I’ve had a few conversations with clients recently on the fundamental differences between how we (old schoolers) show up for an important business relationship meeting and how our younger colleagues are doing it. So, I thought I’d share a practical checklist of battle-tested relationship development practices.
Keep in mind that every important business relationship interaction, similar to a theater act, has a Before-During- and After (BDA) component. As the Chinese general Sun Tzu (b.544 BCE) wrote in The Art of War: “Every battle is won before it is ever fought.”
In any business relationship, you can’t control what others think, feel, or do. What you absolutely can control is how you show up and how set yourself up to succeed. Let’s break down this Nour Top-Ten into the BDA framework:
Before Your Meeting
1. Do Your Homework on the Industry – Company – Individual. You need to be able to intelligently understand and internalize what they do, how they create value for their relationships, and where their potential challenges and opportunities may lie. Your due diligence will also help you formulate better questions. My favorite approach here is to (politely and respectfully) challenge their assumptions and assertions. Remember to capture easily referenceable bullet points here and not paragraphs you’ll struggle to decipher later.
2. Develop Your Q&A to Set the Agenda. Create a list of the top questions you want to ask to guide the discussion. I prefer open-ended, often introspective questions that ignite interesting, if not provocative, dialogue. I like questions that get to the heart of why something is happening vs. just what’s happening. “What if” questions are fascinating to hear their responses to, and my favorite responses from others are always, “that’s interesting; I’ve never thought about it that way!” Remember to capture the questions you’re most likely to be asked with pithy yet compelling responses to each. This is your relationship engagement playbook, and no professional ever creates value in an important relationship meeting without one!
3. Know the Whos. I don’t like surprises, so I’m not particularly keen on walking into any meeting – in-person or virtual – blindly! Ideal if you know exactly who will be in the meeting and their role/realm of responsibilities. Your game plan will go array if you’re expecting a 1×1 meeting with a prospective relationship, and when you show up, there are a dozen people in the room you know nothing about, eager to grill you on why you’re there! If that does happen, point number seven (7) below will serve you well in engaging and influencing your audience.
During Your Meeting
4. Engage and Influence Their Lens. Your quality due diligence and Q&A from your relationship engagement playbook above should help you formulate a unique and independent perspective. Don’t try to boil the ocean, and don’t go on tangents that aren’t relevant to the solutions you may be able to offer. Focus on one or two critical challenges your relationship may be facing. Ideal if it’s a challenge you have direct experience in addressing (few people really like being a test pilot), a key market trend, or a new innovative approach to solving a challenge. The key here is to be contextually relevant, fresh in your approach, and practical with your counsel. Never forget that specificity conveys credibility.
5. Real and Relevant Relationship Examples. Some people you’ll interact with won’t be able to connect the dots between their challenges and their possibilities. As such, they’ll need your help with a relevant story of how another similar relationship was challenged, and your solution, approach, mindset, roadmap, or otherwise differentiated approach created a better outcome for them. These examples need to be poignant – 100 words or less. No one needs death by Powerpoint here; focus on more conversations and fewer presentations where your slides often become a crutch!
6. Focus on Solving Pains. In my experience, most people will do more to address tension, dissatisfaction, friction, or something critical missing in their lives or work, than they ever do to create a gain, upside, or nice-to-haves! I love engaging others with, “how are you handling this topic, ” or “I read this about others in your space; what has been your response to it…” knowing that the topic is particularly frustrating to them. Talent, growth, supply chain, the business impact of technology, and project success (or failure) are often fascinating topics to gauge your relationship reactions.
7. Be Conversationally Agile and Uniquely Value-Add. Most of us go into a conversation with a preconceived notion of what the focus is going to be. Sometimes, that focus won’t be aligned with what others have in mind. Be agile enough to pivot and if your relationship brings up another topic that’s of particular interest or value to them, be quick on your feet to run with it. This is relational agility, improv, or any other situation that will force you to go with the flow. In midst of this agility, it’s also critical to add a unique value – share an interesting idea or perspective the relationship picked up from a blog or article you wrote or a podcast they listened to—or that you shared with them in advance of your meeting. Introduce them to a valuable contact who can help with either a professional or a personal challenge or an opportunity. In short, help them feel that they’re better off for having met you. Be memorable if not worthy of remark!
8. Gain Conceptual Agreement in Advance and Get Your Return Ticket Punched! If you’re proposing a new idea, direction, process, project plan or strategic initiative, my preference is always to have had sufficient interactions in advance to gain conceptual agreement on the outcomes and our path to get there together. When you socialize your preliminary ideas with key relationships in advance, it helps you bring them into the tent with what you have in mind. Ideas and directions suddenly become “our idea” as they gain a sense of buy-into whatever change you’re proposing. If you deepen the rapport, it also helps pave the path forward, as well as through whatever challenges or obstacles may be ahead. Get your return ticket punched was an expression an old sales manager of mine would coach. He meant, ensure you have an agreed upon next step or next visit before you wrap up.
After Your Meeting
Business relationship meetings should never be an event. If you create next steps before you wrap up, over the next several days, weeks and months, you can follow through (a process). Here are the final two strategies that will help you nurture and sustain a viable business relationship:
9. Reinforce The Brand Called You! Tom Peters famously coined the phrase, The Brand Called YOU in a Fast Company article some 25 years ago. Similar to the fundamental reason as to why brands advertise, Awareness is critical for every relationship to be remembered and repeated. Every business relationship, beyond your products, services, project, initiative, etc. buys or buys-in on YOU! If you reinforce the value of that brand – answering why they should continue to work with you – through a reinforced reputation in your chosen company, market, or industry. Trust, credibility, and repute often precede us and they either enhance or elevate our stature or dilute it – all depending on what you do in each and every interaction. When we meet others, they often have a preconceived notion of us – you need to clearly understand what that is, reinforce the positive attributes and negate the less desirable ones. In my experience, quality work, thought- and practice-leadership (from writings, speaking, research, etc.), and word-of-mouth (testimonials by others, referrals, recommendations, comments on LinkedIn) often do the heavy work of convincing others they should meet and subsequently work with you.
10. Connect on a Personal if not an Emotional Level. I’ve long believed that our business relationships evaluate options logically; they always decide emotionally! No business relationship, within or external to an organization, ever becomes an advocate or better yet, an evangelist of yours without a personal connection. When we emotionally connect with others, our curiosity and empathy is elevated and we become more enthusiastic about others. If you’re asking others to trust you, what are you doing to give them a chance to get to know the real you? What are their dreams, aspirations, and what do they love to do outside of work? Your relationships want, if not need, you to understand them, appreciate what they’re trying to accomplish, what’s important to them, and how they like to work.
One final comment – an incredibly dangerous approach to our business relationships is winging it. The older/more seasoned we get, the more we believe we can actually get away with a crap shoot before walking into that next important meeting. Stop it. It’s not helping you and you’re certainly not setting a great example for the next generation of leaders who watch what you do with greater interest than what you say you do.
So, which one of the ten points above do you do exceptionally well? Which one do you need to work on more proactively? Look forward to your comments, David Nour