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Creating sustainable relationships with key clients

Relationships are the key differentiator in the 21st century and brands failing to respond to this will ultimately succumb, write Professors Mari Jansen van Rensburg and Angelo Nicolaides.


Gone are the days of closely guarded designs and confidential pricing structures. Today, it takes a few clicks to download and compare. Markets are global and unhappy clients no longer share their experience with eight friends; instead, they utilise social media and if there is a good story to tell, it may go viral.

Transformation is not an option if companies want to evolve so as to thrive in a dynamic market environment. Changes have to do with every feature of business and are not limited to any single aspect of a company’s operation. The traditional 4Ps can no longer solely guide marketing efforts, as the focus has shifted to fostering client relationships.

Relationship management holds the key to designing effective marketing and communication strategies. Relationship marketing acknowledges the human interface in marketing and extends the traditional inward focus to include the specific needs of clients. In the literature, relationship marketing is inter alia also referred to as ‘direct marketing’, ‘loyalty marketing’, ‘client marketing’ and ‘micro marketing’.

Essentially, relationship marketing follows a match-making process where customers will enter a relationship with a business only if they discover value in what a company offers. The expected outcome of the process is client retention and loyalty. The focus is on building a relationship with a client based on specific needs and expectations and the approach acknowledges the shortcoming of a one-to-many tactic.

Thus, companies pursuing clients and sustainability need to follow a need-based segmentation approach to determine which segments to target and which stratagem and theoretical paradigm to adopt to build the relationship. Value begins in the customer’s mind with insight about the product and/or service, as well as the company.

This is followed by mutual consensus that a connection can, indeed, add value. In this scenario, the product/service becomes a screening consideration as, without a match between the offer and the clients’ needs, there is no reason to enter into a relationship. The hard work, however, only starts once the two parties agree that connection would be of mutual benefit. Relationship marketing is thus about maintaining the relationship through creating connections beyond the features and benefits of the product.

For the purposes of this article, we will assume that the quality of products and performance of rivals are on a par; that the courting period is concluded; and that there is an existing relationship between company and client. Our focus is on effective relationship marketing to create sustainable relationships with key clients. Specifically, we propose four key considerations that we found to be significant in our earlier research done on this topic.


  1. Client satisfaction. Satisfaction is a key requirement of client retention and retention is known to yield several economic and non-economic benefits for both parties. There is, for example, an overwhelming argument that it is cheaper to retain than to acquire new clients. Satisfied clients can be a vital source of referrals; can yield higher revenue as they tend to spend more; and do not usually wait for promotions or price reductions before deciding to purchase. Companies are obligated to interact with clients to understand their changing needs. It is key to avoid complacency and not to compromise on excellent quality and performance.


  1. Collaboration and coordination: Clients want to participate in seeking solutions for their problems. This requires sharing of information, joint development of solutions and coordinated actions. Some may argue that this consideration is more relevant to the services industry, but we found that companies such as Nike have employed very successful strategies to allow for collaboration (i.e. consumers are able to design their own signature shoes).

The key to this is good communication, which includes considerations about the frequency of communication and the mediums used to share information. Important here, is to create a platform for two-way communication to be realised. Using technology and social media can bring customers closer to a company and allow them to interact with other customers.


Today’s customers are well aware of their relative stronger position and the influence they can exert on the Internet. When used properly, the Internet offers huge positives for relationship marketing. It is, however, a double-edged sword, given that information dissemination and interaction happen on a live platform. Given that a customer’s reaction can be spontaneous and instantaneous, this may pose problems for a company, as they need to be alert to redress any mistakes and avoid negative customer-driven word-of-mouth campaigns that can seriously damage them.


  1. Trust: Trust is earned, and only established once clients have confidence that the company will act with goodwill. Companies thus need to establish credibility when it comes to honouring warranties, product exchanges and keeping brand promises. Trust also extends to the way the company safeguards clients’ information and provides secure transaction platforms.


An aspect that is often not on the radar is the effect of business linkages on trust. An example here is the collapse of British PR firm Bell Pottinger following their business relationship with the Gupta family – a business linkage that proved to be highly toxic.


  1. Commitment: Commitment is an essential element of any relationship and only exists when both parties consider the relationship as being important enough to warrant maximum effort. People stay in relationships either because they want to or because they have to. Clients wanting to stay will do so because they like doing business with the company.


Effective commitment is the result of a good working relationship where both parties are sincere and concerned about the other’s welfare. In these cases, clients and companies treat each other with respect and often share the same philosophies. On the other hand, clients may stay because of a high termination cost associated with ending the relationship. Here, the motivation of the captured clients stems from contractual commitment or a lack of alternatives. Given another viable option, it is unlikely this relationship would continue

Today, customers expect nothing but the best when it comes to service quality excellence and relationships with businesses. The best is no longer expressed through features and benefits of products, or even through the lowest price. Instead, customers demand customisation and good relationships with all their business partners.

Indeed, customers no longer consider service providers as mere suppliers of goods and services, but rather as ideal lifelong partners. As such, relationship marketing is the key to sustainability. Establishing and maintaining relationships requires good matching, consistent effort and, ultimately commitment to ensuring customer retention and loyalty.