THERE are unseen but powerful laws that determine the success or failure of client relationships. Just as an airplane must respect the laws of physics in order to fly, your strategies and behaviors must align with the Relationship Laws if you want to sell effectively and build your clients for life.
When you follow these Relationship Laws, your network will grow rapidly. Prospects will become eager buyers. You’ll be seen by clients as a trusted partner rather than an expense to be managed. And you’ll find the people around you eager to help you succeed. When you ignore the laws, however, it’s like pushing water uphill. Relationship building will seem like very hard work—even fruitless.
Let’s look at six of the Relationship Laws that, if properly leveraged, can help you dramatically improve your effectiveness with prospects and clients.
The Forgotten Ingredient in Sales
A senior account executive I know was once walking out of a meeting with his client, the CEO. The CEO’s executive assistant stopped him and pulled him aside. In a low voice, she told him, “My boss has confessed to me that he views those PowerPoint slides as the ‘price’ he has to pay to have a good conversation with you.” Her revelation underscored the fact that we focus too much on presenting, pitching, cajoling, and impressing. We sometimes bludgeon our clients with analysis and reams of paper.
What most senior executives actually want is to have a vibrant discussion that helps to improve their understanding of the problem at hand and the possible solutions. Law One addresses this underlying need: Power relationships are based on great conversations, not one person showing the other how much they know. To use this law to your advantage, you have to stop defining your client interaction as a sales call, a credentials presentation, or an operational update on progress. Instead, reframe every meeting by asking the question, “How can I create a great conversation?”
How would you rate the quality of your client conversations right now? For example, do your conversations help your prospects:
- Improve their understanding of their challenges?
- Learn about the impact of important trends on their business?
- Better understand how they can capture growth opportunities?
- Become energized and enthusiastic about working with you and your firm?
- Reach towards you and want to know more?
Follow the First Law and restrain your urge to impress others. Improve your conversations and you’ll dramatically strengthen your relationships.
The Best Way to Meet CEOs
A client of mine was promoted to a very senior position in a large, Fortune-100 company. She had been the deputy in her area, and was now at the top. She told me that the day her promotion was announced in the newspapers, she got dozens of calls from suppliers wanting to do business with her. “Do you know what I said to each of them?” she told me. “I asked them, ‘Where were you five years ago?’”
Many professionals ask me, “How can I build more relationships with CEOs and other top executives?” The best answer is the Third Law of Relationships: Follow the person, not the position. Build relationships with smart, motivated, interesting, and ambitious people, even if they’re not in an important job right now. Follow them throughout their careers.
Truly important people—those who are the top of their careers in any field—have often brought their advisors and trusted suppliers along with them over many years. While it is not impossible to break into someone’s inner circle after they have achieved great success, it’s also not an easy task.
Use Law Three and your job will become much easier. Start by making a list of people you know who are not yet at the peak of their success or position. Pick passionate, motivated, talented individuals. Do you know what their agenda is? How can you help them accomplish their goals? Stay in touch as they progress from job to job.
The Power of Reach
How do you grab a prospect’s attention? It’s simple: You evoke their curiosity—their desire to know more. But it has to be substantive, not manipulated, curiosity.
I once found myself halfway around the world, with only five minutes to convince a skeptical CEO that his company should hire me. At that moment, Law Eighteen became my best friend. It’s very simple but powerful: Make them curious. With only five minutes to spare, I had to throw the traditional sales process out the window (i.e., “ask good questions”, “establish your credibility”, “understand their pain points”) and instead create a strong desire on the part of the CEO to engage with me—to know more.
When someone is curious, they reach towards you. They’re eager to take the next step. When you evoke curiosity you create a gravitational pull that is irresistible. Curiosity helps you get more of everything: More inquiries, more sales, more success at getting meetings with your senior clients. And yes, it works in your personal life as well. If you’re good at evoking curiosity, it can get you more dates if you are single and more RSVPs for your party!
You create curiosity and reach by showing just a bit of the glitter of the gold you have to offer your client. Say the unexpected. Surprise the other person with your candid answer to a tough question. Shake their thinking up by showing them a side to their problem they had not considered.
You’ll draw others in when you tell them what they need to know, not everythingyou know. Give brief answers to questions. Hint at things. Don’t lecture a prospect for ten minutes when they ask you to describe your firm. Develop contrarian or unusual perspectives. Be seen as someone who has refreshing points of view.
Also, ask the provocative questions that no one else is asking. When everyone is telling your client how to do something, you should be asking why they want to do it.
