Business relationships can take many forms. As an entrepreneur or small business owner, you obviously want to create good relationships with your customers or clients. You may also want to connect with other business owners for possible partnerships. If you are seeking funding, you will need to develop relationships with potential investors.
Young (or even older) entrepreneurs can benefit by finding an experienced mentor, another relationship that is necessary to cultivate. The type of people on this list will depend on your current situation and goals. There are, however, certain guidelines that hold true for just about all business relationships.
Networking vs. Relationship Building
The word “networking” is commonly used to describe the process of cultivating business relationships. There’s nothing inherently wrong with networking, but it often has the connotation of being manipulative and self-serving. It’s better to think of going to an event in order to meet people rather than to network. The latter carries the risk of making you wonder what you can get from other people, which others can easily sense.
Does this mean you should avoid networking events or social networking sites online? Of course not. It’s partly a matter of semantics, but the point is that you should be careful about getting too caught up in the networking mentality.
Build Relationships in Diverse Ways
The world has gotten quite complex. Today, when people think of building relationships, they often think of Facebook or LinkedIn. These can be very useful, but don’t neglect traditional ways of connecting with people. This includes your job (or previous jobs), extended family contacts, friends and local business-related events. You never know who you will meet at the gym, golf course, your local club or wherever you spend time.
Remember the six-degrees-of-separation principle. Even if someone you meet has nothing to do with your business or industry, he or she might know someone who could be a potential client, partner or investor. In many cases, it’s two or three degrees of separation rather than six. That’s why you should never be shy about discussing your business with anyone, even if they seem like the unlikeliest of prospects.
Focus on What You Can Contribute
This is probably the single most valuable tip when it comes to building quality relationships. It applies across the board, whether you are talking to a potential customer or someone you hope will mentor you. Most people have a tendency to be self-centered. This means that when you are talking about your plans, he or she is probably less interested in how brilliant you are than they are how you can help them.
Helping others is not always a tangible thing. When you are trying to sell a product or service, it’s fairly straightforward that you have to emphasize the benefits to the customer (though even here, many businesses fall short and spend too much time on extraneous matters). Even when the person isn’t likely to become a paying customer, you may be able to offer some value. This can be something tangible such as advice, help with a technical problem or a referral. It can also be something less tangible, such as a sympathetic ear.
Hone Your Social Skills
Some people are naturally great with other people. If you find it easy to meet new people and you have an outgoing personality, you have half of the battle won. Others have to cultivate these characteristics. You don’t have to be an extrovert to develop winning social skills.
Being a good listener is key. Resist the urge to dominate the conversation and find out where the other person is coming from. This principle fits nicely with thinking about what you have to contribute.
Another essential aspect of developing relationships is following up. If you never talk to someone again, any positive interaction you may have had is nothing but a pleasant memory. If you don’t already do this, develop the habit of exchanging contact information with the people you meet. Always ask the best way to contact him or her in the future. Then really follow up!
Make Relationship Building a Way of Life
For the most successful entrepreneurs, building good relationships is a lifelong pursuit. It has been said that you can never have too many friends. The same goes for customers, clients and partners. The key to creating great business relationships is enjoying the process.
Don’t get caught up in hoping that the next person you meet will solve all of your problems. Rather, think of ways to connect with all the people you meet, even if there’s no immediate gain involved. In the long run, this approach will empower you to build mutually beneficial relationships with all kinds of people.
Yan Revzin is the Co-Founder of www.fortunecookieadvertising.com. Fortune Cookie Advertising is a non-traditional and experiential marketing company selling advertising space within fortune cookies at Chinese restaurants throughout the United States.
Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program.