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Can you leave relationships out of business?

09 May 2011

Looking for love and securing a new client has similarities. What do they have in common and what can the small business owner learn from the pursuit of love in creating successful business relationships?

A man is looking for a life partner. He has the good fortune to have friends who organize a first date for him.  He prepares himself, believing he has much to offer and that if only he could find the right partner, he would meet their needs as well as being fulfilled and satisfied himself.  What will it take for this date to progress to the next level? To prepare, he takes advice from a trusted friend on where he has gone wrong in the past.  Here are some possibilities of why he might not get past the first stage:
•    Inappropriately dressed.
•    Talking incessantly about himself.
•    Not asking questions or showing interest in the other person.
•    Being too intrusive with his questioning.
•    Pushing for a second date or not appearing trustworthy.
•    Incongruence between what they say and how they appear.
•    Reservations others have about the person.
•    Little to back up their story or simply just not feeling right.

Each of these reasons and more are based on assumptions which the person seeking love may never discover. In this example, being turned rejected again leaves him feeling demoralised and lacking confidence of how to move forward.
What has this example got in common with securing clients?  It is all about communication.  As with the pursuit of love, every encounter we have with a prospect communicates something very important about who we are and what we are about.  To be effective in the communication game, we need to understand:
•    What is communicated at each stage of the encounter (whether in business or love).
•    How to take charge of what we are communicating to avoid being misrepresented.

Understanding what is communicated
Every encounter you have communicates something about you.  How you dress, speak and hold conversations communicates something aboutwho you are and what you stand for.  Some of this may be targeted as you direct certain information to someone else.  Other communication is more subtle, being inferred from your appearance, tone of voice, presence and ability to listen to other people and their needs and expectations.  How you act in the early stages of an encounter set the scene for everything that follows. 
Like a first date, a potential client is making assumptions about you and your business.  With some care you can communicate more effectively at every stage of the early encounter. Consider the following:

1.    Physical appearance and non-verbal cues:
Most business owners know that it is important to dress professionally when visiting a client or making a presentation.  However, clients are everywhere and if you meet a potential client walking your dog then you may not be ready to show him your wares.  However, physical appearance is so much more than dress.  Even in the park important values and information about yourself are conveyed by the care you take to be polite, hold yourself tall, hold good eye contact and speak directly and clearly.  This also conveys congruence and trust.  If you treat every potential person as a million dollar client, you will become disciplined to communicate important values about you and your business 24/7.   A first meeting with a client can be likened to a first date.  Dressing appropriately for the occasion and ensuring it matches your brand ensures you communicate something of the value you have to offer. 

2.    Managing your own internal state:
Meeting with a new prospect can be a daunting experience, particularly if there is a lot at stake or the potential business is high.  It is not unusual to feel cautious or anxious.  However, your ability to manage your internal state is essential if the encounter is to be successful.  To have effective conversations with other people, you must be able to have conversations with yourself.  By learning to navigate strong emotions like fear, rejection, humiliation and rebuff, you can connect more meaningfully with other people and not sabotage opportunities to move to the next level.  If you are unable to manage your internal state, this will be picked up by the other person.   However, with little clear information as to what is going on, they will jump to conclusions and make decisions about whether they want to continue the relationship.   Many a marriage that might otherwise have been made in heaven was stymied because of misrepresentation of miscommunication. 

3.    Maintaining boundaries:
Most business owners know that what is appropriate in terms of physical boundaries such as touch and space.  However, cultural differences reveal variations in how people interpret boundaries.  It is wise to educate yourself about such differences to avoid your actions being miscommunicated. 
Boundaries also exist in the communication game.  They are more subtle and relate to your ability to communicate in a way that leaves the other person feeling comfortable to share something of him or herself without feeling pressed unnecessarily for more information than they are willing to give.  How you behave in an early encounter influences the impression that is being formed in your prospect’s mind.   For example, launching straight in with too much information before you have ascertained your prospect’s interest or knowledge can be daunting or downright boring.  Just like in the dating game, no-one likes a ‘know it all’. 
Similarly, showing no interest in the other person or asking any questions beyond the possibility of securing a sale is a turnoff.  Another no-no is being intrusive by asking too many questions with little regard to the non-verbal cues that the person is uncomfortable.  As in the dating game, pushing for a second date when there is little indication of the other person’s interest may be met with the much feared phrase, ‘I’ll give you a call’.  Even if you do secure some interest, a prospect will often seek out the opinions of others they trust to provide a second opinion.  Then you learn how important communication is beyond the direct contact with your clients – your reputation, others’ experience of your service or product or any mismatch between what you say and how you or your business performs will result in you waiting by the phone for a call that never comes.  
So if you want to progress beyond the first meeting, you must have clear boundaries, taking care at every level that what you communicate is what you intend.  It must be congruent in that what you espouse must be matched by the quality of your service, product and every encounter a person has with your business.  

4.    Minding the facts and finding the feelings
Communication involves more than merely conveying information clearly.  To make a good impression and ensure your prospect is interested in meeting again, you must learn to exercise superior communication skills of what I call ‘minding the facts and finding the feelings’.  This means that whilst interpreting and conveying information clearly and succinctly, you must simultaneously ascertain your listener’s intentions and emotional states.  As on a first date, the person who feels that they have engaged with the other person often can’t explain what happened but they ‘just know’ and say that ‘I just felt listened to, understood and they just got me!’  This has something to do with reading the other person’s emotions and picking up and expertly addressing any undercurrents that indicate a need to change direction.  These are learnable skills but require a level of emotional intelligence and practice to ensure you and your prospect are on the same page.  When you get it right, trust develops and you can expect the phone to ring. 

5.    Effective listening skills:
It is remarkable how many people fail to listen adequately to other people and in business this is essential for two main reasons.  The first is to do with understanding the needs and problems of the prospect and the other is to do with the simple fact that people like to tell their story and be heard.  Listening is more than hearing and specific skills must be adopted to ensure that what you hear is what the other person intended rather than being distorted through your own perceptual system.  Using open ended questions, paraphrasing to ensure that what you heard was what was intended, and checking out misunderstandings and intentions is all part of effective listening.  Good listeners not only have clear information on which to make decisions; they also win the trust of other people who feel that they have been heard.

In conclusion, business is all about forming good relationships and good relationships are always based on effective communication.  In the same way that you wouldn’t ask someone to marry you on a first date; it is wise to hold off on trying to formalize a long term relationship with a client before they are ready.  The stages of meeting, dating and engagement are all important stages in building mutual trust, without which a long term relationship is highly unlikely.  And as with marriage, trust, good ongoing communication and integrity are essential ingredients for a successful union.