Whether you recognize it or not, all successful small businesses–regardless of what they do or sell–have one thing in common: their owners know how to build and maintain relationships. The truth is that entrepreneurs too often get caught up in the details of the kinds of products or services they are selling to notice how critical it is to build relationships not just with your customers, but also with your vendors, employees and–gasp–even your competitors. "Without strong relationships, it is impossible to have success as a business owner," says Michael Denisoff, who is the founder and CEO of Denisoff Consulting Group in Redondo Beach, California.
"You need to have long-term customers and good vendor relationships that will carry you through challenging times or tight deadlines, as well as relationships with other business owners to share struggles, resources and best practices that can really give you an edge. The reality is that business relationships are just like any other relationship. They require some effort to maintain and they must be mutually beneficial. As in any relationship, you must be willing to give, share and support, not just take or receive."
That's a lesson Denisoff admits he had to relearn the hard way when, a while ago, he fell into the trap of neglecting some of his business relationships. But it wasn't that he didn't care about those relationships. It's just that he got so busy that he didn't realize how much time had gone by where he had not checked in with several of his contacts–an easy mistake for most small business owners who feel like every day is shorter than the last. What Denisoff found was that, in two cases in particular, his failure to put enough effort into nurturing his relationships caused them to wither away.
The first instance was when he called up a supplier to ask for a favor–not realizing how much time had gone by from the last time he had touched base. Denisoff says his supplier seemed distant and not very willing to help him out, which was surprising. After asking him if anything was wrong, Denisoff's supplier answered that since Denisoff hadn't been around in a while, he felt like he was being taken advantage of. In another instance, he called up a customer who he could tell was not pleased with him because, in truth, he only called her when she had a project ready to go. She felt like Denisoff did not truly value her and was using her only for her business. It's like having a friend that only comes to see you when they want to borrow money or need help moving," he says. "In time, you cut them off."
The two eye-opening experiences caused Denisoff to take two major actions in response. First, he created a contact database where he not only stored information on his clients, but also with vendors and business peers. He now uses the database to document the details of the conversations–both personal and professional–that he has with each of his contacts. "This helps with continuity and helps me to remember key facts and information about each contact," he says. "It felt mechanical at first but it proved to be an efficient method to ensure that no one fell through the cracks." Secondly, Denisoff changed around his daily routine so that he now dedicates a portion of his day to doing nothing but reaching out and maintaining his professional and personal relationships. "Thankfully, I have strong long-term customers to keep the pipeline full and a good group of vendors and business peers dedicated to helping each other succeed," he says.
The actions taken by Denisoff are great tips for any business owner to adopt as their own. Here are some additional tips from Denisoff and other business owners on how to build stronger business relationships that will last.
How to Build Better Business Relationships: Encourage Honest Feedback
"An open, honest relationship demands clear communications of how each party is performing," says Patrick Scullin of Ames Scullin O'Haire, an Atlanta-based marketing services company. "Encourage constructive criticism and be brave enough to suggest ways clients can help your firm perform better," he says. "If you know where you stand, you can stand stronger."
How to Build Better Business Relationships: Listen More Than You Talk
"We all want to extol our strengths, our virtues in hopes of impressing others and, ultimately, getting more business," says Alisa Cohn, an executive coach. "It's counter-intuitive, but being a good listener highlights your virtues much better than being a big talker. I coach a financial planner and we did a little market research on what his clients value the most in him. Yes, they value his advice and his skills in handling the money, but a lot of financial planners have that. What sets him apart is that he takes the time to listen to them and really understand where his clients are coming from. They said most often that they value his role as a sounding board, and a few even called him better than a shrink! That's the kind of behavior that leads to referrals and long-term business success."
Dig Deeper: Listening With More Than Two Ears
How to Build Better Business Relationships: Make A Routine
Devise a system to ensure that not too much time passes before you connect with your contacts, such as the formal database Denisoff created. And with the proliferation of social media tools these days such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, it's never been easier to keep in touch.
