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Can the 5 Languages of Appreciation Be Used with Customers and Clients?

From the beginning of our work in applying the 5 Languages of Appreciation to work-based relationships, I have been asked repeatedly, “Can the 5 Languages of Appreciation be used with customers and clients?”

I have discussed and explored this issue a great deal with other professionals and organizational leaders, and we were never able to figure out a way to identify and use the 5 Languages of Appreciation in customer / client types of relationships (at least, in a manner with which we felt comfortable).

Recently, however, I have had a “breakthrough” in understanding and dealing with the challenge–ironically, while working on a different dilemma.

Discovery through the Side Door

At Appreciation at Work, more and more of our clients are asking for ways to train their employees and supervisors in effectively communicating appreciation across long distances with remote employees (and most recently, demonstrating appreciation among virtual teams where all of the team members work in different locations.)

Communicating appreciation to remote workers is challenging, but doable. In fact, we have created a specific version of the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory for long-distance work relationships. We’ve identified actions in each language of appreciation that are effective for showing appreciation to colleagues in different locations.

But completely virtual teams are another matter. Why? Because often the individuals have never met and their interactions are socially around task completion. As a result, the working relationship the team members have is quite limited in scope.

Attempting to solve the challenge of communicating appreciation within virtual teams has led me to three important observations:

1) Relationships are built upon relating to (and with) one another. True, there are different levels of relationships (acquaintances, friends, close friends, committed long-term relationships). But if your interaction with another person is focused solely on completing tasks, then I would argue that you have a functional relationship, not a personal relationship. You and your co-worker each bring skills, knowledge, and experience to complete a task or solve a problem. But your interaction has very little, if any, personal substance to it. This, I think, is a major challenge facing virtual teams (and unfortunately, some teams who work together in the same location!)–they essentially reduce employees to producers and problem solvers (rather than understanding co-workers as persons*).

2) To truly appreciate someone, a relationship must exist. You can admire or respect someone from a distance but to appreciate them, you need to have a relationship with them as a person (not just a resource to help get the project done.) We can appreciate something a colleague has done for us (which is a good start), but to value who they are requires some personal interaction or knowledge. Their life has some impact on you — the determination and perseverance they exhibit, how they manage a problem, or their commitment to getting a task done correctly.

3) Appreciation flows from valuing another person. People have often asked: “What if I don’t appreciate one of my colleagues? How do I develop a sense of appreciation for them?” Like most feeling responses, you can’t just make yourself appreciate them (or alternatively quit being frustrated with them). Feelings are responses that come from how our experience matches our expectations. We have found that the best way to “grow” a sense of appreciation for someone is to get to know them better as a person — where they come from, their background, their current life circumstances. Usually, we then learn something about them that strikes a chord within us, where we better understand them, we appreciate the challenges they are facing, and ultimately, develop more reasonable expectations for them.

Guiding Principles for Communicating Appreciation to Clients

This leads to three guiding principles for communicating appreciation to customers, clients, or donors:

For authentic appreciation to be communicated to clients, you must have a relationship with them. (And the longer or deeper the relationship with the client is, the more appropriate the appreciation will appear). But attempting to communicate appreciation to someone who you have no (or virtually no relationship) will almost certainly create problems:

1) Your actions and intent will probably be misperceived as manipulative.
2) The interaction will have an awkward quality to it.
3) You almost certainly will “miss the mark” of what makes them feel appreciated.

At best, you will waste your time and energy. At worst, you will damage your relationship to the point they will not want to interact with you at all in the future. Never use appreciation manipulatively to try to get the upper hand in a sales transaction — it will certainly backfire on you.

To be perceived as authentic, appreciation communicated to clients should be personal, not organizational. Your organization may send thank you notes or gifts during the holidays to a customer organization. That is fine, but it will have limited impact (how many gift baskets do you receive during the holidays and what impact do they have on who you choose to business with?) However, you may have a personal relationship with one of the staff at a client organization from doing business with them for several years. This is the type of relationship where communicating appreciation to that person may be appropriate.

The more personal, the more impactful the appreciation will be. To be effective, your appreciation should communicate specifically how they have been helpful to you. And, if at all possible, make the note or gift connected to them at a personal level (related to an interest they have.) If you cannot think of anything specific they have done to help you or you do not know enough about them to give them a gift you believe they would enjoy, then wait, spend time and effort to get to know them better.

Also, consider that you want to avoid an unintentional gaffe which may offend them. Examples reported to me include, giving candy to a severe Type I diabetic, or a bottle of wine (repeatedly over several years) to someone who doesn’t drink alcohol.

Summary

Can you use the 5 languages of appreciation (that is, showing them appreciation in the language and actions meaningful to them) with customers and clients? Sometimes, but not always. Letting individuals with whom you do business know that you value them, when done authentically and at a personal level, can deepen your relationship. But trying to use appreciation to cultivate sales or a lead will be seen as manipulative and actually damage your chances of doing business — both now and in the future.

Communicating true appreciation for a person who is a client (rather than from your organization to their company) requires a relationship between the two of you — person to person. If you don’t have a relationship with an individual at the client firm, wait and pass on trying to communicate appreciation. Instead, spend time and energy getting to know the individuals at your client firms, so you can eventually share specifically how they have helped you and do so in a way that is personally meaningful to them. This will deepen your relationship and bring benefits for years to come (even if you both leave your current firms!)

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