All businesses — regardless of industry or whether it’s a business-to-business or sells directly to consumers — rely on relationships. Future business and the overall viability of any small business is reliant on preserving, nurturing and expanding relationships — both with customers and influential individuals within and outside of an entrepreneur’s industry.
“Relationship building, I call it a balance sheet activity,” says Andrew Sobel, a leading authority on the strategies to grow business relationships and author of Power Relationships: 26 Irrefutable Laws for Building Extraordinary Relationships. “It’s key to build your relationship before you actually need it, especially for entrepreneurs.” Sobel offers the following advice for entrepreneurs looking to harness the power of strong relationships.
Build a list of key relationships you want to develop. Sobel recommends 15 to 20 key relationships an entrepreneur needs to build to support the growth of their business across different categories. Current and prospective customer relationships are obviously important, but colleagues could be another. Then there are collaborators. “As a small business or as an entrepreneur sometimes you collaborate with other kinds of companies,” Sobel says. “An accountant could be a collaborator, a banker could be a collaborator, a law firm could be a collaborator. It’s just the way if you’re a general practitioner doctor or internist you work with other specialists.”
Know who the catalysts are. Sobel explains that catalysts are people who you don’t sell to directly but they can introduce you to people and can make deals happen. It could be someone who just sits on a board of directors, a broker or a banker. “They’re different than collaborators because collaborators really might actively work with you in serving your customer, they might refer you customers and vice versa,”he says. “You need to get introduced to a key individual and they can do it because they have a big network. So, most of us only have one or two or three catalysts but they’re very important people.”
Prioritize the relationships. “You can’t just say ‘I’m just going to go out and build tons of relationships,” Sobel contends. The next step is to figure out what is on the agenda of the people on your list. It starts with building rapport and then understanding their agenda — what are they trying to accomplish in their business? “If I can frame what I do in the context of your bigger picture goals, then I’m going to be a valuable partner to you.”
Stay in touch. This could come in the form of a tweet of a link to an article of interest or an occasional lunch. “Also make sure you get good at asking people good questions,” Sobel suggests. “I have found that when you are able to frame some thought provoking questions for someone, it is much more memorable than you being smart and charming and always having a ready answer.”
The key is to build a reputation for yourself as someone who asks really interesting, thought provoking questions and is a great listener.