June 2011
Bonsai, Sufis and CRM

Something about the term “relationship management” is off. Once customer relationship management achieved the status of acronym – CRM – I knew it was officially un-alive.

Ever meet a real relationship that could be managed? Not me. To presume you can “manage” a relationship sets up a power dynamic that is false. Guess what? If anyone is managing the relationship, it’s not you, but the customer. It’s a dance, and the customer is leading.

What is going on here? Let’s turn to bonsai for some help.

Caring for bonsai, you join a living process where subject and object become blurred. You discover a simultaneous distinctness — you and the plant – existing within a non-separateness. The connection is palpable. Suddenly you notice the silent conversation you’ve been having with the plant. You’re in a dance. Somewhere along the way, out of your presence to the plant, a resonance was born. That resonance is your relationship.

Corporate poet David Whyte reminds us that in order to form this resonance, we need a deep attention, which makes possible the deep connection. We cannot shortcut the process and create ersatz connection by filling out fields in a CRM data masque. Rather, we must take time to muster a real presence, to ourselves and others. Then we’ll find genuine relationship, not in our client and not in us, but between us.

In The Elephant and the Flea, Charles Handy notes how he was struck by a Sufi teaching that noted “because you understand one, you think you understand two because one and one make two, but you must understand ‘and.’ ”

My concern is how the press of today’s business world, with its emphasis on technology and speed, can ride rip shod over intrinsic, organic human rhythms. Relationship takes time: it emerges, and cannot be extracted. As we race to productivity in our CRM world, we can mistake completed data fields for a complete understanding of our client.

A more honest term for this model would be CTM – customer transaction management.