How do you build genuine business relationships – the kind that will lead to long-term friendships, personal growth, and (just maybe) sales for your company? Mike Muhney, who co-invented ACT!, an early and prominent contact management software system, has thought a lot about that question, which he explored in his book Who’s In Your Orbit?: Beyond Facebook – Creating Relationships That Matter. Here are four tips he shared with me about building authentic business relationships that can pay dividends later.
Notice what’s on the walls. Muhney’s first relationship-building lesson came early in his career, when he was an IBM salesman in northern Indiana. One Friday afternoon, he dropped in on a CEO, who told him, “Mike, I’d like to talk with you, but I’m literally getting ready to go on a two-week skiing vacation. Feel free to contact me when I get back.” Muhney made a point of following up three weeks later – to give him time to catch up – and asked how the vacation went. “To me, it was a natural question,” he says. But apparently not to his competitors, none of whom had shown the CEO that courtesy. “Your competitors have all contacted me since I’ve been back from my vacation,” he told Muhney, “and none except you asked how it went. What that tells me is you’re a professional, you care about me, and I do not like to talk with amateurs. Let’s set up a meeting.” The competitors were eliminated, and Muhney ended up making the sale. He recalls, “IBM taught us, what’s on the walls? See the trophies, the pictures, the evidence of the things they love. When you get them talking about the things they love, it builds trust.”
Updating your Facebook status is not networking. “Social media has injected a sense of imbalance, especially in the younger generation,” says Muhney. “People think they’re staying in touch with everybody via postings, and it’s not true. You have to have a segment you focus on [in your networking]. I can’t rely on you to follow what I put out there on Facebook or Twitter and then think I have a relationship with you.” The importance of a personal touch in networking is true face-to-face, as well, says Muhney. “One of the questions I ask in my book is, if I had you and nine other people over to my home for an intimate dinner, is that the same as spending an hour with each of you? No, it’s not. It’s intimate, it’ll draw us closer, but unless I have a one-on-one with you, I’ll never realize the infinite potential” of the connection. Making time for individual conversations is crucial.
Don’t be promiscuous on LinkedIn. “I get notices from people who say, I want to be your friend on Facebook, then I never hear from them again,” says Muhney. “Most have never called me, never emailed me, and I don’t know them.” On LinkedIn, he says, he’s barraged with people he doesn’t know sending connection requests using the generic template invitation. “It’s the typical default – I want to add you to my professional network. Not even, ‘Hi Mike.’ Yet if I accept, then I’ll literally never hear from them again. I call it relational voyeurism: I want to poke around and see who’s in your network. It’s self-serving.” It’s also not genuine networking, says Muhney. Amassing connections with people you barely know won’t get you anything, because “it isn’t until you get to the bottom of the funnel,” dealing with people you know well and trust, that you can truly tap the full power of your network.
Keep people in your orbit. How do you ensure you’re building deep, trusting relationships? A major part of it is staying in touch over time, says Muhney, who is also CEO and co-founder of VIPOrbit, an iPhone contact manager app for professionals. “You’ve got to obtain some kind of organizing tool so that you have an ability to remember things about people,” says Muhney, who flags important contacts in his system to ensure he stays in touch with them. In one example, a month in advance of a business trip to Chicago, Muhney reached out to 85 of his contacts that he’d tagged as Chicago-based. “I said, I’m coming to Chicago and I’d love to see you, and if you’re able, let’s get together for pizza.” Three days later, he had 15 responses and scheduled his pizza dinner. “Part of good relationship management is helping people not to forget you,” he says. “In less than one minute, I communicated with 85 people, who will remember my name.”
Relationships determine the job offers you’ll get, the consulting contracts you’ll win, and the business opportunities you’ll be presented with. Yet too many of us don’t think strategically about how to cultivate meaningful connections. “We just kind of meander along, and know we have to make friends and acquaintances, but we don’t really think about it,” says Muhney. Following these tips can help you better tap the “infinite potential” of your professional relationships.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.