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Letter to Leaders

I’m in the Relationship Business

Last year, we held a small party to celebrate the 10th anniversary of my company, RSJ/Swenson.  I invited clients; my business partners; numerous people we refer our clients to (and get referrals from) as well as my employees.  In addition, my wife, mother and sister were in attendance as well.

One thing my wife and mother repeatedly mentioned in the days after the party was their surprise that most of the people in attendance – from clients to associates – came up and hugged me (or perhaps vice versa).  That’s definitely not the way they do it in Japan (where my wife is from), nor in the era when my Mom worked.

It got me to thinking that the best business relationships are those that are personal relationships.  This was born out a few months ago when I was having lunch with a client, Ross.  I met Ross at a party several years ago; he remembered me when his company needed HR and organizational development help a few years later.  Now we’ve become friends, and it’s equal parts social with our wives as it is business.  At lunch, I mentioned that I no longer know how to introduce him to other people.  Do I say, “this is my client, Ross?”  Or, “this is my friend, Ross”?  Are you a friend or a client?

He thought about it and said, “I’m your frient!” (We’re pronouncing it fry-ent).

When a business relationship becomes more personal, it becomes more honest.  The trust that is established is a deeper trust.  As a strategic advisor, there’s the understanding that I’m looking for the best interests of my client; that we’re all in this together.

One of my business partners, Greg Snyder (Greg’s a CPA – his firm owns half of my company, hence the RSJ in RSJ/Swenson) was pitching a potential client.  The prospect said, “Why should I choose you and your firm?”

Greg’s response was brilliant.  “Given time, I’ll care about your business as much as you do.”

There are multiple layers in that sentence, but the key to me is caring.  When people ask me who are my best clients, my response is “the best clients are those where the CEO or owner cares about doing the right thing”.  If HR is taking your medicine, then the relationship will never be there.  It will be transactional only.  Those clients will eventually leave us, whether because of price or some other minor issue.

I’ve been practicing relationship in my business for a long time without realizing it.  When asked by potential clients to talk about my business, I reply that I can’t really separate my business from my life, so I tell them (briefly) the story of my life and how it intertwines with my business.  It helps root me to my story.

When speaking professionally, I illustrate my themes with stories about me, or my wife.  It makes it me more relatable, and people remember stories far more than they remember facts and figures. (My wife did not believe I was telling stories about her. Then finally, in 2014, she went with me to Hawaii where I gave a talk to a bunch of banking CEO’s.  She sat in the front row where I told a couple of stories about her corporate career.  She approached me afterwards and repeated her surprise that I actually did talk about her.  And then she asked for a commission.)

Another way I practice relationship in business is through a quirk.  100% of our business are referrals.  We don’t advertise and, until recently, I was the sole business development manager.  When I talk and provide a proposal to a prospect, I tell them straight out that I won’t be following up, constantly asking for a decision or a date when the decision will be made.  For many years, I’ve felt that I cannot be Eric, the trusted advisor if in the clients mind, I’m Eric, the hard-core sales guy.  It’s one, or the other.

It’s not just one way, either.  A relationship means that I know who my client is, where they live, the name of their significant other.  The more I know, the more I can use a holistic approach to advice – advice becomes not only business related, but that will benefit that person personally as well.

So I’ve come to realize, I’m not in the workforce strategy business, or the trusted advisor business.  What I’m really in is the relationship business.  Now that I know it, I can be more intentional about further developing those relationships – to the benefit of both my “frients” and myself.


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