Brand Relationships: How are we going to treat our customers?

man sits next to ronald mcdonald on a seat

Brand Relationships: How are we going to treat our customers?

When you start a new relationship, I mean a romantic one, what do you really want to know about that person? You may be curious, but you want to know if they are decent and trustworthy.

Human relationships start out cautiously because the other party is unfamiliar. The same goes for your business.

The difference in business, however, is that people don’t start out curious. We start out suspicious. 

So when we are planning our brand identity, we need to decide how we will conduct our relationships.

How are we going to treat our customers?

Services have extra challenges

A lot has been written about product brands. I want to focus solely on services. Our approach needs to be different. The principles of product marketing fit like a round peg in a square hole. Your service brand is different from a physical product brand.

Here is an example.

If you feel hungry and you need to grab a quick snack, preferably something with some energy, you might grab a Snickers Bar. This is a low-involvement decision. You don’t need to labour over a choice like this. Your brain does something like this: 


…….Need…..Food…… Now. 

……………..Where food? 

………………………There. Food.

Services have a higher level of involvement. Deeper considerations come into play.  We need to think about it.

Services are riskier

surgeon operating

There is risk. We can lose money. We can lose time. We can lose respect. We can damage equipment. We could make a bad decision and get a bad outcome. 

With services, decisions have consequences.

Accounting, medical, mechanical, real estate, legal, anything with specialist knowledge is known as a high involvement service. 

To try to mitigate our risk, we might try to understand a complicated subject we know nothing about. It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it? Services are saddled with a few handicaps.


Services are intangible

We can’t touch and feel a service. It can’t be rubbed between our fingers so that a customer can see and feel the quality. 

When you choose an anesthetist for a dental procedure, how do you know if you’re getting quality? It’s very difficult to know in advance what you’re going to get.


Services are never the same twice

With a chocolate bar or a chair, you can buy exactly the same thing every time. You can’t with services. Services are never exactly the same from one time to the next. Have you ever been to a hair salon and everyone is chirpy and happy?

Then the next time, there is a pall over the place? If they involve a person — either the provider or a human consumer — the experience is never going to be absolutely consistent. One customer will never have exactly the same experience as another.


Services are created and consumed at the same time

Services are often delivered and consumed at the same time.

For example, you’re a Nutritionist with one-hour appointments. Most of these are booked around lunchtime. Peter doesn’t show up for his 1 pm appointment, so you lose that income. It’s too late to rebook it to someone else. Services can’t be saved, stored, and sold again later…(or, can they.) 

The Seven Ps of Services

You may have heard marketing be called ‘The four Ps.’ These are Product, Placement, Price, and Promotion.

For Services, there are seven Ps. We add People, Processes, and Physical Evidence.

These extra 3 Ps help overcome some or all of the challenges in being a Service.

  • Intangibility > Add elements that are tangible
  • Rarely consistent > Use standards and workflow processes
  • Can’t be stockpiled > Productise the service so it can be


The underlying factor is Trust

Have you ever played the trust game for some team-building exercise? You have to close your eyes and fall back onto someone who catches you.

When the area of specialty is complex, people need to trust you know what you’re doing. When the service might be slightly different each time, the person needs to trust a good service will be delivered however it comes. If the service delivery occurs at the same time a client consumes the service, the client needs to trust they are in good hands.

 In a way, we ask customers to surrender and fall back on us. The only way we can do this is with trust.

Some people say reputation is the key element. I say reputation is a shortcut to building trust. 

How do you build trust?

Trust as a service brand is built using key ingredients. 

  • Authority
  • Quality
  • Empathy 
  • Authenticity

These elements working together give the impression that a business is Trustworthy. 

But every service brand needs to have quality, authority, empathy, and authenticity. They aren’t a recipe to make a fabulous cake. They’re the recipe to make the dough rise. They are essential. 

Every service brad needs these to some degree. But I like to take it a step further.

Your service brand relationship is transactional. There must be an exchange of value for money. But it’s more than that. The relationship should feel personal, even if it isn’t. One clear thing is a relationship with meaning will improve loyalty and revenue. The power of an emotional connection is true of AI and robotics, as much as human services.

How to forge a deeper connection 

A lot has been written about brand relationships. I agree with much of it, but I take a different angle.

I want you to humanise your relationship. 

Let me explain what I mean.

Human relationships can be used as a metaphor for brand relationships. 

More than 20 years ago, Susan Fournier cottoned onto this. She applied her consumer research to the work of psychologists who studied the nature of ideal human relationships.

I like her work. It is a deeper way of conceptualising your service brand relationships.


partners cooking together

What makes an Ideal Human Partner?

To me, for example, an Ideal Human Partner is…

An Ideal Partner is of Good character. They are a decent human being. They’re generous, and kind. They donate to things. 

