

You may be able to offer a grand gesture every now and then, but showing gratitude as part of every customer interaction should be the foundation on which you build customer relationships. Loyal customers are extremely valuable for your business.

In discussing the "currency of gratitude", Forbes magazine refers to surveys showing that loyal customers are five times more likely to purchase again and four times more likely to refer a friend. Also, a 5% increase in customer retention can increase profitability by 75%.

We like to do business with people we like, and we all want to feel genuinely appreciated for our efforts. Of course, you should always be professional, but to strengthen your business relationships, don’t be afraid to connect on a personal level, too.

You can show appreciation and gratitude by making referrals, giving testimonials and boasting about your customers in public. You can leverage these tools by letting your clients know why you used them.

For example, after referring a client to another business, let them know that (1) you referred them and (2) specifically why you chose them. Networking is a necessary but sometimes painful aspect of business development.

Reaching out to your contact list without something to say can seem hollow. It is much easier when you are connecting to say thank you. No-one has ever complained about being appreciated.

Stakeholder appreciation

Showing gratitude is not just a marketing exercise aimed at your past and present clients or even your warm prospects. A successful business needs to have buy-in from key supporters and the centres of influence for the business.

Depending on your business structure, this could include shareholders, members, vendors, suppliers, professional advisers and alliance partners. Communicate and engage with them regularly, preferably with more than monthly newsletters.

Where possible, prioritise one-on-one meetings with key decision-makers or hold team-building activities to create cohesiveness with relevant members of your team and your stakeholders team.

Showing gratitude to your stakeholders helps to increase their engagement in and with your business. This will encourage them to focus on your business needs by creating and sustaining a positive interest in it. Without this your business may be less of a priority for them.

For instance, they may not act fast enough when you need urgent attention or pay sufficient attention to your instructions resulting in rework or benefits that fail to be realised. Successful projects are the ones where stakeholders want to take part, are supportive and are listened to, and where they actively contribute.

Risk management

Showing gratitude also nourishes trust and confidence in your business relationships, which decreases the risk of those relationships breaking down. If your customers, clients and other stakeholders know that you are grateful for their support of your business, they will be more understanding when things go wrong (such as a delay in the supply chain) or if you take a position that is different from theirs.

In my April 2020 column on resolving misunderstandings before they become disputes, I noted that timing is everything. The process of resolving disputes is like a funnel — at the start people are more collaborative than when all the "juice" (goodwill) has been squeezed out of them as they are pushed through the funnel towards going to court.

At a business-to-business level, showing gratitude and positive outcomes are linked. We are thankful for a sale as it adds to our business bank account. We are grateful for advice as it helps our business success. Every "thank you" is an acknowledgement that our business is developing.

At a personal level, giving thanks makes us vulnerable — we are human and indebted and inferior enough to another person that we were able to gain from them. There is strength in vulnerability and when we drop our guard, we create space for the other person to open up, too.

When we are vulnerable with our clients, customers and other stakeholders, we increase the likelihood they will share their needs (and business) with us.

Much more can be said about the importance of showing gratitude in business, but I will leave you with these words of wisdom from John F. Kennedy: "As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them."

 - Kate Hesson is director of Hesson Consultancy.

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