Building Bridges: How to Drive Business Success Through Networking
In order to be successful in business development and sales in this environment, you must become a skilled relational “bridge-builder,” who continuously forges friendly commercial relationships. In bygone eras, you were likely to do most of your business with your friends and neighbors. Today, you are likely to do significant business with many strangers and acquaintances, whom you may only know for a short time. In a world full of strangers, people like it when they can do business with local people they know.
What’s in a relationship bridge?
If you’ve ever attended any networking groups, you’ve probably heard a group leader say something to the effect of “we refer and do business with people we know, like, and trust.” These are the elements of building a relationship bridge that can carry the weight of commercial transactions. So when you participate in networking groups (assuming you want a positive ROI out of it), you must commit yourself to getting to know people (and letting them get to know you), you should identify and delve into areas of common ground with the people you meet (from which the “like” can grow), and you must be trustworthy at all times.
Step #1: Be yourself.
When you are out there networking and trying to get leads and sales, you’re the crucial differentiator between all the other members of your sales team and all of your competitors. The primary selling power is not in any particular products and services, but in the people that sell them. We intuitively know this, because humans are always involved in selling; there are no products and services that truly “sell themselves.” Unfortunately, people choose lower-quality products and services every day over higher-quality ones based primarily on their relationship with the person selling them. To compete, we must get out there and let ourselves be known by others. And that means that we will probably have to talk about more than just the product or service we are offering. Keep it professional, but don’t hide yourself behind your product or service. We need our prospects see us as real people like them, not hard-selling automatons.
Step #2: Find common ground.
As you enter into conversation with someone, your ears should be wide open. Really listen to them, and pick up on common ground that may be there, not to manipulate them with (and don’t fake common ground to try to get a sale!), but because each commonality is another piece of the bridge you are building. Be sure to acknowledge each commonality as it comes up, cementing it in both of your minds. Here are some examples:
- Common interests or passions
- Shared connection to any particular state, region, or locale
- Shared connection to family, friends, and acquaintances
- Shared love of current local community
- Similar family experiences, past or present
- Sports teams
- Weather/climate preferences
Besides listening well, you also need to become adept at volunteering bits of your own life that will prompt them to respond in kind. When volunteering information about yourself, be more open with non-controversial items (geography, kids, weather, etc.), and more guarded about the more controversial or emotional ones (politics, religion, sports rivalries, etc.). Of course, the more controversial or emotional ones are also some of the most powerful connectors, if you happen to share the same viewpoint. If you really want to know if someone shares a controversial viewpoint with you, drop a breadcrumb (subtle hint) or two or ask a question and see if they respond as desired. If they do, feel free to proceed further – but don’t forget the purpose of the meeting. If they don’t respond as desired, don’t push further, or you will undermine the bridge you just began to build.
Step #3: Build trust naturally.
The real key to every relational “bridge” is trust. Margie Warrell, a leadership speaker writing for Forbes, notes that trust is a combination of the following three factors:
- Competence: your “domain-specific” knowledge, skills, and experience are trustworthy.
- Know your stuff and be prepared to talk about it! And then avoid undermining yourself in the rest of the conversation. I’ve been in a few business networking conversations where one party hijacked the business conversation to focus on their really fringe religious views, expounded on conspiracy theories, or otherwise just got weird (aliens, horoscopes) or awkward (oversharing about drinking escapades, etc.). It’s very counterproductive, because if the other person disagrees with you or is made to feel uncomfortable or concerned for your health and sanity, then you have undermined trust, especially the competence aspect. Don’t let your private thoughts or behavior undermine the perception of your competence with regard to your product or service by volunteering them haphazardly or dominating business conversations with them. Save those things for your close friends and family, who still love you regardless of your level of competence in those other areas.
- Reliability: you can be trusted to follow through on your promises.
- In a networking group, this means showing up to meetings consistently and following through on the membership requirements. It also means providing your best service to any group members or referrals from the group, as well as your other customers in the community.
- Sincerity: you can be trusted to do what is what is right even if it costs you (Integrity); you care about the things that your prospects and clients care about (Compassion); and you live to benefit others instead of just seeking your own gain (Altruism). Sincerity is the most important aspect of trust – without it, trust is easily lost, and hard to rebuild.
None of these three elements can be forced. They must come from a genuine place of care for the other person. People can sense if you are trying to build trust from a disingenuous mindset.
