Business is all about building relationships

Nigel Toplis says there are five key steps between identifying a potential customer, and converting them into a trusted ‘business partner’.

Nigel Toplis says there are five key steps between identifying a potential customer, and converting them into a trusted ‘business partner’.

My background is franchising, marketing and the business-to-business arena. And it is my contention that in business, and especially in the B2B market, personal relationships are critical. In fact, with regards to franchising, relationships are simply everything.

Franchising is a marriage between the franchisor and the franchisee. It is not between supplier and customer; and it is not between a manager and a subordinate. It is a relationship between two spouses who are utilising, adapting and implementing different skill sets in pursuit of a common objective. And that common objective is business growth and success.

In business, there is always a need for one side to demonstrate ‘added value’ to the other. If you can’t reduce their ‘hassle’, or can’t offer a solution to their problem, then you are merely a commodity player supplying a commodity product.

In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow published the first edition of his now famous theory on human motivation. It was titled: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This publication has stood the test of time, and his theories can equally be applied to generating sales and building relationships in business.

It is a concept that has always struck a chord with me and I have used his principles to create my own pyramid of relationships. Maslow used a pyramid to illustrate how human needs progress. They become more sophisticated with each level. It begins with basic physical needs, such as warmth and food. It then rises through love, esteem and finally reaches a state of self-actualisation.

Safety and security override everything and, for the most part, we tend to ignore them because they are so fundamental to everyday life. Without safety and security we would not be able to concentrate on anything else if these conditions were not being met. In business, if we don’t identify potential customers, and if we don’t promote ourselves, then we will end up at the business equivalent of a foodbank.

Therefore, everyone must recognise, understand and implement the basics of business. However, it is the ‘Love’, ‘Belonging’ and ‘Self-Esteem’ that are the relationship segments. They are also the most influential in terms of maintaining and building relationships.

I have taken Maslow’s theory and adapted its teachings. I understand the importance of developing and growing sales, and ultimately building long lasting and fruitful relationships.

Growing sales is a numbers game. So, the more active you are, the more selling opportunities you will get. This is especially true in a business-to-business environment. The more you connect with customers, then the greater the repeat business. This, in turn, will create a more robust relationship, and thus even-greater repeat business. And as you continue to push your snow ball across a snowy field, it becomes larger and larger with every completed circumference (or every sale).

Business to business selling is all about people, all about relationships, and all about getting close to customers. In many ways it is all about being persistent. I actually compare the five key stages of B2B sales development to five stages of courtship.

It’s important to understand that the key to a successful relationship is that they need to be unconditional. Relationships and care are not commodities. You either care or you don’t. There is no doubt that the closer you are to the customer, then the greater your understanding will be of their business needs.

Suppliers who simply ‘supply’ do not add any value. In short, they take no interest and offer nothing outside of the commodity they are selling. We start the relationship as a salesman, before progressing through the levels until we develop a mutual friendship. This is the pinnacle of the relationship, and the level of self-actualisation.

The Five Pyramid Levels Are:

5) Lover

4) Friend

3) Client

2) Customer

1) Prospect

Each level has distinct characteristics. A prospect is simply a potential buyer who you have identified and targeted. However, despite being at the foot of the pyramid, this should not diminish their importance. All ‘Lovers’ were, at one stage, simply a ‘Prospect’ too.

When we are searching for a potential partner in our personal lives we will have certain criteria in mind – age, sex, appearance, sense of humour etc. Similarly, in business, we need to consider what a potential good customer ‘looks like’.

When a customer makes their initial purchase this, in many ways, is a ‘first date’. But with customers, and dates, you still need to build up a level of trust and respect. You are still on ‘probation’ and have not yet proven yourself to the customer.

A second order will give you more time to impress the customer, and allow you to find out more about them. You will understand their requirements, their business and their needs.

At some stage you will want the customer to become a client. Customers become clients when they see the supplier performing consistently well. This is when the supplier exceeds expectations. The supplier will reduce hassle and offer the client vital solutions. It may now have become ‘a regular date’.

Sometimes, by reaching the level of a client, this is as far as some suppliers (and clients) wish to go. They generally don’t feel comfortable going any further. However, the really successful sales people are those that want to reach higher up the pyramid. These are suppliers who wish to develop a more personal attitude towards their clients. We are now moving towards a more intimate relationship.

To move from a professional business relationship to a personal one, is to convert the client into a friend. When you reach this level, you are starting to develop and build a successful Key Account. Previous barriers such as price, delivery expectations and reliability have been overcome.

You have now formed a firm commitment to each other’s businesses. You will have developed a higher level of mutual understanding and trust. Reaching the highest level of lover is the ‘holy grail’ and yet the number of such relationships is naturally limited.

In business, as in our personal lives, we need to journey from having ‘prospects’ to developing ‘lovers’. But we can only do that by having trust and respect in each other’s businesses. And while creating relationships and friendships is not a science, and cannot be learned by simply reading a manual, it can be worked at and achieved overtime.

Nigel Toplis
Nigel Toplis