Opinion

Healthy client relationships are ones that last

Do your clients hold you hostage with unreasonable requests, impossible time frames, and moving targets? Do you ever feel like no matter what you do, it's never enough?

Competing in a "customer comes first" environment can take its toll on even the best-intentioned company. What's the solution?

Karpman's Drama Triangle describes the interplay between three roles people play during distress and conflict — persecutor, victim and rescuer.

The persecutor attacks others from a position of "I'm OK; you are not OK," expressing emotions such as rage, righteous indignation, or frustration to keep others at bay. Their modus operandi is win-lose, seeking to feel justified that they are right and others are wrong.

The victim tolerates attack from the persecutor from a position of "I'm not OK; you are OK," experiencing emotions such as guilt, sadness, inadequacy, and confusion. Their modus operandi is lose-win, seeking to feel justified that they are less worthy than others and deserve to be mistreated. The persecutor and victim need each other in a dysfunctional, co-dependent way.

The rescuer attempts to fix other people's problems. Whether by rescuing the victim from their own dilemmas or diverting the persecutor's wrath, the rescuer feels justified that they are somehow saving the day. Inevitably they fail and feel like a martyr.

Applications of this model to interpersonal relationships in families or executive teams are pretty obvious. Recently, we've been seeing connections to the relationships between clients and vendors as well.

What role does your company play? If you play the role of the persecutor, you probably seek to make customers dependent on you and keep them feeling inadequate without you. If you're in the business of persecuting your clients, you won't be in business for long. Customers want to be treated with respect and dignity. Unless they are willing to play the role of the victim, the relationship won't last.

Perhaps you are the victim? Do you go above and beyond for your clients in ways that compromise your health, integrity and passion? Do you feel as though you can never do enough, yet you feel trapped because your customers have come to expect it from you? Are you afraid to say no or set boundaries? Do you feel guilty if they aren't happy? Do you resent them but bite your tongue when they are around?

If so, you are the victim and you are allowing them to be the persecutor. This is the most typical type of relationship we see — victim vendors and persecutor customers. While this relationship can last for a long time, it is draining on both parties and filled with drama and inefficiencies.

Customer relationships from within the Drama Triangle are marked by three key qualities:

The hostage crisis

First, your customers hold you hostage instead of holding you accountable. Unrealistic demands, threats, guilt trips and neediness rule the day. While it feels good to "save the day" for your customers, they become dependent on you and become less and less able to hold you accountable. And, you become resentful and frustrated. This co-dependence stems from a sense of desperation and low self-confidence from both sides. Accountability, on the other hand, involves realistic expectations and honest feedback.

Solution: Openness. Be honest about your deep desire to provide excellent service and set healthy boundaries about what you can and can't do while maintaining your sense of pride, integrity, and quality. If your clients don't respect you for this, then you are already in a downward spiral with this customer.

The myth of complaints

From within the Drama Triangle, customers will give you complaints instead of feedback. Complaints flow from a sense of entitlement and lack of shared responsibility for problem-solving. If you are walking on eggshells because of complaining customers, nobody benefits. The best customers give honest, practical feedback that helps you and them improve. Complaints lead to guilt, fear, defensiveness, and resentment. Feedback leads to growth.

Solution: Resourcefulness. Engage your clients for ways to improve your products and services, and their experience of using them. This involves what you can do and what they can do. It's a two-way street. Competent and confident customers see you as a partner instead of a savior. Anything you can do to help empower your customers helps you in the long run.

Dependence is not loyalty

Customers who are dependent on you will jump ship as soon as someone comes along who promises the moon. Going above and beyond is never enough for the addictive victim-persecutor relationship. Dependent customers become afraid that one day you won't be able to save them and might not be there when they are in crisis. And, they can become jealous when you give attention to other customers. Competitors prey on this fear, make false promises and steal your customers. Loyalty, on the other hand, is courageous and tenacious. Armed with openness and resourcefulness, loyal customers stick with you through tough times, allow you to make the occasional mistake, and believe in you while you are pursuing excellence. They freely and enthusiastically refer others to you because they don't need to have you all to themselves.

Solution: Persistence. Loyalty is not about being indispensable. It's about being consistent and predictable. Persistent companies don't waver in their standards, quality, or the experience they deliver their customers. Even while they innovate, fail, and grow, they deliver a consistent relationship experience to their customers. This fosters loyalty.

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