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Cannonball Jellies and Spider Crabs

Every once in a while I come across another phenomenon of nature that reminds me of how incredible our world is. Nearly always, these little tidbits have interesting applications to our business world as well.

This summer my family was on vacation in South Carolina, spending most of our time on the beach. One morning, there were a few cannonball jellyfish washed up on the beach. I surprised my kids when, first I picked one up (these jellies, which have a rather solid body that is well-formed in a spherical shape, don’t really sting humans) and second when I predicted that the jellie did not live alone.

Sure enough, when I picked up the jellyfish and turned it over, inside was a longnosed spider crab. It is pretty common that small crabs live inside these jellies. Why? Because they work together to make each other’s life better—the scientific name for this relationship is symbiosis. The jellyfish attracts and kills more food than it actually eats. This provides a rich source of food for the spider crab. The crab, by eating every little crumb it can find, helps the jellie to keep clean, enabling it to live a healthy life and attract more food. The crabs also protect the jellies from other sea creatures that happen by to feed off the jellie, and the crab is protected from its predators by living inside the jellyfish. Working together, both are better off.

Relationships with our customers should work the same way. Good relationships are mutually valuable. We benefit and they benefit. Working together, we should both be better off.

We generally know when we are receiving the right level of value from a customer relationship. We know whether we are enjoying the appropriate level of profitability (contribution to fixed costs, gross margin, customer profit…whatever we measure), share of wallet, growth rate and other financial measures that are pretty easy to measure. We also know if we are getting good referrals or references from the customer, and we have a good sense as to whether they are good partners for us. We usually measure how good of a partner they are by thinking about things like: Is this customer a good strategic fit? Are they easy to work with? Do they challenge us and work with us to co-create?

We should also be clear in terms of the value we are providing them. The best way to determine that is to ask them. Many companies sit down with their customers and interview them about the value they are receiving. Some do it in a very formal scorecarding exercise and others do it informally as part of executive visits. Another way to determine the value they are receiving is to determine how loyal they are. There is usually a strong relationship between customers’ perceptions of the value you are delivering and how loyal they are to you.

In the best relationships, there is not a winner and a loser. There is not a supplier and customer. There are partners. Cannonball jellies and spider crabs. Who’s driving that relationship? Who knows. They work together constantly for the good of them both. I think that’s a good lesson for all business relationships.

About the Author

Phil Bounsall

Phil Bounsall

As president at Walker, Bounsall is focused on the development and execution of strategies and operating plans designed to enhance Walker’s position as a global leader in customer intelligence. Bounsall also works with Walker’s client service teams to help meet the needs of Walker’s clients.

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