Relationship Inflation

photo“Now our global sales team can create customer relationships instantly from anywhere.”

Jeremy Stoppelman, CEO of YELP, in an ad for the Salesforce1 Mobile App in the Economist.

“Run your business from your phone,” the ad goes on to say. Including the instant creation of customer relationships, with just a click.

Of course, we get what it means. Salesforce is a powerful tool; I use it. We’ve even got our own app on Salesforce for Trust-based Selling (and are proud of it).

But let’s just pause a moment and note the grade inflation that has come about with the use of the word “relationship.”

Relationship Inflation

Never mind the dictionary. Just use your own built-in definitions. What does the word “relationship” mean, and what does it suggest when we use it as synonymous with something clickable?

This is not a Luddite rant – I love my CRM-flavored apps as much as anyone. And I’m not going to bemoan the demise of deep connection at the hands of social media.

But I am going to protest the casual use of a rich word in ways that flatten and cheapen its meaning.

Dimensions of Relationships

When we think of relationships, we naturally think in two dimensions – depth and breadth. There is the sense of connection, empathy, shared knowledge, and the promise of more to come. That’s the deep part, and the deep part adds value.

The breadth part is equally important – because it shares value. The plural of relationship is network. Relationships times depth equals shared value.

The problem comes when we over-emphasize one dimension to the exclusion of another. The digital explosion has enabled both.  The ability to quickly scan and dive deep into data, or to quickly access past experiences (think your email history, think LinkedIn) can greatly help on depth.

But the emphasis in many ways has been far more on the breadth side of things. When zero marginal cost meets an ethos that says more followers/clicks/eyeballs are always better, that’s where the qualitative gets run out of town by the quantitative.  Deep gets beat by broad.

The Cost of Breadth at all Costs

When the intersection of Deep Street and Broad Street gets paved over by an expansion into Broad Boulevard, we lose something. The value of what we’re sharing diminishes. That means less value, less insight, less impact, less connection, less meaning.

In the world of sales, it’s no accident that we’re hearing about the power of insight – we’re starved for insight in a world that has been bingeing on breadth.  In the world of content, it’s no accident that we’re seeing an explosion of (often fairly good) TV programming enabled by online broadcast capabilities; we’ve been starved for it.

We need both dimensions for balance. Lately we’re out of balance, and it’s the deep content side that needs redressing.

7 replies
  1. John
    John says:

    Deep is the right word Charlie. All too often we get caught up in sharing (dare I say broadcasting and consuming) versus being in relationship. Some of the best and deepest moments in a relationship are the quiet moments. Even in a business relationship.

    After information and values are “shared” a moment or two of silence to allow integration of that “insight” allows for a deeper connection.

    Just yesterday I had a difficult conversation with a colleague who is disturbed at work. There is a limit to what I can do But by listening our relationship goes deeper.

  2. TenYearTexan
    TenYearTexan says:

    Anther thoughtful and useful article.

    Reminds me of LinkedIn. I see people with 500+ links. I consciously try to keep my link numbers at a point where for link, I can give a substantive response if someone asks ‘What kind of worker is Johnny X?’. But, on the other hand, some folks likely do have significant relationships with that many people – “connectors” in Malcolm Gladwell’s terms (in “The Tipping Point”).

    Another thought – every relationship starts as a casual encounter. Having a great many casual contacts (“breadth”) provides a wider opportunity for deep relationships if a person is conscious to further develop them instead of getting caught up in a race to go broad, missing the value of depth.

    Thanks for the insights.

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      TYT, thanks for the comments. LinkedIn is a particularly difficult example for me; I try to apply your rule as well, but keep getting requests to extend outward, and have yet to evolve a good rule of thumb. Tricky stuff.


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