One of the specialty offerings of my firm is the advanced coaching and consulting we offer to companies, business leaders and their teams around the concept of maximizing business relationships and optimizing client engagement. This is a vast area of study and I could fill a book (coming in late 2018!) with the various approaches and proven best practices I have found to be most helpful for my business clients. One of the biggest areas of interest for my clients is their desire for the essential tactics and simple engagement approaches that are critical for building effective business relationships both inside and outside their organizations.
Nothing gets better simply because we wish it and this certainly applies to how we approach relationships in the business world. There are no magic answers and few shortcuts to being great at relationship building. Improvement takes hard work, self-discipline, intentionality and commitment. It takes a willingness to change old habits and develop new approaches. Also, it takes the recognition that sometimes focusing on the basics and embracing simplicity often work best.
Here are ten essential tactics I have found to be the most consistently helpful in successfully forging effective business relationships over my career:
- Embrace Your Personality Style. I have known for decades that I am a high-functioning introvert. Instead of following conventional wisdom and attending countless anxiety-producing networking events, I have long pursued a one-on-one approach to meeting new people as well as my existing network over coffee or lunch where I am more comfortable. I also try to end my meetings by 3:30 pm each day and get back to my home office to write, catch up on administrative work and find the alone time I need each day before engaging with my family.
- Leverage LinkedIn. I have a simple rule. Everyone I encounter in person or by phone receives an invitation (always with a personal note providing context) to join my LinkedIn network within 24 hours of contact. This self-discipline helps me continuously add to my network with business professionals I encounter. LinkedIn provides a well-organized and convenient way to keep track of your network and provides easy access to their background information. The LinkedIn app is especially helpful when you need quick access to background information on someone you are meeting.
- Nurture the Network. Nurture existing relationships at the same time we are expanding new ones. Much like a garden, healthy relationships must be maintained and it takes work. The worst thing we can do is reach out to someone in our hour of need and realize that we failed to maintain the relationship. I keep an Excel spreadsheet with every client, prospect and business friend alphabetically listed with contact information and a section for notes. This helps me keep track of my large network, stay on top of required follow up and future meetings I need to schedule,
- Put Everything on the Calendar. Everything important in our lives is likely scheduled, right? Why not treat our approach to business relationships the same way? All of my meetings, reminders about the topics of upcoming discussions, follow-up items, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. are all part of my calendar. For more advice on managing your calendar, check out my recent post: Living Life in Real Time.
- Re-think How You Spend Your Time. If you see little time for building business relationships on your busy calendar, let me challenge you a bit. There are five opportunities a week for coffee/breakfast, five a week for lunch and five for dinner. Start utilizing at least three or four of these 15 opportunities each week to meet with someone new (or nurture an existing business relationship). You have to eat, so why not spend this time with another professional and accomplish two objectives during this time?
- Make it Easy for Them (Not You). If we are in “exploring” mode with a new business contact, make the meeting time and venue as convenient as humanly possible for them and they are more likely to attend. This may mean before work, lunch or after work. In my experience, early coffee near their office is almost always the most convenient time/place. Our convenience is not as important as theirs in the early phases of relationship building.
- Embrace the Basics. Always be courteous. Always be grateful. Acknowledge to the other person that you know they are investing valuable time in meeting you and it is appreciated. The basics always work and this is as basic as it gets! Follow up in a timely manner with a thank you note (an email is ok, but not as memorable).
- Focus on Relationships, not Acquaintances. Meeting someone only once at best makes them an acquaintance, not a relationship. This is one of the reasons I cringe at the thought of collecting 50 business cards at networking events. You have to invest energy and thought into having multiple meetings with someone which you both see as beneficial. My advice at the end of this post will provide helpful insights for achieving this objective.
- Be Personal. Meeting someone for the first time? Not sure what to say? Do you desire a meaningful conversation about real issues and not the usual surface or politically correct dialogue? Be transparent first. Get personal (with discernment). Be authentic. If we desire someone to open up to us, we should be open about our lives first. In effect, this gives the other person “permission” to be open about topics outside of work if we take the first step in sharing.
- Always Make Deposits. I encourage my clients to view their networks of business people as a “relationship economy”. In this economy, we should be consistently offering to help and investing (making deposits) in the people in our business network. A day will come when we may be in need of help, a favor or maybe just a listening ear and we will have an easier time making a “withdrawal” if we have been making deposits along the way.
A Simple Three-Step Approach to Engagement
My first and greatest mentor in life was (and is) my father Steve. He was a master of building business relationships and was well-respected and trusted by all who knew him throughout his long career. I remember well the advice he gave me 30 years ago, soon after I graduated from UGA and was about to begin my career. He told me to think about three basic approaches when I was encountering new professionals as I began my first post-college job:
- Be helpful/Serve their needs
- Be sincerely curious
- Always add value
It took me a few years to fully grasp the importance of what he told me, but his sage advice is at the core of how I have approached my relationships over the course of my career. Here is what my father’s simple wisdom has come to mean to me today.
“Be helpful/Serve their needs”
My father’s first tip was to approach everyone with a servant’s heart. My parents were servant leaders throughout their lives, so I was fortunate to have this behavior modeled for me from a very young age. Make our efforts about sincerely helping others and serving their needs and we will find relationship building to be a worthwhile, fulfilling experience that will ultimately come back to us in positive and unexpected ways. When it is all about us and our needs, people see through that and our attempts at relationship building can become a miserable, laborious experience on many levels. Sincerely ask, “Is there anything I can do to help you?” OR Simply do something for them out of our generosity with no expectation of return. As my father used to say, “Always make it about them, not about you.”
“Be sincerely curious”
My father’s second tip stemmed from his understanding that I was going to meet a lot of senior business people and I might feel intimidated and nervous. He encouraged me to be genuinely curious about others as a helpful way to counter my lack of experience and my misguided view that I needed to have all the answers. As I reflect back over the last three decades, I have learned that people find us more interesting when we ask them questions. They appreciate the humility of us genuinely wishing to learn something new or just our desire to know them better. Stuck on knowing the perfect thing to say? Ask questions. Want to impress a client, new friend or colleague and learn important information about them? Ask questions. Being curious takes the pressure off and stimulates a more engaging and balanced conversation. We would all be well served to embrace humility, do less telling and more asking.
“Always add value”
His final tip was a little difficult for me to understand at 21 and it took me a few years to finally get it. He encouraged me to always approach every meeting with the mindset that I owned the responsibility for the other person to feel the meeting was well worth their time. He encouraged me to find ways to add value to every conversation or meeting. Today, this concept of adding value for the people I meet takes many forms: being a good listener, offering helpful advice, making a connection to someone in my network, giving the gift of a book or following up with a helpful article related to our conversation are some of the many examples of adding value I try to practice. This particular tip, when practiced well and in conjunction with the other ideas my father shared, almost always generates numerous follow up meetings that lead to strong relationships and even close friendships.
This simple approach to engagement and the “essential tactics” I shared earlier in the post have proven to be invaluable in my desire to build authentic business relationships. These concepts work well with internal company relationships as well as those outside your organization. Don’t over complicate or add unnecessary layers to relationship building. Develop a simple and actionable approach that works for you. Just be yourself, be helpful, be curious and add value while utilizing the tactics I have shared.
You can do it.
Randy Hain is the president of Serviam Partners (www.ServiamPartners.com), an executive coach, speaker, leadership consultant, thought leader on business relationships and the award-winning author of seven books.