Relational Intelligence on the Frontlines: How to Develop Great Partnerships with Your Customers

By Dr. Adam C. Bandelli – Founder & Managing Director of Bandelli & Associates and author of RELATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: THE FIVE ESSENTIAL SKILLS YOU NEED TO BUILD LIFE-CHANGING RELATIONSHIPS

Sir Richard Branson, the legendary entrepreneur and business leader once said, “look after your staff and they will take care of your customers. In a year when we are coming out of a global pandemic and reuniting with our people and teams face-to-face – in many instances for the first time – Branson’s quote resonates now more than ever. Frontline employees are often the face of the business. They are the ones with the greatest impact on customers, representing a company’s brand and the products and services that are sold.

If frontline employees are to be successful in driving a business forward, they must learn many different skills. Not only must they understand the mission and vision of the organization, but they must know the values and principles upon which it is built. They need a deep understanding of products and customer service offerings, and must be bold and ambitious to drive the business forward to help achieve financial profitability. Most importantly, they need to build great relationships with customers – the types of partnerships that generate repeat business and create word-of-mouth buzz. To do this, frontline line leaders and their employees need to learn and practice what I call relational intelligence. 

Relational intelligence is the ability to successfully connect with people and build strong, long-lasting relationships. Our research at Bandelli & Associates has found that when frontline employees are intentional about building great relationships with their customers, many productive outcomes result. Employees who consistently practice relational intelligence have more satisfied customers and repeat business. Moreover, when frontline employees develop trust with their customers, word-of-mouth referrals increases. The bottom line grows when customers know that they matter – that is, when employees value not only their business but the relationships they form with them as well. 

So, what are the five essential skills of relational intelligence and how can you put them into practice with your customers?

  1. Establishing Rapport: This skill focuses on the initial stages of communication between your employees and their customers. It’s the ability to create an initial positive connection with people. There are many factors that come into play when establishing rapport. Making a good first impression matters. The words you use and “how” you use them can draw customers in or push them away. This means not only asking questions and listening but using eye contact and nonverbal behaviors to show a genuine interest in what customers are saying. You cannot progress to further stages of developing lasting relationships with people if you don’t take time to find common ground and establish rapport.
  1. Understanding Others: This skill is about putting in the time and effort needed to get to know your customers on a deep level. It’s about using emotional intelligence to understand your own feelings and the emotions of others. It’s also about being a good active listener. Relationally intelligent employees ask probing questions to learn about the background, history, and experiences of the customers they serve. They are empathetic and can put themselves in other peoples’ shoes. Understanding others does not happen overnight. It is an ever-evolving process that must take place over time. The investment you make during the early stages of a relationship sets the foundation for retaining lifelong customers. 
  1. Embracing Individual Differences: This skill is about acknowledging and accepting that everyone comes from different backgrounds and experiences. This means having a favorable reception towards customers who think, act, and behave differently than you do. It’s about appreciating and embracing diversity – whether in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. Moreover, it involves understanding that cross-cultural differences and spirituality/religion impact how you interact with the world. It’s about showing people common decency and treating others the way you want to be treated. Relationally intelligent frontline employees know how to tap into these differences to create stronger partnerships with their customers. 
  1. Developing Trust: This is the most important relational intelligence skill in any employee-customer relationship. The customer’s trust must be earned. You demonstrate trustworthiness by showing competence, honoring commitments, and consistently exceeding customer expectations. Once trust is developed, customers let their guards down and open up more. To sustain trust over time, employees must continually nurture their customer relationships. Deposits into the bank account of trust must be made on a regular basis. Withdrawals can have a negative effect on the relationship. If you break trust with a customer, you will lose their business.
  1. Cultivating Influence: This is the most powerful skill of relational intelligence. It is the ability to have a positive impact on the lives of others. It’s about always putting your customers first – not about trying to get the sale or win the business. Do you genuinely care about improving the quality of your customer’s life regardless of the product or service that you sell? Do you value the relationship enough to do what’s in their best interest and not your own? Can you think beyond this sale to the one that could take place a year from now if you invest further in developing the relationship? Great relationally intelligent frontline employees are strategic in their customer relationships. They do not sacrifice tomorrow, or the quality of the customer relationship, to get a quick sale for their monthly quota. However, the funny thing is, if you can think strategically while investing in strengthening the relationship today, you will hit your monthly quotas. In fact, you’ll cultivate customer relationships that can span a lifetime. 

Great frontline employees don’t just sell products and deliver services, they create an experience for their customers by using relational intelligence. This is the defining factor that makes great employee-customer relationships work. If your people are intentional in how they build relationships with your customers, your business with thrive and grow. 

Adam C. Bandelli, PhD, is the Managing Director of Bandelli & Associates, a boutique consulting firm focusing on leadership advisory services and organizational effectiveness. He is the author of the book Relational Intelligence: The Five Essential Skills You Need to Build Life-Changing Relationships, which will be available everywhere books are sold in May. Follow Dr. Bandelli on Instagram at @official_bandelliassociates to learn more. You can also visit the firm’s website at for information on other leadership topics and to learn about their consulting services.

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