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5 Ways to Become an Invaluable Business Partner

Building strong business relationships is vital to the success of your business. Here's how to become the person your customers or partners can't do without.
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"Look man, you can listen to Jimi [Hendrix] but you can't hear him. There's a difference, man. Just because you're listening to him doesn't mean you're hearing him."--Sidney Deane, White Men Can't Jump 

"The very worst thing you can do is worry about yourself or try to impress me. I can't stand save-asses, and I won't abide kiss-asses."--Capt. Frank Ramsey, Crimson Tide 

We all have business relationships that are vital to our professional success. In our experience, we succeed with our clients when we hear and understand them. As advisors and thought partners, we have found that gaining buy-in to our ideas is as much about listening and reacting to our clients as it is about selling. Many people will really open up to a good listener.

But it takes work. How do you improve your listening skills? Here are five approaches that have worked well for us: 

1. Give your client the benefit of the doubt.

People reason and prioritize the way they do based on the sum total of their life experiences. Even when we believe they are wrong, we have to respect that they came by their point of view honestly. Only in rare cases have we concluded that a person is simply a bad actor with perverse motivations. At least 99% of businesspeople we have encountered are good, moral, reasonable people. If you agree, then your role is not to judge or condemn or write off a person, but work to understand where you disagree on facts, conclusions, priorities and incentives.

2. Role play to understand beliefs, motivations and challenges.

We often find it useful to put ourselves into our client's shoes. We try to speak in our client's voice and complete these sentences:

  • "I love my job because ..."
  • "Some days I hate my job because ..."
  • "I am energized by ..."
  • "I am frustrated by ..."
  • "I think the right path forward is X, because of (a specific set of facts and chain of logic)"

This requires us to "get inside the head" of our client and think through their beliefs, motivations and challenges.

3. Be open, honest and authentic.

As Gene Hackman's Capt. Ramsey so memorably said in Crimson Tide, the worst thing you can do is to worry about yourself or try to impress your client. People are very good at spotting inauthenticity. Be yourself, and put the focus on the other person. Again, your goal is to understand their perspective.

4. Trust your client as much as possible.

Take chances with your clients. Show them that you are extending trust to them and see how they react. If you are doubtful about this approach, try small levels of trust; we think you'll be pleasantly surprised. The trust can be personal. Talk about your family, your life experiences, your personal goals and interests. Show a degree of openness and vulnerability. See what resonates. We have discovered many shared personal interests with each of our clients, and most have responded to our openness with openness. You can gain valuable insight into people by listening to how they talk about those things.

5. The trust can also be professional. 

Some of the best conversations we have had with clients have started with the sentence, "I don't understand why X is true." We have never had a client from whom we could not learn valuable insights about their business. By showing our vulnerability and being willing to collaborate intellectually, we have built very strong relationships with key clients.

6. Provoke and challenge while remaining "on the team."

Our job is to push our client's thinking and make them better leaders. Your job is likely the same with your leaders and business partners. You cannot shirk your responsibility to provoke and challenge your client's thinking. However, you should always do so while making it clear that you and your client are on the same team. If your client knows that you are invested in their success, they will accept your challenges, because they will know you are trying to help them. Again, a good way to start the conversation is "Help me understand why X is true, because my naïve intuition says Y is true."

With these mindsets and techniques, you can become a better listener, and in doing so build valuable relationships with key business partners.

Are you a good listener? What is your "secret sauce"? Share your thoughts with us at karlandbill@avondalestrategicpartners.com.

Last updated: Aug 24, 2012

KARL STARK AND BILL STEWART | Columnist | Co-founders, Avondale

Karl Stark and Bill Stewart are managing directors and co-founders of Avondale, a strategic advisory firm focused on growing companies. Avondale, based in Chicago, is a high-growth company itself and is a two-time Inc. 500 honoree.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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