While on a river cruise in Eastern Europe, I found it fascinating to stand on the upper deck and watch the ship maneuver through a series of locks both up- and downriver.
Along with other passengers leaning with our arms on the rail, we watched the ship squeeze into locks with barely a foot to spare. Slowly we rode the rising water as we gained as much as 80 feet before we were cruising again. After we reached the continental shelf and began sailing downstream, some of the larger locks were able to accommodate multiple ships, including our cruise vessel, a cargo barge, recreational watercraft and four 10-man canoes bringing up the rear. Initially, each lock was a fresh adventure as we watched our captain navigate its challenges. After awhile, we began to take the crew’s sailing skills for granted and sat back and enjoyed the ride.
Just as the ups and downs of the river had to be navigated on my cruising vacation, you may frequently find yourself navigating the ups and downs, challenges and opportunities that go with business relationships. While we all recognize numerous elements contribute to success, one of the most important — yet sometimes tenuous, easy to forget, and even easier to take for granted — is your relationships. When it comes to relationships, the greater your reach, the greater your results. As you create, manage and extend your relationships, you also extend your influence and grow your success.
Think you are already doing this? Belly up to the management bar, and let’s set the bar even higher. Relationship management can always use enrichment, and now is a terrific time to energize your efforts in this area.
People do business with people they like. We all know this, but as a manager, are you consistently nurturing business relationships? “Not a problem for me,” you might say. OK, be honest. You’ve been guilty of being inattentive to relationships. We all have. Sometimes we just sit back and enjoy the ride, like I did on my cruise. Let’s look at ways to keep valued relationships strong and resilient, along with reminders for navigating different relationships in a positive manner. I like to think of relationship management as having four components: initiate, grow, maintain and discontinue.
Initiate: To initiate or create a relationship, mutual interest and value must be present. Likewise, for a relationship to continue, an ongoing exchange of value is included in the program. In short, a desirable balance of what you can do for me and I can do for you. You build relationships with an initial exchange that sets the stage for them to grow or discontinue if no longer needed. Key tip: Always initiate new relationships as if they have long-term potential. Why? Your congenial and fair-minded approach will serve you well even if you never interact with that party again. You never know when your business style leaves a positive or negative buzz that is passed to others in a way that helps or hurts you. Build relationships every day with this in mind and conclude interactions on a value-based, positive note whenever possible. Opportunities to initiate relationships are everywhere. Join a trade association, an industry networking or mastermind group, and attend their meetings, conferences or trade shows. Pick up the phone, send a brochure, e-mail and connect with current or potential customers and partners, let them know who you are and what you bring to the table. And, yes, all your marketing efforts fall into this area as well. Remember to actively initiate relationships on at least a monthly basis and keep calendar reminders to make it happen.
Grow: Once relationships are initiated, how you grow or maintain them is where the meat is stacked in the rapport sandwich. To put it another way, do you serve up your approach to grow relationships with beef, chicken, baloney or maybe a little bit of bull? Consistency, integrity and honesty will generate the meat in your relationships, along with the rapport that develops and the direction they take. How do you grow and maintain your business connections? With customers, your service reminders, follow-up, thank you, and promotions come into play. That’s growing the bond and rapport. Your relationships need to grow with partners and suppliers on a consistent basis, too. Pay them on time; keep your commitments. If you’re running late, give them a courtesy call. Also consider growing relationships and staying in touch with like-minded professionals via the Internet through virtual networking sites like LinkedIn or Plaxo.
Maintain: If you aren’t growing a relationship through active phone, e-mail or face-to-face contact, then you are probably maintaining the connection on an as-needed basis. That’s OK, too. For those relationships that are being maintained only when needed, make sure interactions are positive even though they are infrequent. For the relationships you want to continue to develop, active exchange and listening is required. Yup, you heard it right — listening. A fast and insincere “How ya doin?” isn’t enough to beef up rapport. Make valued relationship management something you do once a week — lunch, coffee, e-mail — some kind of rotating interaction with a few contacts that are part of your valued network that’s worth keeping. I deliberately try to do this once a week and it’s well worth it. Make these interactions meaningful as you listen, and give and receive updates, tips and information. This keeps your business visibility bright and the relationship energy flowing.
Discontinue: A variety of circumstances and market factors may require relationships to be discontinued. In some cases, intermittent interactions will simply fade and others may need to be more deliberately concluded. You also know it’s a dynamic environment and the universe has a way of boomeranging and rekindling old relationships months or years later. For this and other obvious reasons, always discontinue relationships with the utmost professionalism. Think this takes mustering some moxie from time to time? You bet it does. It’s easy to blow off relationships when business is great. Don’t get caught in this empty vortex. When the market sours and business takes a negative turn, your personal and professional networks often gain a more important perspective. Remember to actively, professionally and productively manage all the relationships you encounter; particularly the ones you want to keep.
Three weeks after I returned home from my river cruise, I received a great handwritten thank-you note from the cruise line signed by the captain and several crewmembers. Yes, handwritten. I had already recommended my vacation to others, and now that good feeling was punctuated by the personal message I had received, which will ultimately contribute to the cruise line’s future revenue and success. Instead of taking our relationship for granted, the cruise line took steps to nurture and grow its relationship reach. You can do it, too. Go ahead, impress your customers and other business contacts with your active relationship management program. The greater the reach, the greater the results.
This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue.