The importance of genuine relationships to understand customers

To be successful, we need genuine relationships in a professional environment, including internal and external ones. In the context of this article, we are discussing genuine relationships of internal and external partners that help us do our job better.

“We should be thinking about people; we are all people,” said Zoe Dowling, principal research program manager at Microsoft, on the market research podcast “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.” “And everything we do when we connect with individuals is building relationships.”

In this article, I discuss:

What’s a genuine relationship?

Genuine relationships are about understanding and valuing each other. It’s about seeing different viewpoints and seeing others as partners. But how do we partner and work together to reach our goals? That can often come down to overarching goals for everyone involved, communication, and trust.

“And recognizing the challenges we all go through, both professionally and personally,” Zoe said. “Then using that to have a shared understanding and a shared willingness – not just leading with trust – but building that relationship so it’s a solid trust foundation so you can have open and honest conversations.”

Genuine relationships mean people try to understand each other. There’s no empathy gap. They listen to each other and try to see the holistic picture.

Read next: Our checklist from experts: Building a team the right way

Having that kind of relationship helps teams collaborate openly and without fear of sharing their thoughts.

“As we build these human connections, they help us build partnerships,” Zoe said. “We just need everyone to bring their expertise to the table and do so openly, honestly, and positively.”

"It all comes down to that we are one team, we all want the same thing and are just approaching it from different ways."

Genuine relationships go beyond transactional.

Jenn Mancusi, CRO at Voxpopme and host of “Reel Talk,” added that genuine relationships could give teams a more holistic view of the landscape and move forward stronger and together.

“It’s really about mutual respect,” said Brian Monschein, insights expert on an episode of “Brian’s BRIght Ideas.”

The types of business relationships


Internally at a company, there are different types of relationships:

  • The immediate team
  • Broader and other teams
  • Stakeholders
  • Leaders
  • Other co-workers

“That’s just internal – so we have all these different groups and areas,” Zoe said. “And these are groups we should have relationships with.”


External relationships are relationships with external people and companies that help us do our job better and include:

  • Research partners
  • Technology partners
  • Agencies
  • Others

"It's important to stop and see how all these relationships help us understand our customer better."


And let’s not forget our relationship with our customers. We can’t do the best job possible if we don’t know or understand them. To build that long-term relationship with consumers, companies should try to delight customers. That happens through understanding what they need and then filling that need.

Read next: Customer health: How do you measure relationships with your customers?

How to build genuine relationships internally

Where in-house teams of insights professionals and marketers sit in a company can widely depend. Some marketing teams report to ops, others to sales, and some report directly to a marketing executive. For insights teams, it can look similar. Some report to the C-suite, and others might sit under a product team.

“It really shouldn’t make a difference because, at some point, we all want to understand our customers,” Zoe said. “We are all just in different parts of the journey.”

Focus on the people and making an effort to understand them goes a long way in building genuine relationships. Try to determine what other people’s needs are and where they are in their knowledge of the customer, Zoe said.

“I’m trying to get to know the other research groups here at Microsoft to understand what they know about our customer,” Zoe said. “They are looking at it from a different lens, but understanding that lens can be super helpful. So how can we use and re-use that information?”


That conversation can often start with a version of the question, “What do you know?”

“Everyone knows something that somebody else doesn’t know,” Jenn said. “Just asking that question and having that dialogue open can open some doors.”

But, also keep in mind that asking the right questions of stakeholders and customers can also be harder than it sounds, Zoe said. She gave the example of a mom asking her son:

“Should I put a banana in the lunch bag?”

“Yes,” said the son.

“Will you eat it?” the mom followed up.


Organizations and researchers face this all the time, Zoe said. Working with others with different viewpoints can help us understand what questions we should ask.

"Speaking to people with different lenses and different organizations can move things along."

How to build external relationships

“We rely on our external partners’ expertise and what they bring to the table,” Zoe said. “I just can’t say how important that is.”

Many teams can always need more help for specific tasks and expertise. Jenn explained that’s because insights are indefinite. There’s always something else to dive into, uncover, and use in decision-making.

“I’m looking to them to bring their perspectives, their smarts, and bring their expertise,” Zoe said. “It’s a shared success.”