Step #4: Build the right bridge for the relationship
Not all relational bridges are created equally ready for commerce, nor is a strong relational bridge required for every transaction. In general, the higher the price tag, the higher the trust factor thresholds must rise, but that is not strictly the case. This is something that a lot of direct sales reps and multi-level marketers don’t seem to understand, but it’s true. Let’s explore a few examples:
- A Free Lollipop. A free lollipop requires very little trust to accept. We even accept them from total strangers on Halloween or at a bank. In these situations, Competence and Reliability are not really concerns at all. It is Sincerity alone that matters in this scenario, and only to a small degree. We easily choose to accept the lollipop in the apparent absence of harmful intent.
- A Freemium eBook Download. Freemium downloads are everywhere today, and all we have to do to obtain each one is to submit our names and contact information to a stranger. Competence is the priority here, as the downloader is in search of informational value. The thresholds for Reliability and Sincerity are very low (perhaps too low?), especially since everyone is accustomed to the arrangement.
- A 99-Cent Pack of Gum or Mints at a Retailer. A pack of gum or mints is a good example of the sort of transaction that requires the least amount of bridgebuilding. The concept is uncomplicated (requiring minimal Competence), and the item is disposable, very low-cost, and low-risk (requiring minimal Reliability and Sincerity). Either you want it, or you don’t, but almost anyone can sell it to you. In fact, as long as it’s sitting neatly at the register at a retail establishment (you’d feel differently if it was just lying about!), you’ll close the deal yourself without any further human intervention.
- A $3000 Website from an Agency. Competence, Reliability, and Sincerity are all necessary at higher levels. Most people understand the purpose of a website, and many people understand deeper aspects of them such as SEO, but Competence and Reliability vary widely among the many agencies and freelancers out there. Sincerity is sometimes overlooked, but should be carefully examined, as there are many charlatans in the digital marketing field who focus on trying to cheat the system instead of providing real value. Additionally, an agency that is strong on Sincerity will listen carefully to client communications, in order to market the client’s business in a way that is faithful to its story, vision, mission, and customer base.
- A $5000 Medical Technology Device from a Direct Sales Rep. An individual is selling a high-priced device made by a separate company to whom they are only minimally accountable, so Sincerity is pretty important. The sales rep claims that users of the device receive miraculous health results, so Reliability is essential. Lastly, the complex nature of the scientific and health claims involved requires a high degree of Competence. Although this device sells for far less than an average automobile, a higher overall degree of trust will likely be required than what would be required to purchase a typical car or truck.
As anyone who has been in sales very long knows, not all sales are equal. The relational bridges required to make each sort of sale are different, and must be approached appropriately.
A word to the wise
When attempting to do business with friends and family, it is often tempting to think that “They already know, like, and trust me, so my work is already done, and I’ll get an easy sale.” Or if someone won’t buy from you, to respond internally with “Well, I guess they’re not really my friend.” Anyone who feels like this is lacking in their understanding of how trust works. As noted above, trust includes domain-specific competence. You may be competent and likeable enough to be my friend, but that does not automatically make you competent enough to prescribe a dietary supplement for me, to sell me a car or house, or to perform brain surgery on me.
Additionally, I find that consent is closely connected to trust. If we’re just friends, and you like it fine that way, but one day I start trying to leverage our relationship for commercial purposes without your consent, then whatever trust was there in the beginning will now be damaged and diminished. You’ll begin to wonder if I care more about what I am selling than about you. Now that is not to say that close family and friends cannot do business with one another. But when the existing relationship is completely non-commercial, care should be taken to make sure that both parties consent to changing the relationship to include the commercial aspect.
Your relationship with a grandparent, for instance, may be very strong and unconditional, but the typical grandparent-grandchild relationship is strictly non-commercial. When you try to introduce direct sales into that relationship, you’re driving a pick-up truck onto a narrow foot bridge. No matter how strong the bridge is, it’s still not designed for a truck, and you’re going to do some damage to the bridge if you try to force a transaction through. Doing business with a close friend or family member will require some remodeling of the relational “bridge.” You have to build on additional trust each time you try to add a new domain to the relationship. And that is going to require a lot of patience your part.
When approaching a close friend or family member with a product or service, never try to make a hard sell. There is a good chance that you will be seen as trying to take advantage of the relationship for monetary gain. Instead, use a soft approach to gauge interest and consent, and if there is none, move on. If there is interest, be sure to proceed at the other party’s pace, and allow time for you to build up their trust in you, specifically with regard to your competence with the new product or service you are now promoting.