The Encounter Habit

Each day, relationship-building encounters are the most important product you produce.

Yes, this is true. Why?

First, because “We” relationships are the true differentiators in today’s business world. Differentiating your products and services is very difficult these days, because customers see ours as a “land of plenty,” where one product can be substituted by another.

Second, because most of us can impact our relationships much more readily on a day-to-day basis than we can impact our products. If you are a salesperson, you will have a much easier time today making your customer happy by building your relationship with him than you could by improving your product’s specifications. If you are a real estate broker, it’s much easier to build a relationship with a client than to change the prices of available properties. Even if you are a doctor, it’s easier to impact your patient relationships today than it is to improve the efficacy of the latest drug treatments. You can make a better relationship easier than you can make a better product.

We relationships are built one encounter at a time. Each time you come in contact with a customer, you have the opportunity to improve– or degrade– your relationship. This is something you can affect every day, at every moment, you are engaging with a customer. You do it by constantly monitoring how well you are integrating the three elements of a relationship-building encounter into your interaction:

  • Are you and your customer both fully engaged in the moment?
  • Are you creating conversation, a true dialogue and not an exchange of monologues?
  • Are you creating a fresh, unique moment, an unscripted interaction between two unique people?

I’ve been thinking a lot this past week about this minute-by-minute encounter management and self-awareness. I realized that this theme was woven in three blog posts I published over the last few days, each covering one of the three elements of an encounter:

  • I wrote this post, Pain is Inevitable, Suffering is Optional, about how we have the power to shut out distractions and remain engaged in the moment, no matter what is tugging at our attention.
  • This post, The Conversationometer, focused on the importance of monitoring the quality of dialogue during a customer interaction.
  • Be Irreplaceable was published on, and generated some interesting comments from the Tom Peters community. This post focused on bringing your personal uniqueness into a customer encounter.

The Yastrow Conversationometer: From monologue to dialogue
Download the full-size Conversationometer (Adobe PDF)

When I teach people these principles of relationship-building encounters, they rarely resist the concept and, in fact, are able to give me clear examples from their own business lives of when they did, or did not, create relationship-building encounters. But… people admit to struggling with creating encounters on a regular basis.

Why? Why don’t we create encounters all the time, if we know how to do it, and we know it is important?

When we don’t create encounters and slip into relationship-eroding transactions, it’s usually because we are not alert to the fact that we’re missing one or more elements of the encounter:

  • We lose our attention to the moment, or don’t realize that our customer has become unengaged.
  • We monologue and don’t catch ourselves.
  • We miss what makes the other person unique, and they infer we don’t understand them, or we use prefab scripts in a way that makes ourselves seem generic and stiff.

Like so many important parts of life, creating relationship-building customer encounters takes practice. Practice leads to habit. Habit leads to progress. Progress leads to strong relationships. Strong relationships lead to business success.

So how do we create the encounter habit?

Pay attention, at all times during a customer interaction, to the state of your encounter.

  • Are we both present, at this very moment, in the interaction?
    • If you become distracted, notice it, and focus in on details of the interaction you are in, to bring yourself back into the moment with your customer.
    • If your customer’s engagement starts to wane, notice it and bring her back in.
      (For more ideas on how to engage yourself in the moment, and how to invite your customer into the moment, see pages 47 – 69 in my book We: The Ideal Customer Relationship, or pages 10 – 14 in my free ebook, Encounters)
  • Are we, at this very moment, engaged in true, genuine dialogue?
    • Use The Conversationometer, described in the blog post and the graphic above. The Conversationometer requires no batteries, no electrical current, and you can never misplace it. All you need to do to use The Conversationometer is to be aware, at all moments in a conversation, of how things are going, and then act on what you notice.
      (For more ideas on how use conversation in customer encounters, see pages 73 – 88 in my book We: The Ideal Customer Relationship)
  • Are we, at this very moment, creating a unique, authentic moment between two unique, authentic people?
    • Am I noticing, and honoring, the “spices” that define what makes my customer and his situation unique?
    • Am I being irreplaceable in the way I engage; interacting in a way that could not be duplicated by someone else, even if they were providing the same service I am providing?
    • Does the moment itself seem fresh and unique, and not as if it was scripted and “pulled from inventory?”

