At the beginning of the pandemic, I reached out to lots of my clients and business relationships. Not to try to sell or collaborate with them, but just to talk. I wanted to connect and see what they were doing, what they were seeing, and how they were handling the pandemic.

One commonality I noticed was that they were cutting left, right, and center. From travel expenses to shrinking the ad budget, defensive cuts were on the table. I don't know about you, but I believe that you can't cut a flower and expect it to grow. I started to notice that these clients were thinking about defensive cuts instead of offensive investments. They weren't making strategic investments that would support them through the long haul, pandemic or not. This is a big red flag for me. It indicates that they have weak relationships around them that are worth cutting instead of surrounding themselves only with valuable players.

That is one out of a number of warning signs that your work relationships are frail. When reviewing your business relationships, I have found that there are essential items that you can check off to ensure that your contacts are strategic, valuable, and sustainable.

Seek Transformational, Not Transactional

Returning to the idea of defensive cuts, you begin to see what is essential when you start eliminating. To avoid the painful decision-making around reductions, it's more efficient to prioritize necessary and strategic investments from the get-go. This helps create transformational opportunities. You and your business should be prudent investments and aligning with strategic thought partners, not transactional vendors. When a relationship is transactional, it doesn't invest in the future success of either side.

How Deep and Wide Is Your Relationship? 

When we form relationships, we want them to expand over time, either in the personal or professional sphere. Those relationships are expanded in a B2B space when multiple projects are co-created throughout the year. One of the signs that your relationship is strengthening is if you are consistently involved with upcoming or redesigned products and services. Or your client is making new introductions or recommendations to others based around your set of expertise or vice versa. If those moves aren't happening, then the relationship is static or in trouble.

Is Your Relationship a Bow Tie or Shoelaces?

When you are initially brought into a new relationship with a company, you have one connection. That relationship looks like a bow tie, two triangles knotted together in the middle. But if that executive or contact leaves, the link to the broader company is severed. If we are going for a clothing metaphor, the relationship you should be striving for looks more like shoelaces: two threads intentionally woven together. The shoe is still held together if one cord is severed. You should be providing such good value that your initial connection incorporates you in with other people in the company. Your aim is to know multiple people in the corporation, not just one. That indicates they want you to be more involved and understand the company at large, not to serve only one purpose.

Are Connections Enthusiastically Engaged? Or Zoning Out? 

In either our personal or professional world, we prioritize the relationships that mean the most to us. We often forget or deprioritize responding to the connections that don't mean as much to us. If people aren't reaching out to you or aren't responding to your messages, your perceived value is no longer a priority. They are indifferent, and you have lost their interest. This disinterest can be avoided if you proactively touch base throughout the year, even if you aren't scheduled to work on anything together.

Is There Mutual Learning and Growth? 

Relationships are like plants. If you put the plant in a dark corner and ignore it for six months, it will probably wither and lose a ton of leaves. Plants need nurturing. Both parties need to tend to their relationship, give it sunlight, weed it, and water it, and mutually reap the benefits of the bounty. When you are both growing, tending, and learning together, you develop a harmonious, robust garden that can weather any storm and grow amazing new varieties of plants.

This list is just half of what I usually use to assess my clients' business relationships and my own. At a time when people are frugal with their money, help them recognize the gains of investing in a relationship that costs nothing (for now).