Developing and destroying relationships


In my Communications World Magazine column last month, I promised to tell you about developing and destroying business partner relationships. And so by reading the next few hundred words, you’ll gain 15 tips, techniques and ideas that will help you develop—and not destroy—your business relationships.

Actually, I have just used three of those techniques in the last paragraph. But before I reveal what they are, let’s take a step back and look at relationship building.

Building relationships is at the core of any business partnering activity. You can’t be a business partner without relationships. And yet it is amazing how little thought goes into the analysis of how to build and sustain relationships.

In my opinion, building relationships is about building trust and putting yourself in a position where the partnership is a true two-way affair, not an asymmetrical one. But how do you build and measure trust?

The work of people like management expert David Maister and Shaun O’Callaghan of Quartet Research suggest that trust can be measured and mapped, and that a “trust equation” can be a useful analytical tool to help you understand which of your relationships are working well and which need attention.

In a business relationship, trust can be thought of as having three key elements:

Intimacy: How much do you really understand the other person and their business?
Value: Are the benefits you bring to that person greater than the “cost” of involving you?
Perceived risk: What are the risks of involving you and how can you reduce them?

Clearly, the name of the game here is to increase the first two elements and reduce the latter. It can be a useful exercise to plot your relationships on these three dimensions to perhaps see where you could take some action. And of course, destroying a relationship is achieved by doing the opposite of the points below. Here are some hints and tips in each of the three areas.

Intimacy is about making connections, investing in the relationship and demonstrating that this person is high on your stakeholder map. If intimacy is low, you can:

  • Invest in the relationship by showing you want to learn more about their business or their challenges.
  • Ask personal questions about family, friends, interests, etc.
  • Respond to their feedback.
  • Engage with them outside the specific project.
  • Help make the other person feel special. Use language (e.g., “you”) to get their attention.

Value is about ensuring that the benefits you provide are greater than the cost of involving you. This cost might be measured in terms of time or money. If you think the other person doesn’t see the value you can bring, you can:

  • Use referrals or testimonials from people they consider their peers.
  • Identify their business needs and frame your solutions in those terms, not your own.
  • Demonstrate your understanding of the challenges they face and how you can help.
  • Keep their costs low (i.e., make it easy for them to involve you).
  • Be sure to articulate the benefits (what is in it for them?).

Perceived risk is about helping the other person feel comfortable about involving you and demonstrating that you can deliver. They might be nervous or unsure about involving you in the process, so you can make it easy for them by:

  • Showing your track record or giving examples.
  • Being responsive, quick and accurate. One or the other is not enough.
  • Helping them look good in the eyes of their peers.
  • Providing regular updates and showing you are in control (especially at the beginning of a project).
  • Delivering on your promises.

No one sets out to destroy a relationship on purpose. But sometimes we do it accidentally via omission or by not thinking about whether our actions are likely to have a big impact on one of these three variables. If you think something is going wrong in a business relationship, then analyzing each of these three elements can often point the way to a solution.

Have you worked out the three techniques I used at the beginning of this article?

First: I talked about promises. At the end of my last column, I said I would write about relationships. At the beginning of this one I acknowledged that I’d made a previous promise and was now following through. This hopefully tells you that I can be trusted to deliver and therefore lowers perceived risk.

Second: I talked about value. I was quite specific about the benefits of reading this article: “You’ll gain 15 tips, techniques and ideas.” I was also quite clear about the cost: There are a “few hundred words” to read. The “bargain” was there in print and you had the choice to consider whether the benefits outweighed the cost.

Third: I tried to create intimacy. It’s difficult of course because we’re not talking face-to-face. Therefore, I had to rely on a clumsy old trick: the trick of “you.” In the first paragraph, I used the words “you” or “your” four times to try to make you feel at the center of the article.

This article was originally published in IABC’s Communications World Magazine.

stephen welchStephen Welch helps organizations with culture change, communication and leadership, and explores the connections between behavior and job/organization design.

He is a member of the Market Research Society and the Chartered Institute of Publications, a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and past president of the IABC U.K. chapter.

Follow him on Twitter at @stephenwelch11

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