One very important idea for this moment-by-moment attention to customer encounters is to recognize that you can always improve a customer interaction, at any point, no matter how well or how poorly it is going. If the encounter is in full-swing, use that as a chance to take it to an even higher level. On the other hand, if your interaction has degraded into transaction-land, don’t give up. No matter how far down a customer interaction has slipped, you can use the 3 encounter elements– engagement in the moment, conversation and uniqueness– to help bring it back on track.

As with any habit, the encounter habit takes practice. Use every encounter as a chance to improve. Remember, if you get 1% better at creating relationship-building encounters every day, you’ll be twice as good in 72 days. (Relationship habits grow at a compound rate just like cash!)

I’m speaking from experience here. I started researching and writing We four years ago today, on June 15, 2005. As I listened to hundreds of people tell me about their relationships, I saw this theme of encounters, and of the 3 encounter elements, emerge. It fascinated me, and I began to practice. I have a long way to go, but now, when I inadvertently end up with a transaction instead of an encounter, I can always look back and see exactly where things went awry. This puts me into a position to improve. Immediately.

So look at every customer interaction as a practice in improving your ability to create encounters. Not only will the immediate encounter be better, your future encounters will be better, leading to better relationships and better business success. As they say in yoga, “practice makes practice.” Develop the encounter habit, and you will find yourself, every day, in richer, more productive, more rewarding customer encounters.

Steve Yastrow

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Posted in "We" Relationships, Commitment Compass
9 comments on “The Encounter Habit
  1. leonghw says:

    the trend nowadays is to offer the kind of service everyone offers. lousy or non-existent ones.

    customer “experience” is becoming more and more a process. we’re being processed. order a meal at McD and you’re not greeted with a smile anymore. just a flat face from somebody who’s taking your order (which is quite different from – serving – a customer).
    after paying, they just print your receipt and push it to the side, you wait for your meal at the side while they process the next customer in line.

    same thing happening at the hypermarkets. just replace the word Meal above with Shopping Items.

    perhaps the day will come when companies charge their customers a premium for customer experience.
    something like paying extra for express boarding in budget airlines.
    you want better experience, sure. just pay more.


    • leonghw – Here’s a question: do companies have to charge more for a premium customer experience, or are customers more willing to pay for a premium customer experience (especially one that transcends basic customer service and includes relationship-building encounters)?

      Thanks for the thoughts … I’m glad I’m in Paris, 7 hours ahead of Chicago, so I can be up to see your comment and Shaun’s appearing at a time I’d normally be asleep!

      • leonghw says:

        do companies have to charge more for a premium customer experience and are customers willing to pay?
        they don’t have to charge.
        but business is about bottom line.
        if they can charge you for something, they will.
        in fact some already are & we’re already paying for it.

        used to be you can withdraw money from the banks at the counters at no charge.
        now some banks (HSBC for one) charge you if you do withdrawals at the counters more than 3 times a year.
        you can do withdrawals at the ATM for free.
        there’s a relationship building opportunity at the counters. but they charge you, because it incurs cost to serve you (1 headcount). while the cost is minimal at the ATM.

        furthermore relationship building experience requires setting clear guidelines, training & monitoring.
        all of these incurs cost to the business. somebody has to bear it.
        unless businesses absolutely have to offer the experience to stay on par with competitors, they will charge you a premium for the experience.


  2. Pleasant greetings from New Zealand.
    I am loving your website! I’m hooked. I discovered it through a link from tom peters.

    Learning a lot, and love the fact you share so much for free, and generously link to other awesome sites.

