Shop Talk

Column: Taking time to build business relationships

I did something this month that I’d never done in my six years of owning a small business: I picked up a pen and scribbled some thank-you notes. Nothing fancy. Just a few lines that I mailed to customers instrumental in my early growth.

Long before I earned my first nickel, I was warned that in business, relationships matter. It took me six years to fully appreciate that.

While going over the books one day, I discovered that my best accounts all involved people I knew. Not friends, per se, but certainly friendly associates – people with whom I’d dined, talked sports or shared life stories or business dreams.

This might seem like Business 101 to some, but for an introvert like me … well, not so much.

You see, I’m the guy you encounter at every cocktail party with the pained look on his face, the one who’s holding the same drink and staring at his watch. Warm and cuddly was never my calling card.

My strategy began to shift last summer when I got some advice from a man I’d never met. He told me to forget about sales and focus instead on building relationships. He said I should take a potential customer to lunch each day – and never ask for anything.

I did as he instructed.

What resulted was less than transformational but certainly encouraging. Instead of rushing to deliver a well-crafted elevator speech that ended with a hasty sales pitch, I allowed myself to relax and be human. More often than not, a few days later, I’d receive an email from a lunch partner expressing his or her appreciation. And in some cases, those leisurely lunches did result in revenue suggestions.

It’s not a game I played or some attempt to manipulate; it simply reflects what I had been told from the very beginning: People do business with people they know, like and trust.

Sunil Erevelles, Ph.D., who chairs the Marketing Department at the Belk School of Business at UNC Charlotte, calls relationship building “one of the deep principles of business that cut(s) across time.”

In an age when products are so easily commoditized, he said, customer relations (and employee relations) can often mean the difference between success and failure.

“Quality is no longer a competitive advantage,” he said. “A good product or service is only a starting point. The other parts of the business model, including relationships and services, are what make the offering complete.”

For larger companies, good customer relations can take a wide range of forms, including the use of “big data” to accurately predict what products consumers will want and when they will want them, Erevelles said.

In my case, at least for now, it simply means slowing down to forge more relationships. So for the first time in six years I’m spending more of my time (and a bigger chunk of my budget) on lunches and thank-you notes.