Above all, make them curious. With my CEO prospect, I took the first two minutes to mention several important risks his people had not considered, and one opportunity I felt they were missing. It made the CEO suddenly sit up in his chair. The meeting stretched to 15 minutes, and I got the sale.
How to Make It So
A client of mine in the energy supply business had been shut out of a major account for years. They sell what many describe as a “commodity”—that is, a uniform product you can get from many suppliers at an established market price.
My client was told there was absolutely no way they were going to get a piece of this account’s business—that the company was already well served. They refused to accept this, and continued to call on them. During that time they brought them a series of suggestions for how to more effectively use my client’s product and increase their productivity. They shared proprietary market information. They learned about the key priorities of the executives they were calling on, and helped each of them out in small ways.
After one year, the senior executive at the account told them, “We’re going to give you an order. We hadn’t planned on this. But for over a year you’ve treated us like a client even though you haven’t made a cent from the relationship. You’re giving us better service than some of our existing suppliers. You’ve earned this.” They subsequently became one of my client’s largest relationships.
This story illustrates a powerful relationship-building strategy: act like the future relationship you desire is already in place. Give a high-potential prospect the same care and love you’d lavish on an existing client.
In Power Relationships we call it Relationship Law Fifteen: Treat a prospect like a client, and there’s a good chance they’ll become one.
By the way, do you desire to have a great relationship with a friend or family member? Use this Law. Pretend you already have the loving relationship you aspire to. You’ll be generous, kind, and patient, and you’ll bring the other person along.
The Power of Power Questions
The 1988 winner of the Nobel prize for literature, Naguib Mafouz, put it this way: “You can tell if a man is clever by his answers, you can tell if a man is wise by his questions.” Answers are important. But if you want to create the great conversations that build power relationships, you need to become skilled at asking thought-provoking questions.
Consider asking questions that:
- Access emotions, not just analytical thought (“What are you doing in your business that you’re most excited about right now?” Versus “What are your top three priorities?”)
- Draw out others’ views (What do you think?)
- Engage the other person in the solution (What options are you considering? What do you think is the best decision for you?)
- Focus the conversation on the right issues (“What’s the most important thing we should discuss this morning?” “What would be the most valuable use of our time?”)
- Uncover the other person’s agenda of key priorities (“What are the most important things you’ll be evaluated on this year?”)
- Access the other person’s highest-level goals and aspirations (“Why do you want to do that?” or “What is the business goal that’s driving that?”)
- Challenge (“Do you think 10% is enough? We’ve had other customers who achieved over 20…”)
- Help establish your own credibility (“Many of my clients are grappling with two big issues right now… What’s your reaction been?”)
- Explore who the other person is and how they became who they are (“I’m curious, how did you get your start?”)
Are You Profit or Expense to Your Clients?
Think about this: If your plumber calls you up and suggests you have lunch to discuss the latest joint-soldering techniques, you probably would decline. And, as much as you like him, if another reputable plumber offered to do a major job for significantly less, you might very well be swayed to accept.
But what if your doctor called? “I’ve got your test results back, and you ought to come by so we can discuss them. I have some important suggestions for you about your diet and lifestyle.” I think your response would be, “How soon can you see me?”
Relationship Law Twenty-Two frames this in terms of your work with clients:Become part of your clients’ growth and profits and they’ll never get enough of you. The flip side of this Law is that if clients view you as an expense to be managed, they’ll cut you at any time.
When there’s a downturn, or when clients are under financial pressures, they focus on cutting discretionary expenses. But they won’t cut an investment that’s proven to help grow revenues or increase profits. And you should be such an investment.
When you’re working with clients, you have to clearly show how your work is supporting their growth and profits. A client can replace a commodity “expert for hire” at any time—perhaps with a cheaper expert. But a provider who is seen as supporting a client’s most essential programs is not easily replaceable. Their cost is framed against a much larger set of benefits.
This Law doesn’t just apply to client relationships. For example, if your boss views you as directly helping her achieve her most important priorities for the year, then you’ll be considered indispensable.
To be seen as part of growth and profits, you have to show how your products and services are helping your client achieve his or her highest-level goals. A good starting point is a very simple question: How are you going to be evaluated at the end of the year? Then, you can ask a second, related question: How do your individual goals support the organization’s overall strategy and key priorities for this year?
Harness these Relationship Laws. Align yourself with them and you’ll find that selling and relationship building is dramatically easier. It’s the difference between trying to push water uphill and letting it flow naturally downhill according to the laws of gravity.
What laws or principles have guided your relationship-building?
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