Understanding Your Customer’s Attachment Style

Build a better relationship with your customer by learning their attachment style.
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Program managers, used synonymously with Project Managers here, are often the most consistent face of the organization to the customer base.  Program managers (PM) deal with customers on a daily basis.  PMs are forced to interact with them constantly to resolve issues, communicate progress, sell new products and services and build a healthy long-term relationship with the customer’s organization.  The challenge for PMs is in creating, measuring and maintaining these relationships.

Ideally, PMs want secure customers.   Secure customers are typically those consumers with high levels of satisfaction, trust, commitment, and repurchase intentions.  You can gauge secure consumers by assessing relationship closeness. Relationship closeness is defined by a) a relatively strong influence partners have on each other when interacting, b) a high frequency of interactions and c) diverse forms of interacting with each other.  PMs may want to direct their primary resources to deepen and broaden these relationships as these relationships are usually the most fruitful.  But what happens when your customer is insecure about you or your organization?  How do you manage them?

Many companies promote relationship management through a universal Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system.  Too often it’s a “one size fits all” plan that really doesn’t.  PMs have to manage their relationships if they want their project to be successful.  If the company CRM isn’t working, the PM needs to answer a couple of questions.  Is your customer open to relationship marketing?  Do you know your customer’s relational needs and desires in their relationship with your company or with you at an individual level?  Luckily, research has shown that consumers display identifiable patterns of preferences regarding their relationships.  Additionally, some consumers seem to willingly engage in close personal relationships with service firms and employees, while others seem to proactively avoid any form of bonding.  These patterns of how we relate to each other are referred to as attachment styles.

Psychologists have studied attachment styles for some time and have found three major styles relevant to service organizations; more specifically, secure, attachment anxiety (anxious) and attachment avoidance (avoidant).  Attachment anxiety describes the extent to which a consumer worries that the service organization might not be available in times of need, has an excessive need for approval and fears rejection and abandonment.  Attachment avoidance mirrors the extent to which an individual distrusts their relationship partner’s goodwill, is characterized by an excessive need for self-reliance, fears depending on others and strive to maintain emotional distance from their relationship partner.

Attachment styles influence consumer behavior, such as consumer loyalty (i.e. satisfaction, trust and commitment) to the company.  High levels of attachment anxiety and avoidance are associated with significantly lower levels of satisfaction, trust and commitment to both the individual and the organization.  Understanding consumer satisfaction is critical as it is an indicator for future loyalty, repurchase intentions and word-of-mouth.  For example, customers with low levels of attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance toward the firm are candidates for social relationship programs, whereas customers with high levels of attachment avoidance are likely to be more responsive to financial reward programs.

Repurchase intentions typically have a negative relationship with the organization, where increases in anxiety and avoidance towards the organization, decreases repurchase intentions.  Research results indicate that this pattern is not significant for the individual, highlighting the fact that the services of the organization are seen to be provided by the organization and not the individual.  However, if the services are closely tied to individuals, this relationship is likely to be different, as with lawyers, doctors and consultants.

Word-of-mouth has been characterized to be directly related to attachment avoidance.  High avoidance leads to low word-of-mouth.  In other words, avoidant customers recommend the company with a drastically smaller likelihood than anxious or secure customers.  Therefore, if a PM is looking to promote the organization through customer programs, the participation of secure customers is required.  Avoidant customers may see such a request as intrusive and a good way to avoid insulting a customer with a request is to understand their attachment style.

Once the attachment style is known, creating a marketing strategy becomes a simple determination of where you want the customer to attach to your organization.  If your customer is highly anxious or avoidant, you consider building and nurturing the relationship first, then center the relationship on the services you provide.  Remember, the avoidant customer will respond to the non-personal communication from your corporate office, as opposed to direct personal communication from the PM.  In contrast, a relationship focused attachment may be centered on a particular individual within your program team, such as the sales representative.  If the customer is large and there are multiple interactions, it may become necessary to utilize both methods, in which the ideal configuration becomes a homework assignment and whose choice becomes one of trial and error.  After all, relationships are a learning experience.

With a sufficient level of understanding, PMs can develop communication strategies to improve the closeness of the relationship.  Again, this is accomplished by increasing the frequency of interaction, using a broader variety of methods, and communicating on a deeper level.   Anxious customers will welcome such activities, whereas avoidant customers won’t.

Using attachment styles to develop the proper relationship for your projects and programs is quite useful in avoiding getting off on the wrong foot with a new customer.  Spend a little time on the internet reading about attachment theory and styles.  There’s a plethora of research that can help you create a small survey to analyze your customer.  Once you determine their attachment style,
you can develop a plan to build the ideal long-term mutually beneficial relationship with your customer.

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