ITL #421   Success: what if we only measured it by the state of our relationships?

1 year, 10 months ago


Good relationships are vital. So how can we measure the state they’re in? By Phil Borge-Slavnich.

Dare to dream

Suspend your disbelief; I’m not writing about an instantly achievable concept. Instead, I’m posing a hypothetical question, because it’s the most interesting way to examine the idea and because right now, in a world crammed with chaos, it’s nice to feel in control of something. Even if it is fiction.


So, the question I’m posing; what if we only measured success by the state of our relationships?


To start with, let’s clarify the relationships intended. While we are responsible for any number of interactions (b2c, b2b, b2b2c, organisation to stakeholder, colleague to colleague) it feels more practicable to aim the discussion at the latter end of that list.


We’re already very good at assessing both the quantity of exchanges (the number of relationships and interactions) and the quality of exchanges (the ongoing value or health of each interaction) when communicating with aggregated audiences. Whether this represents an understanding of the actual state of each single relationship is clouded by the sheer quantity we often encounter, but we know instinctively we need a combination of the two to achieve almost any communications objective we may have.   


Instead, I want to focus on the engagements closer to home; between client and partner (or else how else can you elevate to being a partner from a supplier), and colleague to colleague.


Why? A few reasons.


If we don’t buy it, how can we sell it?

You can’t take a step in any direction without bumping into the theme of trust, from the erosion of trust in the media, through to everything from business to politics to vaccines. Nobody trusts anything anymore.


As comms professionals we’ve fought tooth and nail, for years, to maintain trust between entities and their audiences, but whether the fault lies in the introduction of the internet, boom in social media, shifting economic, social, and political backdrops, or any number of other factors, Pandora’s Box is open, and nobody trusts her to put her toys back in. Through the democratisation of the internet, and the UGC components of modern media, trust between individuals and organisation is only as strong as the truth that is communicated. And as we’ve seen through elections and referendums, truth seems to have many meanings.


To say trust is the foundation of every relationship is underplaying it; it’s the amniotic fluid that relationships develop in, and you can’t grow something that’s alive, healthy, and resilient without it. Why does this matter to client relationships or within our own organisations? Because if we can’t prove to be the bastions of the thing we revere the most, what chance do we have in executing activities that try to generate it?


Hello Earth

Doomed or not, the humankind among us are looking for an alternative to a purely capitalist existence. There’s an evident, and potentially covid-boosted shift in embedding greater social purpose at the heart of business. While arguably much of this change is currently at the lip-service stage, there’s an emergence of a desire to do business a different way.  


Yet, again, if we think there’s a future to ‘doing better’ in the way we transact, we can’t gauge its impact through the usual, commercially centric metrics. The strength of relationships this movement supports, our trust in the new, and our belief in adopting a different way, will need to be defined differently; perhaps it will be in the state of the relationships we create in purpose of achieving these bold endeavours.


Marching to the beat of a different drum

A little closer to home, the progress of technology, the unfathomable changes we’ve seen in our industry, the mechanisation, automation, and digitisation of the world around us; no wonder we’re feeling fractious and out of place. But let’s not forget that we’re all human, we inhabit this space, and advancements and evolutions are supposedly for our benefit. So, what if we made relationships the measure, to qualify whether the outcomes being thrust upon us are, in fact, the ones we desire?


People buy people

And finally, obvious but oft overlooked, communication in professional terms has always been about people (quite literally, it was all about who you knew, and how you could leverage those relationships to ‘earn’ inclusion for your name and message). Again, this has been diluted and fragmented, but it must be a core component of our DNA. If we say we’re a ‘people business’, we need to act like one – for real.


The true length of a piece of string

So, let’s assume we all agree, and the state of relationships is the metric that matters. Here are a few words on what we could measure.


Depending on your predilection there are several routes to go down. Relationships (as customer, friend, enemy, partner, lover) are what human beings do; we’re social animals and we live to relate to one another, so it’s no wonder we constantly strive to measure how well we’re doing.


Deciding what equates to a positive or negative in a relationship dynamic can be everything from the more commercial such as willingness to repeat purchase and recommend, to the more personal like ‘The Squeeze Test’ – how likely you are to squeeze your partner’s hand in public to showcase your relationship strength. I kid you not.


But it’s worth checking out the paper written by Dr Linda Hon and Dr James E. Grunig, published in 1999, which offers a succinct and compelling overview of measuring relationships in the context of public relations. While it doesn’t cover the specific dynamics we’re questioning (here it’s focused on those between an organisation and its publics) there’s plenty that could easily traverse client partner, and internal relationships.


At its core it sets out the following (with as reductive a statement as I can muster).


  • Trust - one party’s confidence in and willingness to open up to the other party (including the examination of integrity, competence and dependability).


  • Do we trust one another?
  • Control mutuality - the extent to which parties agree on who has rightful power to influence one another.
    • Do we respect one another’s opinions and perspectives?
  • Commitment - the degree to which each party believes and feels that the relationship is worth investing in (through continuance commitment of a certain line of action, and affective commitment of an emotional orientation).
    • Do we have reason(s) to continue in the relationship?
  • Satisfaction - the degree to which each party feels favourably toward the other because positive expectations about the relationship are being reinforced.
    • Do we receive the same or more from the relationship than we give to it?

The beauty of these relationship tenets is their duality; each was designed to identify and examine the bonds between an organisation and its publics. Apply them to close, personal, and individual relationships we maintain with client stakeholders and colleagues, and they fit perfectly.


What have you done for me lately?

Pick a relationship; one with a client contact or a colleague you work with. Think about the above and answer honestly, firstly as a simple yes or no, and then scored on a scale (1 the least to 10 the most).


Now do it again but remove any factors that are not defined by the state of the relationship, for example the fact that the client pays you for your counsel, thereby giving strength to the commitment. You’ll naturally have included all sorts of other evidence but strip it back to be just about the state of the relationship and nothing else (spoiler, it’s harder than you think!).


And then how would they score you in return, under the same parameters? Have you thought about it before, or have you even thought to ask?


It is by no means an exact science (see my point on hypotheticals at the start of this essay), but it hopefully gives us something new to consider.


Can we relate?

We all gauge the state of relationships constantly, and without even knowing it. We also operate in a world where the myriad other factors that influence relationships, whether commercial or contextual, can’t easily be filtered out.


But that shouldn’t stop the search for another way of doing business, if we have belief in the power of putting strong relationships at the heart of what we do.


As someone presented with the constant highs and lows of managing an agency team, clients and any number of other person to person engagements, there’s something surprisingly fresh in focusing on the relationships themselves, and not the external baggage that comes with them.


I’ve learned from experience that there’s only time, energy, and enthusiasm for a limited amount of ‘stuff’. Prioritise our concern with the state of relationships, and I wonder just how great the impact on all other success measures will be. It’s worth a try, so I intend to do just that.


And I wonder if I can feel a little happier and more fulfilled along the way.



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The Author

Phil Borge-Slavnich

Phil Borge-Slavnich, managing director, Eulogy.

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