Who owns the customer relationship?

I struggle with this question.  Crowd wisdom in Social CRM (SCRM) circles says in today’s world the customer owns the relationship.  That’s the power of social media.

True confessions, though, I’m not completely comfortable with this idea.

The reason? The inequality in a relationship where one party holds more power than the other.

Some will say the point of social media is to give customers power back.  Yes, it’s true – and it’s one of the great things about social media.  However, I also have concerns about the pendulum swinging too far to the left, in which case a new problem arises.

Reading a recent post by Denis Pombriant helped clarify my own thoughts on the situation.

On a related topic, who owns the customer relationship?  Is it the customer?  The vendor?  Both?  I think this is a trick question because a relationship is a duality that exists independent of both parties but requires both to exist at all.  In fact, the relationship becomes an entity of itself, a mass-less, weightless entity but a reality nonetheless.  Substitute the word marriage for relationship and you see my point.

[…] So the relationship is an entity existing between the vendor and customer and a relationship can be good or it can be dysfunctional but it exists.  And it takes two parties no matter what.  So in my mind the subject of relationship health is what we mean when we talk about who owns a relationship and whether or not it is a good one.  Relationship health stems from honesty and transparency and a sense that each party feels it is getting fair value from its contributions.  When we are honest and transparent we have few reasons for mistrust and dissatisfaction.

(Note:  I added the bold font)


It’s all about relationship health

The healthiest relationships are ones where both parties hold equal power and strive to build a win-win.  When one party holds more, then invariably there’s an element of win-lose intertwined with control.

Does this mean companies are excused from being customer-centric? Absolutely not.  Let’s look at the marriage metaphor Denis used in his post.

In a healthy marriage, you put your spouse first, ahead of all other people, your job, your friends, etc.  Except -- you also have to take care of your own needs (and if you have minor children, then theirs as well).  What this really means is your spouse isn’t ahead of you but beside you.

Additionally, a healthy marital relationship takes work from both sides.  Success stems from a variety of factors and includes compatibility, communication, knowledge of your spouse, and transparency.  It also requires a willingness to find the win-win which sometimes means compromise and sometimes means giving “this time.”


Now put it into corporate terms

What I just said above is true of every healthy relationship so translate that to that between company and customer too.

Customer centricity doesn’t mean putting your customer ahead of the company.  Instead it means the customer and the company walk side by side.  And like the marriage, both entities strive to equally share power.  Yes, the customer has needs but so does the company.  Find a way to meet both.

A power balance is essential to the sustainability of the relationship.  Companies need to know and embrace this because, pragmatically speaking, sustainability is key to maximizing revenues.

Here’s the thing, though.  For many companies, the customer is still walking behind.  The quintessential example of an unhealthy company-customer relationship is United Breaks Guitars.

What social media is doing, though, is giving customers the opportunity to surge forward to that healthy side-by-side place.  In the United Breaks Guitars example, Dave Carroll showed he had power too and used social media to send a message to United that its horrid service would not be accepted.



Who owns the customer relationship?  I agree with Denis.  The answer is both the company and the customer – and it requires power equity, keyword being “equity."

I’m still working on how to express this concept on customer centricity so your thoughts are welcome.  Do you think I’m on track or off it?