As freelancers or as a company, we have so many things on our todo list! We need to build a product or an offer, decide on pricing, create a website, find leads, write proposals, sign contracts, etc.
We certainly build relationships along the way but often don't allocate specific time in order to do it.
In this essay, I'll explain how you can start creating a plan focusing on building new, strong, relationships.
First, let me tell you why relationship-building should be job number #2 right after your core activity.
When you want your business to grow, you primarily need three things that depend on the human factor:
- New employees,
- New partners,
- New leads/clients.
Having an engaged network can help you with all of them.
Need a new engineer, designer or business developer?
Ask your network. People will be happy to help both you and their friends find a job.
Looking for new clients?
Your connections will help you spread the word about what you have to offer or promote. Genuine relationships with your connections can go a long way!
I intentionally used the word "genuine" here.
It's an important one. Before asking for help, you need to establish a real relationship. You need to create a meaningful connection. Human to human.
How can we start a good relationship?
The process of building relationships should be the same whether you are trying to make friends, hire someone, or turn a stranger into a client.
In order to establish a good relationship, the first interactions are crucial. These are the moments where two people enter a connection. The moments where they try to synchronize and be on the same wave-length.
Most of the business writings I've read online share one common advice: "have the other person like you".
While this recommendation is perfectly valid, (we have to be nice, cool people) how shall we proceed?
The strategy I suggest is called: "learn to like this person".
Learn to like this person
If you're like me, reading "have the other person like you" might, at the least, make you feel uncomfortable. I don't want to "trick" someone into liking me. Genuine relationships are the ones that endure over time, and that's what we're after.
So instead of working on the "have the other person like you" motto, I apply the "learn to like this person" one.
It means that I spend the first interactions focusing on placing the other person in a place where they can show me the best of them. I try to have them brag about themselves.
You want to understand what they are good at. Or a pretty recent achievement that they're proud of.
Past the small talk, open the conversation with questions such as:
- Why did you decide to pursue this career path?
- What really interests you in your job?
- What do you do when you're not working?
If this requires some practice, it's one of the best and easiest people hacks I know. One that is beneficial to both parties.
Depending on the quality of your memory and the amount of details you want to remember about the person, take notes right after the meeting. This is important in order to develop the relationship past the first exchange.
Now, let's see how to grow the relationship further.
Growing the relationship by providing value
We learned to like the other person, which is important in order to establish a genuine relationship.
And we're going to keep playing the long game. Building everlasting relationship isn't a sprint, but a marathon.
So once we have a good foundation, we want the relationship to move forward from being one pleasant meeting, to an invaluable connection for both them and us.
Them and us. Noticed how "us" came second?
Take the initiative.
Either at the end of the first meeting or during the next exchange, I always try to understand how I can help the other person.
This part obviously depends on the kind of skills or help you can provide them with. But if we're talking about nurturing a business relationship, chances are that this person is a potential client of yours so you can easily find value to provide upfront.
Ask them the following question: "Can I allocate two hours to help you with anything?". Look for something specific.
If they can't come up with something, offer to help them spread the word about their business or product. Or maybe about something else they care about.
One more thing though: don't try to push a pre-formatted "help" down their throat! It's ok to offer a small product or service to prove your value but this doesn't necessarily count as the kind of help I'm encouraging you to provide.
Relationships that don't work
Have you ever invested time trying to build a good relationship with someone, but ending up frustrated, feeling like all the other person wanted was the free help?
That happens! Now to be honest with you, the old me would have probably recommended you to move away from these kinds of people. Better not waste any more minutes with them, right?
Wrong! The new, wiser me, is recommending you to invest some more in the relationship.
I've seen and experienced a lot of relationships that started on the wrong foot. You might have misinterpreted the other person's behavior. That happens a lot, especially in the beginning of a relationship. As you don't know each other well yet, it leaves a lot of room for wrong interpretations of the other party's actions. But the shape of the relationship doesn't solely depend on the first interaction. You can still turn it into a respectful, win-win relationship.
So how can we try to put the relationship back on track?
