I’ve spent the last decade focusing on business relationships: what makes them work, how they break down, and how to make them yield strategic results. Through my work, I’ve identified five stages in what I call “the path to strategic relationships.” Think of these stages as rungs on a ladder that will carry you toward meeting or exceeding your personal and professional goals and objectives.

The five stages are:

  1. Initiating
  2. Gaining Confidence
  3. Nurturing
  4. Sustaining
  5. Capitalizing

In this post I’ll share my thoughts on the first step—how you get in the door and what to do once you get there. Future articles will look at the subsequent steps.

What is a strategic relationship? Too often we confuse busy-work with developing business relationships we can capitalize on. We spend our time on relationships that are merely personal or functional. I won’t ask you to give up personal relationships—where would we be without our friends and family! And I won’t tell you to drop your functional relationships either. We all need our baristas and baby-sitters, some of our colleagues and even clients—the people with whom we have relationships in order to get our work done, but who don’t necessarily hold the key to any doors to new opportunities.

But where you need to focus the preponderance of your time, effort, and resources are on the strategic relationships you have or could develop. These are your relationships with people who can really help you grow, personally and professionally toward your goals.

How do you get to your first interaction with a person your due diligence tells you could become a strategic relationship for you? How do you create that market gravity, that pull, that inspires a person who has no idea who you are or what you do to want to meet you?

I grew up old school, selling by making cold calls. We literally would sit down with our lead sheets and make several hundred calls a day. “Dialing for dollars,” we called it. Today people have gotten more sophisticated at using technology as a gatekeeper. I couldn’t get past voicemail if I were dialing for dollars today. Especially when your goal is to make a first impression as savvy, relationship-centric person, dialing for dollars is just not smart.

Today, getting in the door requires trust-centric introductions. One of my mentees wanted to build relationships to open more doors. He belongs to a private club. Membership is not an inexpensive investment. These people could be buyers of his consulting services. I asked him: “Have you gone through the directory and researched individual members and member companies to find who you should meet?” “Well, no, not really,” he replied. I said, “I don’t know what you’re waiting for, because you already have a common bond.” He’s in a good position to get trust-centric introductions to fellow members, if he goes about it the right way.

Notice I am not suggesting he cold-call members in the directory. Rather, he needs to start thinking about how to get introduced. He should be able to identify prospects and work his own relationships with club members to find out who else knows that CEO. There must be people who know them both, members he could comfortably ask, “How do I get introduced to him for a cup of coffee?” That’s an example of a trust-centric introduction. Language is incredibly powerful at this step. You don’t say, “I want to get together to sell him on my services.” Rather, you have to position yourself as a peer. “I’d like to get to know him better.”

Once you can get a trust-centric introduction, you’ll get an initial meeting. Now you have to be really strategic. Far too many people try to achieve too much in the initial meeting. The interaction between two people has to be a natural, balanced, back-and-forth exchange. The first time you interact with someone, you should have only three goals:

  1. Build Rapport. Your likeability is a critical success factor. Do you smile? Are you personable? Do you use your emotional intelligence to respond to the cues coming from the other person? If you aren’t skilled at making engaging first impressions, you need to prioritize an investment in this area. The rest won’t matter if you can’t engage others effectively!
  2. Establish Credibility. The questions you ask, more than the answers you provide, establish your credibility. Before you go to an initial meeting, do your homework! If you came to meet me for the first time, I’d want to feel that you get my business model, you’ve done some homework and tried to understand what my issues are. You’d come across as a heck of a lot more credible than someone coming in asking, “What do you guys do?” and “What keeps you up at night?”
  3. Determine Next Steps (if Any!). Every business relationship reaches an inflection point after the initial interaction. If you’ve had a productive, value-based discussion, you’ve engaged and influenced their thinking, and have left them wanting more (classic difference between telling the other party what they need to know vs. all that you know!), there should be a logical next step: a call, a follow up visit, a chance to meet others and discuss challenges or opportunities, etc. If the initial meeting has been valuable, but there are no logical next steps, don’t push it. You can’t force relationships if they don’t naturally evolve.

That’s it. That’s all you really need to focus on. By doing that, you don’t try to overload the system. The second interaction will give you opportunities to build confidence, show your unquestionable integrity, and display your pride and passion in your work. From there, reaching a strategic relationship is as achievable as climbing a ladder.

Bottom line: You have to be savvy about which relationships you choose to invest time in. In the future, your intentional nurturing of these relationships will lead to a quantifiable return on that investment. That’s what I call “Return on Impact!”

Nour Takeaways:

  1. Identify people who can help you meet or exceed your goals, then focus like a laser on developing strategic, mutually-beneficial relationships with them.
  2. Create the gravitational pull that will make them want to meet with you through trust-centric introductions that position you as a thought or practice leader and a peer.
  3. Once you’re in that initial meeting, keep your focus on building rapport, establishing credibility, and determining next steps. That’s it. Don’t boil the ocean; focus on boiling a cup of water!


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