What really makes a good business relationship?

Rick Davis

It’s all about the relationship. Every salesperson says it, but probably disagrees about what constitutes a good relationship. Have we really defined, in sales, what makes up a good relationship? Is it friendship? Is it business? Is it both? Does the buyer define a relationship in the same way as the salesperson? Many salespeople say the moment they can call a customer their friend it is the pinnacle of success. I assert that the moment you call a customer a friend, you’d better be careful. We’ve all seen friendships and families destroyed by bad business relationships, proving that friendships can be a byproduct of a good business relationship, but not the foundation for it.

Friends expect favors and invite you over for social interaction while asking you to bring your tool kit to fix a problem. Friends expect discounts and preferential treatment. A friend can be a customer, but the two relationships should be treated differently. If your customer is really a friend, they pay you for your services fairly, although I often recommend charging friends more. The inevitable, casual request to fix a problem is really a $300 repair call they want discounted to the price of a cold beer.

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If it isn’t friendship, then what is a good “relationship?” Many salespeople argue that business comes first and that the best price for service and value is the differentiator. However, hardly anyone would agree that the lowest price is the key to a good relationship.

Many salespeople rationalize that a good price will get your foot in the door and set the stage for a good relationship down the road while leaving unanswered the definition of a good relationship. Ultimately, the definition of a good business relationship must be tangible or else there is no use bragging about it, and everyone can continue to claim it. (I’ve yet to see a salesperson say the key to their success is a bad relationship!)

Author and presenter Robert Cialdini, in his landmark book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, was onto something directly related to influence and tangentially to relationships. In his studies, he provided a clinical analysis for six factors of influence, including “liking,” “authority,” and “social proof.” Importantly, these are not instinctive factors of sway but, instead, intentional actions necessary to create it. Liking, he notes, is accomplished with sincere praise and intentional discovery of commonality, preferably in a professional realm such as a referral, a networking group, or shared project success. The same can be said about authority, which he cites requires credibility based on trust and knowledge. In other words, you can’t assume others believe in your competence and authority, you must promote or demonstrate your credentials to them.

This leads to the importance of another factor for influence, social proof, such as the testimonials of other people. Cialdini conducted his research decades ago, before the internet boom. Thus, I find social proof to be one of the most important factors of sway towards a successful relationship. The things you say about yourself in the age of Yelp and Google reviews are not nearly as important as the things other people say about you.

The conclusion I draw about the subject of relationships is very simple. The business relationship is established when the seller intentionally discovers commonality and can compliment as well as complement the buyer’s goals. The relationship is successful when the seller helps the buyer succeed, the buyer knows it, and happily tells others. Okay, so you might not get the testimonial from everyone, but you get the idea. It’s not enough to say you can’t define a good relationship, but you know it when you see it. It’s essential to define it so you can pursue it with intention.


Rick Davis, president of Building Leaders, is a premier sales trainer in the building materials industry. His latest book, Sales Economics: The Science of Selling, is now available at buildingleaders.com. Rick can be reached at rickdavis@buildingleaders.com

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