Technology: Relationship Killer?

The wood products industry has long embraced relationship-based business, but social media and other technological innovation may change the landscape.

By NAWLA Marketing Committee Members Steve Cheatham, Everwood Treatment Co.; Warren Reeves, Wholesale Wood Products; and Devin Stuart, Roseburg Forest Products

From the September issues of BPD and Merchant Magazine.

Part I of our discussion on relationship-based business explained the benefits of nurturing a personal connection with key buyers or sellers. While suppliers and distributors of wood products have long embraced this style of workplace courtship, the industry is graying and times are changing. The question now becomes whether a younger workforce—and its strong attachment to all things cyber—will reverse a time-honored trend and put relationships on the rocks.

Don’t Email Me, I’ll Email You

Email alone might test the fidelity of some old-school believers in relationships. Why put all that energy and effort into maintaining personal ties to a partner when you can reach out to the masses with a single communication and secure a deal for the lowest price with a simple click or tap? Because when you do, you lose that high touch that customers value—that’s why! Relationships are built on the Internet … said no businessperson ever. And that’s why taking the easy way out with email just doesn’t happen with a lot of us, as tempting as it might be for some. Even if the digital trend picked up more momentum, the push-back against it would probably grow, too. The industry players that continue to pick up the phone or meet in person to do business might even win favor over their impersonal, faceless competitors.

Good Relationships Start With Being ‘Friends’

That being said, it’s fair to say the online movement is unlikely to completely stamp out relationships in our sector. In fact, it could even enhance them to some extent. Social media, for example, holds great promise for expanding and deepening relationships, particularly when used in combination with old-fashioned relationship-building. A distribution sales manager who is Facebook friends with a vendor representative has a wide-open window into that individual’s personal life—and an invitation to comment on it. The medium, along with others like Twitter and Instagram, can unlock myriad opportunities to interact, congratulate, recommend, and share on a one-on-one basis! Social media also can play a role at the company level, although the approach would be entirely different. In that case, the aim might be to engage with and build a relationship with end users. It’s well-documented, for instance, that Millennials shun traditional advertising, preferring instead to base their purchasing decisions on what they know about a company and the products it sells. Savvy businesspeople realize that social media accounts offer an ideal way to educate this generation on a company’s identity and values. Through it, businesses will find yet another avenue to reach downstream and further those relationships.

The Bottom Line

The decision on how to use email, text, and social media should hinge, of course, on the individual personalities and preferences of the key people you work with. Everyone’s comfort level with technology varies, with a small band of holdouts still using fax instead of email. Others may not know a Tweet from a pin. A few don’t even own a cell phone, while others maintain running text conversations—both personal and professional in nature—with their business partners. The bottom line is that relationships are sticking around, but advances in technology can hurt or help them depending on how they are utilized. Suppliers and distributors who figure out where their contacts stand in terms of technology and tailor their outreach strategies around that will continue to cultivate successful and long-lasting relationships even in the face of innovation.

Outside Perspectives

Marketing, branding and social media experts have written extensively about customer relationships and how to nurture them. A Forbes article penned by Dorie Clark, “4 Ways to Build Meaningful Business Relationships,” elaborates on some of the points made above about one-on-one communications via social platforms. In the March 2014 piece, the Duke University instructor and marketing strategist relays the advice conveyed to her by Mike Muhney, author of Who’s in Your Orbit? Beyond Facebook – Creating Relationships That Matter. Known for creating one of the first and most popular contact management systems, Muhney emphasizes that just having a Facebook page and occasionally updating the status is inadequate. The importance of individual conversations on social media simply cannot be underestimated, according to him, just as they should not be overlooked in face-to-face situations. “People think they’re staying in touch with everybody via postings, and it’s not true,” he explains. “You have to have a segment you focus on [in your networking].” At the same time, Muhney cautions against hooking up with every suitor that reaches out on sites like LinkedIn. That’s not “true” networking, he notes, comparing it instead to “relational voyeurism.” Racking up a bunch of connections with unknown individuals isn’t likely to be productive, according to Muhney, who says that businesspersons will not successfully tap into the full potential of their networks until they peel away all the layers to reveal the contacts who are well-known and trusted—and target them exclusively.

In terms of leveraging social media for business-to-consumer purposes, another Forbes contributor captures the perspective of young entrepreneurs in his December 2012 article. “5 Ways Social Media Takes Customer Relationships to the Next Level” offers tips to help companies connect with customers and influence their buying decisions. Among those gems, the piece—written by Dave Kerpen, author of Likeable Social Media—recommends that businesses take the “social” part seriously. Besides extending excellent service, he stresses that these sites have the potential to inspire and bring together people for a common purpose. Even in this kind of scenario, Kerpen says, businesses should consider “how can you connect your audience and strengthen your relationship?” The co-founder and CEO of the social media agency Likeable, he also suggests putting the focus on the customer rather than the product; accepting all opportunities to garner feedback, such as through crowdsourcing; and making it easy for customers to relay their experience. Kerpen singles out Facebook’s “Share Your Story” app as one way to accomplish the later. “When your customers are happy, your business will be too – so find a way to let people feel good and share their story about how your brand makes a difference in their lives,” he concludes.

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