An Ideal Partner is Honest. What you see is what you get. They’re honest and up-front. They’re not going on a spree with your credit card number and email address. When things are not going well, they’ll admit it.

An Ideal Partner is Reliable. They’re not Dr Jeckyl one day and Mr Hyde the next. Their mood is consistent. They have a kind of default high standard.

An Ideal Partner has Empathy. They understand us, our needs, and they listen in order to help. They can make us feel really good sometimes when we don’t expect it.

An Ideal Partner helps us feel Safe. They lock the door at night and secure the personal papers. Well, at the very least, they don’t keep a loaded gun under our pillow.

An Ideal Partner is Easy to be with. It’s not complicated or difficult. You get along and things flow as they should. You can talk easily but it’s okay if you don’t. Everything feels smooth.

Obviously, my ideal partner qualities are subjective. Mine won’t be the same as yours. 

Can you glimpse some way you can be these things in your brand?

Imagine you are your customer

Imagine you are your customer. What would make your brand the ideal human partner for them? I don’t mean bringing coffee in bed, but how would they like to be treated in terms of the problem you solve.

A few things to consider are:

  • What would you like to know?
  • Why would you want to know?
  • How would you like to be contacted?
  • When would you like to be contacted?
  • Where would you like to be communicated?
  • How would you like them to make you feel?

Let’s say you are a clown doctor. Your purpose is to relieve children’s anxiety in hospitals. One important aspect of your brand relationship for the end-users is humour. For the hospital staff, you’re asking to hire you, it will be empathy.  (Many services that are boring or technical also benefit from humour.)

 Think about the handful of qualities you think are essential in an Ideal Human Partner helping you with this problem.


Ideal Partner Exercise

Write down a few attributes you seek in your ideal partner. 

We are also going to make sure we include those four essential ingredients in our cake: Authority, Quality, Empathy, and Authenticity. We need these if our cake isn’t going to flop.

Your Turn

The Ideal Partner is:











Embed ideal partner attributes into your touchpoints

A touchpoint is an encounter between your brand and your client. 

Go through the list and think about how you can apply this Ideal Partner attribute to your brand — through a touchpoint. 

Let me give you a few examples. 

Quality is something we can demonstrate even though our service is intangible by using thick paper stocks in our stationery. That could include printed brochures, business cards, and envelopes.

Authority is something we can demonstrate on our website by using awards we have won, customer testimonials and reviews, and ensuring there is an SSL (secure socket layer) certificate on our website. In fact, that goes without saying. We can also demonstrate authority by including the story of why we devised the service and that it was the first. If you were the first in a category, there is authority there. If you write a long and detailed article explaining a concept, this adds Authority. 

Humour can be embedded in your website sidebar with a little joke. For example, the Email service provider, Mailchimp, customers used to publish links to YouTube clips the 1980’s sensation ‘Jazzercise‘ in its customer setup journey.


Brand Touchpoints — The Laundry List

There are specific things you can do to personify the ideal partner in your business relationships with clients. How can you flesh out these human characteristics (excuse the pun) in your service brand?


  • Website (homepage, about, contact, landing pages)
  • Email offers/newsletter
  • Advertising: Google, radio, social media, newspaper, cinema, TV, other
  • Blog articles
  • Stationery: Logo, brochures, business cards, letterheads, with compliments slips, envelopes, stationery
  • Signage
  • Email signatures
  • Booking form


  • Information packs
  • Explanatory Videos
  • Podcasts / Interviews
  • Presentations / Slideshows
  • Social media


  • Phone meetings
  • Customer Service scripts
  • Email contact
  • Chatbots
  • Social media engagement
  • Market research


  • Appointment bookings
  • Phone messages
  • Onboarding process
  • Process overview
  • Virtual meetings
  • Office space
  • Waiting area
  • Meeting area
  • Pleasant touches
  • Quotations
  • Follow-ups
  • Loyalty programs
  • Segment programs


If any of your ideal partner attributes are the same or very similar to Quality, Authenticity, Authority, or Empathy, you can cross them out. We will be adding those essential four ingredients to our layer cake.

Write down ways you can apply those attributes to your brand touchpoints.

Go through your laundry list and think about three ways you can apply your brand. You can probably think of many ways for each. Less is more to start with. Remember, this process is iterative. You will regularly go back and forth to keep your brand relevant.

Applying Ideal Brand Relationship Attributes

service brand relationship worksheet

Use a template like this or download this one

cake with mulberries

Final Note

It’s risky doing business with us. Services demand a lot of trust from a customer.

So many brands have a tenuous relationship with their customers. Fundamentally, we need to show our customers, through actions, we are decent and trustworthy.

But this is not just about how we want someone to think, it’s a large part how we want them to feel. Especially as service brands.

The brand relationship is practical but also expresses our distinctiveness. Put some berries into the cake mix. The care and craft will translate into an appreciation of the flavour.