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This morning I was getting some seeds started for my garden, and I was reminded of a tweet from a few weeks ago where I said something to the effect of ‘customer service is now more like gardening and less like hunting – nurture relationships.’ Well, the SCRM crowd (social customer relationship management) pushed back. [@wimrampen @grahamhill @ekolsky @myjayliebs @mkrigsman @SameerPatel @pgreenbe @kitson, you know who you are!] They said this wasn’t the case, and that studies had shown that customers don’t really want a relationship with a brand. To me, “relationship” doesn’t have to mean I’m going to have you over for dinner. There are levels. It can just mean that I will recommend you to a friend. I let it go at the time, but I want to go for Round 2.

I think that gardening is as powerful a metaphor as any for the life-cycle of a process, and I do see a correlation between what it takes to grow a garden and what it takes to build trust with a potential customer, client, or future alliance. Here’s how I see it:

It starts with a seed. Tiny enough to get lost in the crease of your palm, seemingly insignificant on it’s own, it’s value not immediately apparent. This is that new contact, that new Twitter follower, yourself. Without attention, it will not grow and thrive. But, with just a few simple components – for the seed, soil, light, and water; for the person, your ear, your empathy, your altruism – the magic begins to happen. The seed will stir, the person will consider lowering their guard. This is the beginnings of trust.

As time goes by, the foundations for your relationship emerge. You don’t know exactly what will come of it, or if you will receive a benefit at all in the long run. The plant may die, the person may choose to move on. You can’t force it or will it or rush it to give you anything. You nurture the relationship without specific expectations, just confidence that you are doing what can be done on your end. And you build a little more trust.
You will be challenged along the way. You will have to respond accordingly if the relationship is to continue. There will be weeds to pull, or extra nutrition needed for the soil, or protection against an unexpected frost that will be necessary to handle if the plant is to thrive. These are the customer service issues you resolve, the advice you freely give, or access you provide to your resources. A tipping point is reached, and a silent agreement is made – you have earned each other’s trust, and now you can begin receiving gifts.

This is the final harvest from my garden last summer. It might as well be money in the bank. If I didn’t have a grocery store, the investment I made in these plants would be enough to sustain my life. In a similar way, the investment you make in people is what will sustain your business.

And the beauty of the human network is that people pay it forward. In addition to a sale, you’ll also get a referral. The loyalty and trust you build with people will continue to reward you in unexpected ways, as long as you maintain your end of the bargain – be authentic, share you gifts, and maintain a vision that’s bigger than your bottom line.
Be a gardener, not a hunter.