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How to win friends and influence business

In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman told his son: "It's not enough to be liked, Biff. You've got to be well-liked!"

And an Ad Biggie in Denver once told his account service staff: "Make friends of your clients. Because friends don't fire friends."

On the surface, both of those sales strategies sound Machiavellian. Kind of subterfuges to gain an advantage.

On the other hand, such thinking shows a concern about business relationships. This could include customers, employees, suppliers, landlords, CPA firms, legal advisors -- well, you get the idea.

Such relationships tend to get set aside when one is busy, busy. Then, when a serious problem suddenly surfaces, one looks at the wall and says: "What happened?" "Were there signals that trouble was brewing?" "Maybe I should have checked into this relationship to make sure everyone was happy."

No maybes about it. If your job calls for interaction with other human beings, then you should regularly evaluate those relationships. In a good relationship, problems will be addressed in a timely manner.

Back to Machiavelli. Relationships rarely "just happen." That's the stuff of romantic novels. People who want a "friendly" relationship with someone, give it some thought. Work at it. Plan it. Execute it.

Is it sinister to send a good customer a birthday gift? A card? A telephone call? You didn't know it was his/her birthday? Shame.

More important is the scheduling of relationship reviews. Forget mailed questionnaires, email surveys, remote telephone programs where the only answers are "Yes. No. I dunno." Usually those are a waste of time and money. If you're in charge, it's you who needs to set aside a quiet time with your customer and ask, "How are we doing?"

If you don't want to ask a tough question because you're afraid of the answer, then you probably know you have a problem. You just didn't get any input on the details, and solutions.

Better yet, prepare a questionnaire and let a professional consultant set up a ‘face-to-face business-like interview with your customer. Such an interviewer is trained watch for body-language clues that indicate a touchy question is on the table, and it's time to probe deeper.

The interviewer also is skilled in changing the direction of the interview at the first sign of a big problem that was not anticipated.

And it often happens that the feedback contains G-2 on potential new business or insight into what competitors are doing to take away your account.

That's a simple example of how you might check a relationship with a customer. Can you see how a relationship check with employees and suppliers also might help you improve your operation?

Of course, you can start by learning more about the people in your business life. What's important in their jobs and what are their ambitions. What are their outside interests? How's the family? What activities do you share? Do they text, Tweet, Facebook or Ustream?

But be careful! If you're considerate about your relationships with others, they might like you! Might want to do business with you. Even want to be your friend!

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Tom Healy

Tom Healy is president of thirdpartyinsight (3PI), which specializes in providing in-depth interviews with your major customers to check up on relationships and uncover potential problems and opportunities.

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