Academy for Chief Executives Blog Rotating Header Image

Are you Vulnerable Enough with your Customers?

– By Larry Reynolds

People buy from people. So the relationship you have with your customers is just as important as your product or service – more so in many cases. But are you taking the right approach to building relationships with your customers? In particular, are you being vulnerable enough?

Being vulnerable means sharing personal details – even if they don’t show you in the best possible light. Being vulnerable means admitting mistakes rather than trying to justify them. And being vulnerable means saying ‘I don’t know’ rather than bluffing your way through.

feb-02_240You probably already realise that a certain amount of vulnerability is essential to good relationships within your organisation. If you to try to act the perfect, all-knowing, infallible chief executive, you will very quickly lose the trust of your staff. Share appropriately, be humble when you need to and you’ll gain real authority. That’s why former Medtronic CEO and authentic leadership guru Bill George says, ‘The only kind of power I now recognise is the power of vulnerability.’

But can you take a similar approach with your customers? Here are three things to try.

Share more personal stuff with your customers

Sharing personal information is the foundation stone of building trust. A procurement manager for a large government department told me recently, “We spend a lot of money on IT and to be honest, there’s often not much to choose between systems when it comes to technical capability. I tend to make my decision on the basis of the vendor I can trust. And the ones I tend to trust are those that come across as human rather than those who come over as too slick.”

Obviously you can go too far here. Telling a prospective customer how unreasonable your ex-partner is being in your current divorce proceedings is probably too much information, too soon. But an appropriate level of disclosure makes you more likeable, more trustworthy, and frankly, more interesting. Perfection isn’t just unbelievable, it’s also a bit dull.

Say sorry when you mess up

My company spends a lot of money on conference and training venues, and there’s one particular city centre location that gets a lot of our business. A few months ago I arrived at about midday, ready to deliver a training course that was beginning that afternoon. The venue’s restaurant had just begun to serve lunch and I asked if it was OK for me to grab a plate.

“I’m sorry”, the receptionist told me, “but as your room hire doesn’t include lunch, I’ll have to say no.”

“It’s only me,” I said, “and we do put an awful lot of business your way”.

She wouldn’t budge, so I gave up and walked across the street to grab a sandwich from Pret A Manger. Ironically the course I was about to deliver was on influencing skills. My influencing skills obviously weren’t so great when it came to wangling a free lunch.

Imagine my surprise when I got a call from the venue the following day.

“I’m ringing to apologise”, the venue manager told me. “We made a mistake yesterday. From now on, come and have lunch on us any time you’re in the area.”

My commitment to that venue is now far stronger than it would have been if I’d simply been given a free lunch in the first place. Dealing well with a disgruntled customer, saying sorry in the right way, is often more powerful at building customer loyalty than simply getting it right to begin with.

Admit it when you don’t know

When logistics giant Fed Ex was asked to arrange a delivery of sensitive medical items, including live organ tissue, it was tempted to say yes, despite its lack of expertise in this area. Instead it said to the hospital group, “Sorry, we really don’t know how to do this – but we’d love to work with you to find out a way.”

Working closely with your customers to develop new products and services is often called co-creation. It works not only because it’s a great source of innovative products and services, but because the process itself builds customer loyalty. But only if you are willing to admit that you don’t have all the answers in the first place.

So what about you? Do you share enough personal stuff with customers to build a strong relationship? When you do make a mistake, do you apologise in a way that enhances loyalty? Where are the opportunities in your business to admit to your customers that you don’t know, but that you’d like to work with them to find out the answer?

Can this approach deliver results in a tough economic climate? Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh created an online shoe retailer worth $1.2 billion in less than ten years, with a corporate culture of humility (amongst other things). So if your business isn’t yet as valuable as Zappos, maybe a bit more humility and a bit more vulnerability would work for you too.


Larry ReynoldsLarry Reynolds is managing partner of 21st Century Leader, a company that helps authentic leaders to have more courageous conversations. Recent clients include Next, Tetra Pak, NHS trusts and universities.

More at:


Image from

Leave a Reply