    I will definitely be buying your books.

    Keep up the great work

    • Shaun – Thank you, thank you. Comments like yours are why I do what I do. Thanks for reminding me, as I am constantly reminded, why I bailed out of the corporate senior executive path.

  3. Dan Gunter says:

    Steve, hope I’m not being rude, but I would like to inject a thought in regards to leonghw’s comment and your subsequent question:

    No, companies DON’T have to charge extra for premium customer service experiences; moreover, there usually should not even BE an either/or option. ALL service should be provided with premium quality. “Sir, would you like to supersize that serving of lousy service?” — that’s more typical these days.

    It makes more sense to me to leave mediocre service and products off of your menu and let the competition continue to provide that while you set yourself apart for providing Wow! encounters at the same price. It may SEEM less profitable to do so at first, but the chances are good that when word gets out that you’re able to provide better service and products for a comparable price, your competition will be out of business soon because all their business is migrating to your place.

    You just have to be careful that when demand and volume increases you are already prepared to do whatever it takes to maintain that premium quality. This is where SO, SO, SO MANY companies end up making a deadly turn: once they do Wow! things and take all the business, they get overrun and/or complacent and the “premium” element starts to erode. Or they have to make desperate, poorly thought-out investments in order to try. Soon, they are wondering why business is slowing down. “Must be the economy.” Hello? Have you by chance driven by or scoped-out that competitor across town whose business is now increasing rapidly? Uh huh. You just handed THEM the premium advantage on a silver platter. You helped them learn the game and they beat you at it.

  4. Dan Gunter says:

    An analogy just crossed my mind that a lot of people aren’t even aware of.

    Next time you stop to put gas in your car, notice the radical difference in the prices of regular, mid-grade, and premium unleaded fuels at the same pump. Anywhere from 10 to 20 cents a gallon difference between “regular” and “premium.” Pretty substantial. That premium unleaded must be some really special stuff if they charge that much more, huh?

    Actually, if you do a little spying or simple question-asking, you’ll discover a little known secret: the gas is all being pumped out of one underground tank! That’s right, it’s all the same gas. The jobber that fills their tanks delivers just one grade of gasoline in that big tanker truck. The only difference is that the pumping system adds an octane-boosting additive as it’s being pumped from the storage tank to the nozzle in your hand.

    You are actually paying a premium price for a little something extra. You can actually buy octane booster by the bottle and pour it in the tank yourself, which turns out to be less expensive per tank. That’s the only difference. That one added ingredient makes some people willing to pay even more. It may sound like I’m contradicting my above comment here, but the point is that if you are willing to add that something extra to make YOUR service or products better somehow, there are a lot of people WILLING to pay the extra.

    But the added ingredients have to be there. Otherwise, your service/product is just “Regular Unleaded” and you shouldn’t expect folks to pay a premium price.

  5. Eliot Weissberg says:

    Great stuff Steve. I will continue to practive makes practice.

  6. I manage a radio operation in the Waikato in New Zealand, 7 radio stations, 30 staff…and we obsess on client service, always trying to take it to the next level. I’m fortunate enough to have incredible clients who think the same way. One of which is a clothing store called Texas Radio.

    I missed their VIP night the other night (which is usually a pretty cool night) They called me up the next day telling me I was about to have my very own “VIP day”.

    I turned up, they had all the clothes picked out for me to try on, in my size. (I get so frustrated if I’m trying stuff on that’s too small or too big)

    Later that day (after jeans were taken up), the owner personally dropped them off to me, with two cold beers. “Hey, you would of had those at the VIP night”, he laughed.

    He was real. He was genuine. And I can’t stop telling people about the level of service.
    But of course people are already aware, because HE treats EVERYONE like this!

    Footnote: I don’t exactly spend a fortune on clothes. My wife has to force me to go clothes shopping, but this company is getting me excited about clothes, by tapping into my love for great client service. What money I do spend, now goes their way.

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