Relationships make the world go round …

… and are the source of Business Improvement and Growth

Can you think of a business that could exist or sustain growth without a set of successful relationships?

No? Nor could we.

Yet often, in our work, we come across business owners who appear at the mercy of the relationships that they have with customers, with suppliers, with staff or with finaniciers. You’ll find them battling hard to make things work, scurrying around chasing their tails, desperately looking to please anyone and everyone, almost accepting that this is the life of the business owner.

Occasionally, we come across someone for whom this is not the case. They are seemingly more in control of themselves, clearer on what they are looking for, better able to establish, build and nurture a diverse range of relationships, and are open and trusting in their approach. As a result, they appear to obtain greater value from these relationships socially, intellectually and financially.

We were left wondering:

  • What are the secrets of a successful business relationship?
  • Can ambitious business owners benefit from being more strategic in their relationships?
  • How might you change the dynamic within the set of relationships that you have?

So, as part of the Business Improvement and Growth Network session on 4 October 2013, we set about beginning to discover the answers to these questions. We trawled the hallowed archives of academia, took on board the findings of our own research, considered the challenges that our client base is facing, reflected upon our own experiences and brought together 9 ambitious business owners with a former head of R&D for a FTSE 100 corporation and our own team. What follows is a snippet of the things that we uncovered …

The value of analysis

Amidst the daily stresses and strains of the business rollercoaster, it is a real challenge to take a step back and analyse where things are working, and where they might need some attention. But, if the experience of our group of ambitious business owners is anything to go by, simply reflecting on one relationship that works and one that doesn’t throws up some interesting insights.

Not only that, but taking a step back and analysing all of your business relationships seems like a worthwhile activity too.

So, before reading the rest of this article, read the slides, the comments from participants, and reviw the relationship recipe and diagnostic. Then grab yourself a cup of tea, take a seat and have a go at reflecting on your own set of relationships.

Please feel free to share with us any insights that you have.

The danger of assumptions

When asked why business relationships fail, for the participants of the meeting at least, it would appear that the phrase ‘assumptions are the mother of all *#*# ups’ holds true. Whether it is: differing expectations; undelivered promises; communication let downs; leaving it too late to have the conversation that is really needed; or, only focusing on building one key relationship, the heart of relationship failure appeared to comedown to a poor and growing set of unchecked assumptions. Reversing this may be the secret of success.

Take a human approach

How many times has your view of a person changed when they’ve told you what they do?

  • “I work for a charity”
  • “I’m cabin crew for a major airline”
  • “I’m a stay at home dad”
  • “I’m the trade union representative”
  • “I’m a potential customer with a budget of £250k that I might spend with your business”

It is funny how we our reaction and behaviour are coloured by this type of information. But, how would you treat each of these people if you didn’t know this information? As a human being, we hope!

Everyone you deal with in business is a human being, no surprise there! They have the same set of delights and challenges. They all have dreams, fears, personalities, good days, bad days and lives outside of work. They are all the same, and are all different. They will value someone who they get along with and who helps them on their path in life. So take an authentic, human approach, by taking a moment to put yourself in their shoes.

Just don’t assume that they will want to be sociable and friendly! Not everyone is that way inclined.

Establish mutual value

“Win-win” is one of those godawful phrases that makes you cringe. Yet, in our exploration of this theme, it’s underpinning merits shone through brightly. Relationships only seem to sustain themselves, even bad ones, if they somehow provide some source of mutual value.

Whether it is simply making their lives easier, or providing a ground breaking service that radically improves their business, if you want a business relationship to survive and thrive it makes sense that you will need to create value for the other party. But, what about you? Have you stopped to consider what you really want from the relationship? To what extent have you made this clear to the other party? Have you let the assumptions build up, again?

Develop trust step by step

Trust is fundamental to any successful relationship, so how do trusting relationships develop? A step-by-step process of delivering on promises, matching expectations and ensuring there are no surprises.

From the way you get in through the door (a recommendation or referral builds the most trust at this stage); through doing what you said you would do, at and after the first meeting; by communicating and sharing good and bad news; on to delivering and reviewing the work; each step or action taken is an opportunity to develop and build trust. The more trusting the relationship the more chances it has of being successful in the long-term.

At multiple levels

In our exploration of the theme, participants discussed many examples of successful business relationships that disappeared when a key contact moved jobs. To mitigate this risk, but also to enhance the chances of success, it is critical to broaden the set of relationships that you have, at all levels of the business. Whilst one person may have the responsibility, it is rare that they are the only person involved in the making of a decision or the fulfillment of a project or service. Building trusting relationships with all of these key people is a fundamental and challenging part of the task.

It’s alright to be appropriately commercial

A familiar path of many personal relationships sees one party taking a higher role, for example you take the partner of your dreams on a first date; confidently take the bill, paying it before their eyes set firm on the extortionate amount; then court them with impromptu gifts; you marry and honeymoon in dreamlike location; have kids; and privately worry about paying the mortgage, stress about the money and become resentful about feeling like a ‘walking wallet’ … an extreme example we know, and we are am sure you are all more balanced than this. What would have happened if at the start of the relationship they had split they bill? We’ll never really know, but there is a point … honestly!

Many business owners will shroud a commercial conversation in a veil of mystery and intrigue, discounting the price, or hiding away their profit, before even having the conversation to deal with their feelings of guilt. But, it turns out that the opposite should be true for a successful business relationship. You’ll be surprised to learn that it is in the interests of your customer, supplier or member of staff to know that you are also making enough (but not too much) money.

Nirvana is indeed a transparent commercial conversation. In fact, successful business relationships have a commercial imperative. If only corporate procurement processes and tenders could indeed deliver this!

Sometimes it‘s right to be transactional

Finally, it’s worth acknowledging the often misrepresented ‘dark side of business relationships’. Not every relationship needs to be deep and strategic, your portfolio of business relationships will and should have a mix of strategic and transactional to serve and meet a variety of needs.

It is alright for people to just want: baked beans on toast; to avoid the chit-chat with the cashier at the supermarket check-out by using self-service; to get the lowest price; to transact online. For them it represents a win, and if you can find a way for it to win with you too, you might be on to something good!

Concluding remarks

So having explored the theme in more depth, we are looking forward to establishing the impact of the actions that our 9 intrepid business owners set for themselves. Until then, here are some of the questions would we suggest that you begin to answer for yourself:

  • Who are/should you be building relationships with now, and in the future
  • How would you assess the current nature of these relationships?
  • To what extent have you checked your assumptions?
  • What is a successful outcome, for all parties?
  • What action needs to be taken to achieve these outcomes?
  • How will the first action that you take help to build trust?
  • What systems do you have in place to manage these relationships effectively on an ongoing basis?

If any of the above has sparked your interest, please get in touch with the Business Improvement and Growth (BIG) Team by email at or call Simon on 01227 824740.

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