Winning the Relationship Game

Some ace relationship builders tell us why it’s vital to turn business acquaintances into trusted partners and friends — and how to do it.

It was a businessperson’s worst nightmare. And a family’s, too. Eleven years ago, my dad was going to lose his store due to a problem with the IRS that was not of his making. The situation looked hopeless. On the day that the government was going to shutter the place, my dad told Mr. Fluker, his landlord, about his difficulties, and Fluker stepped in to broker a deal that kept my dad in business.


Why did Fluker do it? Sure, he thought the store was a good asset to the building and he didn’t want to lose a tenant. But mostly he did it because he liked my dad. Over the years, my dad had gone out of his way to be more than just a rent check every month. He had built a relationship with the building manager that proved as valuable as the rent.

In business, relationships matter. We all know that. But often we’re so focused on the day-to-day grind that we don’t think about the best way to build them. The more you speak with successful people, though, the more they credit their success to the ability to turn business acquaintances into trusted partners and friends. We spoke to some ace relationship builders to learn how they do it and how it has helped them.

It’s all about them

Everyone knows that the ultimate goal of reaching out to build a relationship is to work together, but the road to getting there is through focusing on the other person. “You have to find out what they treasure,” says Jerry Acuff, coauthor of The Relationship Edge in Business (Wiley, 2004). The key to doing that is being patient and being curious. “I have to invest the time in finding where success lies for the people I work with,” says Amy Errett, CEO of Olivia, an upscale vacation provider. “How can I set up that success for them? If you listen to people, they’re pretty well going to tell you what they need.” Errett books a lot of entertainers to perform on cruise ships and at resorts. She has the sometimes unenviable task of determining what’s going to make her singers and dancers happy. “It may be very important to them to have a certain kind of security, a certain kind of food in the holding room,” she says. “It may seem silly, but it’s absolutely essential.”

Be an idea farm

“Every time I meet somebody, if I don’t give them something educational that they can use, whether they buy me or not, then I haven’t done my job.” -John Palumbo of DVC Experiential Marketing

Finding what motivates people is important, but then you have to develop trust. The best way to do that is to continue to show in a “persistent, predictable, and consistent” way, as Acuff puts it, that you’re someone worth having a relationship with. The method that often best lets people know that you’re not solely self-interested is to give away good ideas before you’ve made a deal. “Every time I meet somebody, if I don’t give them something educational that they can use, whether they buy me or not, then I haven’t done my job,” says John Palumbo, president of DVC Experiential Marketing, whose clients include Fujifilm and Gillette. He’s always thinking about the people in his professional circle and then steering them to keen ideas and insights. “I’ll see something and say, ‘Oh, the people at Nokia would love that.’ I listened to them when I met with them. A lot of people aren’t even listening.”

These gestures don’t even have to be things that cost extra time or money. Andrew Whitman, managing partner of 2x Management, which invests in and operates consumer-products businesses, started writing summaries of the food-industry trade shows he attends for his business partners. Then one day, he was speaking with an executive headhunter who had missed a recent show, and Whitman offered her his notes. Since then, Whitman’s show sampler has become valuable currency in cultivating business relationships. “There’s no proprietary information in there, so I send it to anyone who asks. It’s a nice way to stay in touch with people,” he says. “I get notes back from 50% of the people who receive it. I get some interesting ideas back, and it generates some great discussion among peers about what’s going on in the industry.”

Seize every opportunity to connect

You constantly have to be thinking about how and where you can build and strengthen relationships. As for the where, that means working in coffee, lunch, dinner, or drinks with current or potential contacts on every travel opportunity. Or you can truly go the extra mile. When consultant Martin Pichinson sought to expand his business to Silicon Valley from his base in L.A., he jumped at every chance to strike connections with potential business partners in his new location. “If someone called me up and said, ‘I may have a deal for you, when are you going to be here next?’ I’d try to be there the next morning,” says Pichinson, president of consulting firm Sherwood Partners Inc. “I’d take a 5:45 a.m. flight up and be at their offices at 8:15 to go to breakfast. You have to quickly cement any opportunity that arises, or your competition will.” After 11 years of making connections, Pichinson moved his headquarters to Palo Alto and does much of his business there.


Lost opportunities, after all, are often the greatest regret of any leader or entrepreneur. Craig Danuloff, currently the CEO of the Pre-Commerce Group, an integrated Web-marketing company, is still sorry that he didn’t take advantage of his situation when he ran iCat, an e-commerce software firm that he sold to Intel in 1998. During the mid-1990s in Seattle, his startup CEO peers were the likes of Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Rob Glaser at Real, and Naveen Jain at Infospace. “I’d see Pierre Omidyar (of eBay) at venture conferences where we would go on before or after each other, and we’d chat for two and a half minutes,” he says. But Danuloff never went beyond those casual encounters. “I wasn’t looking to collect friends,” he says. “The relationships were there for the taking. With any effort at all, I could have been friends with them and that could have benefited iCat. But I didn’t see any reason to do it. I’d speak to them that day, but then life would go on. We all had our heads down and just did what we did.”

It’s all about you

Developing good relationships that lead to good business isn’t really that hard. It’s a matter of mind-set, being open to the possibilities and being aware of your actions. You may be throwing up obstacles to developing the relationships you need. “Look at your behavior and work backward,” says James W. Tamm, coauthor of Radical Collaboration (HarperBusiness, December 2004). “Identify defensive behavior that may be holding you back. Maybe when I’m getting fearful, I flood you with info or withdraw into silence. That can be an early warning system.” Once you recognize the behavior, then you can take some action and slow down or do whatever you need to in order to counteract your normal actions.

This is your job

When Danuloff ran iCat, he made sure someone handled key relationships but preferred that it not be him. “I had a lot of guys around me who were more personable than me, and I would just make sure that someone was taking care of everybody. ‘Oh good, you call him. You be his friend.’ ” Danuloff’s attitude has since changed. “I make a little more effort. I don’t just rush in and out quite so much,” he says. “I occasionally tickle people with an email. Just little things to keep people in mind. It’s subtle, but it’s useful. Everyone’s busy; it doesn’t need to be dramatic.”

Better than networking

If you haven’t already, dissuade yourself from thinking that building effective relationships is the same as being a better networker. “Unfortunately, networking has become highly goal-oriented,” says Whitman. “It’s been driven by people being out of work who’ve never been out of work before. Everybody says you’ve got to network, so they’re calling people they haven’t talked to in forever and it’s all me-me-me, ‘I need your help.’ It’s smarmy and sleazy and not much of a relationship.”

It’s never too late

Business isn’t high school, where snubs fester. As long as there was no reason that you didn’t speak with someone over the years, you can restart the connection. “I recently traded emails with Fred Wilson, a VC I had pitched back in 1995, over some things we each had on our blogs,” says Danuloff. “He remembered me from back then, and we’ve reestablished some contact. The maintenance requirements aren’t that high.”