When a seller and a prospective buyer first meet, there’s the initial formal stage (which includes the non-committal small talk) where everyone is sussing each other out, finding common ground, working out how each other likes to work and what business needs to be done. Everyone is on their best behaviour looking to get the best outcome. Talking about the business at hand is not only easy but in fact, the agreed upon focal point.
After that initial stage, for example, after the first deal is done, the second stage is where relationships form further. Once we’ve got the measure of each other and we find some sort of operating rhythm we start to relax a bit more. We get familiar with each other’s preferences and quirks, and we learn a bit about them personally. And in some cases, relationships grow beyond the business rapport. You might find you have lots in common or share personal interests important to you, and eventually some client relationships have the potential to cross over into friendships. This is a nice outcome and completely fine but carries certain risks for the business side of things.
Humans by and large want to get along with each other. Finding common ground builds trust by reducing the unknown, the unpredictable about each other. This takes the stress out of new relationships, makes the other person reliable, trustworthy. And this of course also makes it easier to do business with each other.
But over time it also makes people more hesitant to push each other out of the comfort zone they have just successfully created. However, doing business with each other often requires doing just that. In fact, business can only grow and improve when we push the boundaries eventually, when we grow the playing field proactively. Whether it is to address sloppy payments, irregular orders and order volumes or – more importantly for salespeople – to cross and upsell, to ask for more business, prospect deeper into the other’s organisation, it requires to approach the other person, ask for their direct support, the additional order, their advocacy to tackle issues or even resistance in the client organisation. This can make everyone feel a bit uncomfortable.
Most people naturally try to avoid this discomfort or potential conflict arising from stretching the relationship, so when you find yourself getting along well with your clients something like a paradox often emerges: The better we know them and get along on a personal level, the harder it seems to become to grow the business relationship.
So here is the key thing about business relationships: The purpose of relationships is not to indulge in their comfort, but to stress them. This sounds counterintuitive, but think about it for a moment: We create relationships to make dealing with each other easier. Therefore trust is often called one of the key factors in good client relationships. But what does trust enable us to do? It makes it possible to say things you can’t say to a stranger, to be a bit more honest, direct, demanding. Of course you don’t want to betray trust, overstress it, but to grow a good relationship means going on a limb at times.
This is also how the relationship itself will grow, turning the small comfort zone into an even bigger comfort space: By stepping out of that comfort zone, by helping the other realise that we don’t mean harm, that we do it for the benefit of both of us.
Here’s a little test to assess if you’re in the right position for this: Think about a customer you consider having a really good relationship with. Now try to remember: When was the last time you told them that they were wrong? Or if they were wrong about something today, could you tell them?
If you feel uncomfortable or hesitant about the idea of telling them they are making a mistake, or have the wrong idea, that’s fine. But if you feel you can’t do that, then there are two potential risks you are facing: First, your relationship might actually not be as great and solid as you think. If you can’t tell this person that they are wrong (using appropriate language of course) without breaking that relationship, then it probably wasn’t a real relationship in the first place.
The second risk is this: Even if you actually have a good relationship, but you’re not ready to push it for the sake of growing the business you do with them, then you are at risk of eventually becoming that nice guy who comes over once a month to take the order, the professional visitor we enjoy having a cuppa with, pleasant to have around, but with no real impact on the business anymore, and eventually some competitor will be that little bit more assertive it takes to not only grow their business with your client, but take over your deals as well.
But as a successful and appreciated relationship manager, you want to be the guy who brings challenging new ideas, opportunities for both sides to shine, pushes for change for the sake of improvement, and adds a kind of honesty to the mix that helps their customers beyond the regular product supplies.
Remember, everybody lives by selling something.