We cut short communication with customers and suppliers to our own detriment.

Regrettably in my case, there are constant reminders that time marches on. Of those, possibly the one most difficult to come to grips with is the notion that our contemporary, highly digital world doesn’t define “relationship” the way it used to.

My parents’ generation would speak of how a “handshake was as good as a contract” and “a man’s (I know, not the politically correct word choice in today’s world) word was his bond.” Memories sometimes put a rose-colored hue on our experiences, and I am not sure today’s banks are nearly as secure as they once were, but as recently as early in my working career – the disco-crazed 1970s – a lot of key business decisions were made simply on a handshake or someone’s word.

Nothing changes like time, culture and technology. Long gone are the storied “two martini” business lunches. In fact, when they went the way of the rotary phone, it seems all business lunches went away as well. Today, face-time with any business client is extremely difficult to arrange and, regrettably, the absence has had its negative impact on “relationships.”

Ditto for phone time. For years, a typical customer service or sales person would spend so much time on the phone with clients, they were jokingly referred to as having “cauliflower ear” (or is that phrase yet another way I'm showing my age?). The ongoing, constant chatter between people – most business but also much social – helped build strong relationships.

This brings us to communication in the new millenium. The phone savvy businessperson’s cauliflower ears are long gone. So is the bonding that takes place while breaking bread during lunch. Email – at least for now – is the communication vehicle of choice and – OMG, lol, ttyl – it may well be texting that takes over in the near future as the quickest way to send a message.

But with all these advancements in communication, and as society finds even more ways to fill our time with so much more that needs to be done, what is really happening to relationships – and more to the point, does it matter? Maybe I’m old, but I think it does matter, and I don’t like the direction business relationships are headed.

As communication becomes truncated, so does the understanding and commitment between two persons – and two companies. All business is basically an interpersonal relationship. As people drift apart or no longer can even bond in the first place, mutual understanding, commitment and trust all too often fall by the wayside. Life does not always go well. Problems crop up, and that’s when the value of true relationships is fully realized – or sorely missed.

And when problems do crop up, that lack of a solid relationship – be it with a supplier, customer or employee – becomes a self-fulfilling confirmation that accelerates what could be a shortsighted misunderstanding into time to cut bait. As an old guy, I can tell you that 90% of the time, that is exactly what you do not want to have happen. Replacing a longstanding relationship with a new, untested one, just because no one took the effort to know the other individual and try to make things work, results only in an even weaker relationship.

That is what is most frustrating. Everyone has customers or suppliers that have problems – some self-inflicted, some accidental. And in every case, what is needed to quickly and effectively resolve those problems is the ability to rely on a reliable and understanding supplier, customer or employee “relationship” for help. Yet more often than not, that same customer will pull an order for a nickel, or supplier will raise prices with no warning, or employee will refuse to stay late when needed, or company will hire and fire to save 20 cents per hour, all causing the relationship support base to degrade or cease working altogether.

A relationship calls for more. It calls for actually knowing whom you are relying on, and valuing their expertise. Relationship means mutual respect: taking the good with the bad and rewarding a job well done while also, in a non-punitive way, communicating when pricing (or service or whatever) needs to be a tad better. Once, such commitment was the business norm. Today, it seems many are slipping into a transaction-only environment where much is lost when the chips are down. If we do not reground ourselves on supporting our customers, suppliers, employees and employers when they are most in need, as well as when the sailing is smooth, I fear that making headway as individual companies or as an economy will founder.

Being an aging optimist, I sometimes think that it’s possible the next-generation is reinventing relationship in a new, thumb-texting way. I tend to doubt it, however. The latest technology may make it faster to communicate and provide data, but that’s an inadequate substitute for knowing who is on the other end of the tweet or hearing the inflection of a happy – or angry – customer. Only when you understand those nuances, and know how to navigate them, does a relationship really take hold.

That relationship does not mean what it once did is in itself not necessarily bad, provided it is becoming more meaningful. In a world where ever-escalating levels of technology demand more from the supply chain, don’t we need to really understand what our customers and suppliers need, when and for how much? And isn’t it this where a seasoned, well-trained workforce may gain a competitive advantage?

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; His column appears monthly.

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