How to Build Better Business Relationships: Be Honest
"As a small business owner, it's important that people see me as expert in my field," says Amy Harcourt of Definitive Marketing. "But, when asked questions I don't know how to answer, I always say so. I remember an initial meeting with what became one of my best clients. I was meeting with the executive team and was asked about my experience in their industry (of which I had none). I could have tried to spin my response to sound like I knew their industry. Instead, I told them that I had no experience and why that might work to their advantage. I was surprised to see stern, questioning faces turn to friendly nods and smiles. They really appreciated my honesty. And that laid the foundation for a great relationship."
How to Build Better Business Relationships: Take Notes
Keep detailed notes on everyone you meet, says Mike Scanlin, CEO of Born To Sell, a software company that makes investing tools. "When you get back to the office, enter those notes into your address book or contact system. Later, you will want to be able to enter keywords like 'sailing' or 'wireless' or 'French' and find all the people you know who match that keyword. Doing keyword mining on your own contacts will pay dividends for years."
How to Build Better Business Relationships: Give More than You Receive
Be sure to contact people when you are NOT in need of something. Take time to learn about their business since it's as important to them as your business to you. "Take a minute to understand your client's dreams and provide opportunities for them to fulfill this whenever possible," says Rohan Hall of rSiteZ.com, a company which builds social networking sites. "Whenever I have a client on the phone I try to understand what they're trying to achieve with their business. From time to time there will be an opportunity that I will actually refer them to someone that I think could help their business especially where I gain nothing from this. Clients really appreciate it when they realize that you're looking out for them."
Dig Deeper: How to Incorporate Philanthropy Into Your Business
How to Build Better Business Relationships: Be Proactive
Using your journal and knowledge of your relationships, forward articles, links and other information that might be of interest to your contacts. "When I see interesting news stories I forward them to people who I think would find them relevant," says Scanlin of Born to Sell. "I've had many recipients come up to me later and say things like, 'I can't believe you remembered that I wanted to go to Thailand.' It takes less than 30 minutes each morning to send out a handful of these. Do it every day and the care and feeding of your network will be alive and well."
How to Build Better Business Relationships: Be Real
"Do not be afraid to be vulnerable," says Amy Ludwigson of Pure Citizen, an organic clothing retailer. "Let people see who you are. It builds trust and respect. Being too professional is a bore and well you are not going to enjoy yourself."
Dig Deeper: When Do You Lie? Strategies For More Authentic, Respectful Communication
How to Build Better Business Relationships: Turn Blunders into Opportunities
Admitting mistakes and correcting missteps will take you far when it comes to building relationships, says William Gregory O, who is the co-founder of Lex Scripta, a law firm in Illinois. "Often times, people just want to know that you are sorry and that you have a plan for getting back on track," he says. When one of our service providers made a mistake, which resulted in our service being delayed for a week, the service provider responded immediately with an apology and a proposal for fixing the problem. Instead of looking for another service provider, we decided to work with this provider because we know that the provider is honest and diligent. When a mistake is more than a minor setback, do something to make it right or otherwise provide value to the wronged party."
How to Build Better Business Relationships: Make it Personal
Sometimes it is good to send an actual physical letter or card of appreciation as opposed to an e-mail. "Say 'Thank you," a lot," says Amy Blum, owner and president of Eagle Marketing. "I send notes to new clients thanking them for their business. I send e-mails of appreciation often, for no reason at all. And, I send great toffee during the holidays. Never forget who got you where you are. And never, ever think you can say thank you enough to clients, customers, colleagues and even vendors too."
Dig Deeper: How to Build Personal Relationships With Customers
How to Build Better Business Relationships: Meet Face-to-Face
Invite your contacts to an event (sporting, music, etc.) that you would both enjoy. You will naturally deepen the relationship and get to know each other better. You could also make plans to catch up at or join someone at a networking event. For some people, networking events are challenges and having at least one friendly face there can give them the confidence to network better. Plus, you will strengthen the relationship.