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Our everyday lives often teach us important lessons for business. One of these lessons struck me recently as I was lost in a series of wandering thoughts that included the approaching holidays. As I have grown older, the excitement of giving and receiving gifts has become steadily less important to me as a part of the Christmas holiday. This change in attitude has taken place over a number of years for a variety of reasons that aren’t important to this topic, but one thing jumped out at me: receiving gifts (or anything for that matter) is not as meaningful when they are expected. This is not limited to the current holiday season as it applies to birthdays, Valentine’s Day, anniversaries…any event with a socially accepted expectation. That is not to say an expected gift can’t be exciting, as I’m sure we all have stories about that gift we knew was coming (birthday, graduation, Christmas, etc.), and we nearly burst with anticipation. But everyone also has a story or two of that gift or surprise that he or she did not expect, and I’d bet those stories are much more memorable. There is a reason for this: predictability and expectations can make our actions seem less meaningful. Ask any married couple about this phenomenon and you will likely get solid anecdotal evidence to prove my point. Flowers on a birthday are wonderful, but what about flowers on a random Tuesday just because she was on her man’s mind? A card for a birthday is awesome, but what about a card wishing us well just because? Think about your friends and colleagues for a moment.  A call to say hello around a holiday is enjoyable, but what about a phone call out of the blue?

Technology makes it easier for us to be more predictable than ever.

Today’s technology has made applying this concept incredibly easy – Facebook reminds us of birthdays and we can instantly post a message on a friend’s wall, while email makes it quite convenient to drop a line to someone we haven’t seen in recent weeks (months, years?). The interesting thing about technology is that we begin to devalue it over time. A Facebook message when Facebook reminds someone is still nice, but think of how much better it feels to get a completely unprompted message from someone you haven’t seen in a while. Why is this? Predictability and expectations. Technology makes it easier for us to more predictable than ever. Technology makes communicating faster and simplified, yet we are busier than ever because we now have exponentially more people to send the same predictable and expected interactions.

“Thinking about” is profoundly different than “not forgetting”

At this point, I hope you can already see how this phenomenon of valuing the unexpected is relevant to your business. Your customers and clients want to know that you care about them (not just their dollars). How do you show them that you are thinking of them and that they are important? Is it just at the expected times like trade shows, monthly newsletters, and when their contract needs renewal? Those are all nice, and they show that you haven’t forgotten about your customers, but is that the message you want to send? I contend that “thinking about” is profoundly different than “not forgetting” someone. If you don’t believe me, ask around. Try a little experiment sometime – try sending flowers to your mother a month before Mother’s Day just because you care. Compare the importance of that act with the typical Mother’s Day flowers a month later. Sure, she’ll like the Mother’s Day gift, but it the unprompted gift will be more meaningful. If efficiency is the key to business, why wouldn’t it make sense to show your clients they matter in a more meaningful way when it takes the same amount of effort on your part??

Organization makes it all possible

I know how life can be when a hectic workday rushes by before you even know what happened. How are we supposed to actively think about the people that matter when we the work day already seems pitifully short? Organization is key, and here is one way to make it work:

1. Get started. Begin a list of clients, customers, vendors, employees, contractors, or anyone else that is important to your business

2. Prioritize. Organize your list in whatever way is meaningful to you.

3. Create the baseline. List the important, expected touches (birthdays, contract dates, holidays, relevant industry events, etc.) that you already use.

4. Be Aware. Always be looking for unique and unexpected touches (children’s birthdays, anniversaries, monitor favorite athletic teams, learn about hobbies, etc.) that will strengthen the relationship.

5. Make it a habit. Make an agenda at the beginning of each week. Set aside a few minutes each day for reaching out to the people on your list.  High priority relationships may need more frequent contact than others. Some people may only be on your radar a few times a year, while others are a few times each month.  Figure out what is ideal for your situation – every day or a couple times per week, quick hellos or meaningful conversations, 15 minutes or one hour.Every business has different relationships on different levels, but if we can’t even set aside 15 minutes each day, how important are our relationships after all?

6. Review and revise. Let this process serve as a reminder to keep your relationships top-of-mind. That is the key. Don’t let it run your life or become rigid because then you’ll be right back in the same place you were before – expected and predictable.