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September 16, 2007

Relational Maintenance

Much talk goes on about how brands can attract new business, or how to “save” brands when things go wrong. In truth, these are real concerns. But what do we do when things go well? Do we stick to the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” Perhaps, but in a relationship both parties must actively behave in ways to maintain the relationship. Relationship scientists have termed this behavior “relational maintenance,” which is broadly defined as individuals keeping a relationship in existence and maintaining the relationship’s current state or condition (see Dindia & Emmers-Sommer, 2006).

Identified strategies to maintain relationships include: “positivity” – having pleasant and cheerful interactions; “openness” – direct, open communication; “assurances” – implicitly and explicitly reassuring the other about the future of the relationship; and, “sharing tasks” – shockingly, this refers to actually doing things together. Again, we know from 16 years of relational maintenance research that these behaviors are ingredients for healthy, lasting relationships.


So why don’t companies use a “relational maintenance” framework? Imagine an organization where the focus was to ensure positivity with people in all interactions, from the store, to the phone, to advertising. Imagine the organization whose priority it was to assure individuals of their lasting relationship – e.g., that they would not unexpectedly go “belly up.” This company would also be open and forthright in communication, and will actually figure out ways to spend quality time with people.

If an organization made decisions using relational a maintenance framework to guide behavior, their relationships would be life-long relationships. I also propose that companies actually TELL people that this is their framework (openness). Doing things in a relationship that you think will help the relationship works a lot better when both parties are aware of why each is acting a certain way.

The fact is that relational maintenance does not just keep the relationship from “going south,” but it actually helps deepen one another’s commitment to the relationship. Companies that lose business do so by making poor choices, but they also do so by not actively maintaining those relationships that are already good.

By Michael Reiter


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