She also recommends building external relationships around expertise gaps on the team.

“Like, I’ve got a reasonably good understanding of sampling,” Zoe said. “But not like somebody living and breathing that every day.”

Understanding each other

Quester’s SVP of Strategy, Brett Townsend, has worked on both sides – as a vendor and in-house – and it’s important to remember how everyone can help each other.

“I think at times there can be an us versus them mentality and that’s no matter what side you are on,” he said.  “Sometimes we are pitted against each other when we really shouldn’t be. That’s one thing I learned now being on both sides – the pressure on each side is real, but it’s just different. So it’s about understanding what those differences are.”

Brett said it’s good for agency people to understand how company works and what can and cannot be changed. And on the flip side, it’s also can be valuable for brand-side researchers to use the full potential of brainstorming with agency-side experts.

“They work with a lot of different clients,” Brett said about agency teams. “And they see a lot of different things. Corporate people can get tunnel vision.”

"It's just understanding that we are in this together." - Brett Townsend of Quester

Open communication

Brianna Boyer, director of enablement at AYTM, said on “Reel Talk” that external relationships come down to two things:

  • Honesty
  • Transparency

“And that’s from both sides,” she said. “It’s a quest to be vulnerable. And I know that can be really scary.”

Some clients don’t want to divulge everything they need or they may not even know, Brianna said.

“Sometimes you can come into a conversation, and then three weeks later it evolves because their needs are evolving,” Brianna said.

A good external partner listens to those requests with an open mind and sees what services or products they have – if any – can help.

“And be honest about ‘this is a really good fit for us’ or ‘this is a more challenging fit,'” Brianna said.

"Building trust by being open, honest and transparent is just really key."

Jenn said it’s important to think of external vendors as team members. They shouldn’t just be somebody doing a specific task but be a valued member of the process.

Evaluating the right relationships

Barry Jennings, director of cloud and commercial business planning insights at Microsoft and member of the Voxpopme advisory board, said on “Reel Talk” it’s also important to pick the right relationships.
“Another responsibility I hold is to keep that fresh and bring in new partners or techniques that make sense and to capitalize on and make what we are doing even better,” Barry said. “My goal is not to have five companies do all of our work, but we also need to look at new techniques and new thinking.”

Communication matters

Certainly, good partners need to understand the problem you are trying to solve. So they can help you with that. But, they also understand the limitations of what can be shared. Some proprietary information might not be able to be shared in some relationships, for example.

Consider a Non-Disclosure Agreement to share more information when that’s possible.

Being curious helps.

“Ask questions,” Brianna said. “Show that you are invested in their success.”

Certainly, not all information can be shared and Voxpopme’s Brian said there have been times he has been guarded. But sharing as much as possible can make the relationship better and help reach goals together.

Honesty is a good policy as well, he said. At some point, you’ll have to share negative news.

“Skirting around the truth is almost always going to hurt you,” Brian said. “Be proactive. Try to determine a solution when there’s a problem.


Why are genuine relationships complicated for some?

There are probably many reasons for specific people, but one might be time.

“One thing we are all short on is time,” she said. “And relationships and therefore the creation of partnerships takes time.”

It has to be thoughtful, Zoe said, especially with distributed and remote teams. It might feel weird, but consider reaching out to chat with people.

“Just put 25-minutes on the calendar and say, ‘I have no agenda. My agenda is to get to know you,'” Zoe said. “For some people, that can feel uncomfortable. But what can I learn from you? What synergies are there? We can all learn from each other and come together to create powerful outputs.”

Being vulnerable can also help us build relationships. At the same time, it can be challenging for people to be vulnerable – especially early in a relationship.

Brian said it also helps to work in different roles to understand others’ perspectives. He has worked on the brand and agency side in his career and said that experience has humbled him.

“I can empathize with the key objectives that my counterpart is working toward regardless of which side I was on,” Brian said. “At the end of the day, we are all here to do a job. Regardless of your role, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t treat each other with respect.”

Kyle Papanikolas, global Insights senior director at McDonald’s, said on “Reel Talk” that understanding other roles, processes, and what goes into creating good research all help make the research vendors or vendor products help with be better. And better research means better information to make better business decisions.

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