First, we have to put our misplaced egos aside. I know it can be tough, but we have to not take the rejection personally. It's important to go past this or you won't be able to genuinely work on rebuilding the relationship.
Second, spend some time thinking about what happened. Why do you feel frustrated? Did you try to sell something to this person, right after providing value?
Was it too brutal? Was it too soon? Was it unclear?
After providing value for free, you need to ease the other person into becoming a client. You can't just start charging for something you've been doing for free. You need to explain why you are making the transition.
Third, rebuild the relationship. Invite the other person to lunch or for coffee. Have a nice conversation, focusing on the other person. Try to understand where they're at. Then, spend some time to understand what motivated them to act like they did. Don't reproach! Be honest and tell them you want to build a long term relationship with them, and that's why you need to understand what happened.
Fourth, if the other person just wasn't ready to buy what you had to sell, give it some time. Ask them nicely when they think you can come back to them to give it another shot. In the mean time, go back to providing value to them.
You might ask yourself: "But when should I give up? After all, not every relationship is worth the effort, right?"
You have to adjust the effort proportionally to the kind of relationship you want to build. Look at your personal life. I bet you don't maintain all your relationships with the same intensity. Some of your friends you talk to only to wish them a happy new year, some, you talk to everyday.
Do the same with your professional relationship. Adjust the effort regarding where in the relationship cycle you are (beginning = more interactions) and where you want to go.
Building new relationships: a small plan to kick start it.
In the previous parts, we've talked about relationships, how to build and grow them. Now, I want to suggest an approach you can use to build relationships.
See it as a framework you can adjust by iterating upon. Like all the advise I've provided, adapt it to make it your own. We all have a different style when it comes to interacting with other people.
Allocate specific time for building relationships
Our entrepreneur / freelancer lives are busy! We always have important things to get done. That's why, about a year ago, I decided to allocate specific time to work on my relationships. To me, it's Thursdays. Every Thursday, I try to include a few relationship building tasks into my work schedule.
It doesn't mean that I'm not doing it the other days. No. It just means that I'm specifically designating Thursday as my "relationship day".
What it means, concretely, is that I book time off from my home office. I go work somewhere else (co-working spaces, cafés) and book time to meet with other entrepreneurs, or people I want to add to my network.
I'm a fan of early (between 06 AM and 09 AM) meetings, so I usually suggest that we meet for breakfast before they go to work. I've found that breakfast is a great moment to have a conversation. You aren't too focusing on eating, both them and I are fresh from the night. It gives the conversation a casual tone that is totally appropriate for creating a relationship.
So this is my first advice: decide on a day to be your relationship day. Then make it a point to book meetings with people on these days.
Create a community and invite people using social media
I relocated to Sweden a year ago. When I arrived, I didn't know any other entrepreneurs.
My first move was to start a community of entrepreneurs. I created a Slack chat room (but you could use a simple email diffusion list to begin with). Then I looked for entrepreneurs to invite. I used Twitter and Product Hunt to find profiles of entrepreneurs who live in the Stockholm area, that could be a good addition to the community.
Once I had a list of a few people's names, I contacted them through Twitter and offered them to join the community. Maybe it was a bit awkward for the first ones to join a Slack room with nobody but me in it. But progressively it made sense.
I'm now applying the same technique on LinkedIn to grow the community further. I spot profiles I'd like to join us, then offer them to join. It really is that simple!
One of the benefits of creating a local community is that you can meet with the members one on one, in order to build an even deeper relationship.
Since I've started these small communities, I've made friends and even got a few business opportunities!
Follow up! Don't forget to stay in touch.
Now that you have a few relationships, be careful to stay in touch. Relationships are fragile, especially in the beginning. The last thing you want is to let them slowly die. You want to put some regular work into them, show the other people that you care.
Don't hesitate to take a few notes after meeting with people. Write down the important things you talked about, and if you took a commitment to get back to them, please set a reminder!
You don't want to be the person creating frustration in the relationship! Keeping your word is the best way to guarantee a steady foundation to a great relationship.
Let's build a relationship! Follow me on Twitter and Instagram: @gregoiregilbert