Imagine this: You’ve been going to the gym regularly for a few weeks and you’ve noticed the same good-looking person there almost every time. You’re single, and this person is piquing your interest.

You work up the nerve to finally make small-talk with them about one of your mutual exercise habits. They respond with enthusiasm which, at first, really excites you. They’re returning your interest!

Within the first five minutes of getting to know each other, however, they ask, “Ok, so, now that I know your name and what you do for a living, how do you feel about having three kids and living over in that cute new suburb on the west side of town?”

(Are you hearing the sound of screeching brakes?)

In that scenario, you would probably run for the hills. This person has just jumped the gun, oh, about 7 years … and demonstrated exceptionally poor judgment, to boot.

In business — especially B2B — when you try to sell to your customer in your first interaction with them, this is exactly how it feels.

There may be a lot of noise today with digital marketing — but it’s getting easier to shut out that noise, too. To keep your customers engaged (and not running for the hills), you have to build the customer relationship in the same thoughtful, deliberate way you would build a romantic relationship — one step, one conversation, one trust-building activity at a time.

Relationship-Building Starts BEFORE the First Encounter With Your Brand

Back to the dating analogy: Even on a blind date, the stage has already been set and expectations have been created.

Consciously or subconsciously, they’ve created a picture of you in their mind. The person who set you up described what your date would be like; the place you’re meeting your date influences how the date will go (a coffee date feels much more casual than a dinner date, for example); the time of day you meet tells you about the person’s preferences; and so on.

All relationships begin before the first conversation. Customer relationships are no exception.

The customer relationship begins the first time the customer is made aware of your company.

Whether that be through advertising, word-of-mouth or a Google search, the first moment a person becomes aware that your brand exists, the seed of the relationship is planted — and this is what the customer relationship is going to sprout from.

You have the ability to build, maintain and influence the relationship from before that point of mention all the way through the sale — and beyond.

In fact, when the relationship is managed well, this is a cyclical thing:

  1. Customer 1 hears about your brand from a friend.
  2. Customer 1 checks out your company / solution(s). They definitely visit your website (your website is one of the top two channels for customer engagement), but they may also check out your social media profiles and reach out to their network for opinions.
  3. Customer 1 considers your solution against other options.
  4. If a free trial is available, Customer 1 signs up for it.
  5. Customer 1 goes back to your website or contacts the sales rep and buys the solution.
  6. Customer 1 receives outstanding ongoing support and education.
  7. Customer 1 is so happy with their experience, they recommend your company/solution to Customer 2.
  8. Customer 2 starts back at the beginning of this cycle, at Step 1.

There are touchpoints at every step of the customer journey — and every touchpoint is an opportunity to grow the relationship.

Marketo engagement report

Source: Marketo’s State of Engagement report

The Dating Period: Awareness and Consideration

While you’re getting to know a new, exciting person, you spend some time together doing fun activities and having character-revealing conversations. You go on dates and you share stories with one another.

The more you find out about this person, the more effort you both put forth in developing the relationship. The relationship becomes mutually beneficial.

Building relationships with customers is the same process.

Learning About Each Other

You need to understand the customer to grow the relationship. Who are they? How are they talking about their problem? Do they even know they have a problem? Are they aware that products or services exist to help eliminate the problem?

Ask them.

Ask them directly through customer interviews. Ask them passively through surveys and review requests. Ask them second-hand by mining competitor reviews.

In this stage, you’ll also be assessing where the customer is on the awareness spectrum.

When you get to know your customer on a deeper level, listening to them and understanding how they feel about where they’re at, you can start talking to your customer like the human being they are.

And when you understand who your customer is as a human being, you can help them so much more effectively.

You can share answers with them: “This is what we hear is happening with people like you/companies like yours. Here is how we see people solving the problem.”

You can invite them into conversation with your emails: “If this is a familiar challenge to you, let’s talk about this. Here’s how to connect with me.” (Me, not us. This is a relationship, after all.)

Deepening the Conversation

As you grow this conversational relationship, your goal should be to get your customer to feel that yours is a company they can talk to. That you’re going to respond to them. That you’ll welcome anything you bring forward to you.

Once that conversation is started, keep it going! Move them through the spectrum of awareness by providing more value — targeted to their needs — at every step. Blog posts, downloadable assets (like e-books and white papers) on high-level topics, newsletters and infographics are all good content types to get the customer journey started on the right foot.

Assuming by this point you have the customer’s email address, follow up with them and make sure that they’ve found what they are looking for. Send emails from a person, not a department or a company, so you can use “I” and “you” statements. Nurture email sequences are great for this purpose — and don’t let the automation aspect discourage you from asking them to hit reply with any questions!

When you respond, be sure to do it quickly. Studies have shown that the faster you respond to a lead, the more likely they are to buy from you. Even waiting an hour decreases conversion rates 10-fold!

And remember: Do NOT try to sell them on your company at the earliest stages of awareness. You will come off like a sleazy car salesman … and they’ll shut you out.

Encourage customers to engage, to get in touch — not to shut you out. And most importantly, don’t piss them off. I loved how Leah George put it during her talk at Digital Summit Denver 2019: “Attention is the new currency. The challenge isn’t reaching [your audience]; it’s avoiding pissing them off.

As their awareness of your brand and offerings grows, you can start to offer white papers, guides and e-books on narrower topics so the customer can explore their problem more deeply — and start to make the connection between your company and solving their problem.

You develop a conversational relationship by being responsive and helpful. And through conversation, your customer gains an increased awareness of — and trust in — your brand.

Only when the customer knows what their problem is, and that it’s solvable, do you start presenting your solution as an option. At this point in the customer journey, content like case studies can go a long way to telling your customer, “We solved the same problem for someone just like you, and here’s how we did it.”

Pop the Question: Make the Ask

In the personal relationship scenario, after you’ve been courting a while, people start to ask about your next steps.

When are you going to move in together? Get married? Have kids?

And by now, you have answers to some of those questions. You and your partner have likely already had conversations about how to move forward.

In a business/customer relationship, by now you have established yourself as a trusted resource whose primary aim is to legitimately help your customers. You’ve given them information to resolve their problem, you’ve referred them to helpful resources, and you’ve offered yourself up as a resource too.

As a result, your customer now finds you trustworthy and caring.

Now is the time to pop the question.

Only after you’ve put forth the time and energy to establish and grow the relationship should you directly ask them to buy your product or service. You have to have this connection established, and then you can talk about selling them a solution.

Looking Back On Your Relationship: Post-Sale Analysis, Insight and Iteration

Once you’ve been in a relationship long enough to have memories, it’s nice to reflect back on them occasionally. Maybe you’ll pull out that photo album of your wedding and reminisce about how you got there.

In a business scenario, it can be helpful to think back on the sales experience and map out the customer journey. Start with how the customer heard about your brand, and map out every step in the process up to where the customer is now (hopefully that’s the loyal advocate / repeat buyer stage of the relationship!)

Understanding how the customer journeyed from where they were to where they are now can help you create an even better journey for the next customer. Use what you learned — always be researching (ABR!) — and iterate on the next campaign.

Every happy customer is an opportunity to learn, iterate and improve the journey for the next customer.

Read more: Why Reciprocation Is Key To Building Business Relationships