Business is all about relationships and information...and ultimately information is used (read, trusted, re-purposed, acted upon) based on how trusted it is...essentially based on our relationship to the source. So, at the most conceptual level, it is not far fetched to say that all business and the economy in general is based on our relationships, whether those are intra-personal or with institutions and organizations. Good marketing and sales people have always known this - relationships can overcome a host of sins from mediocre products to non-competitive margins.
The biggest question then becomes: How to scale the creation of trusted relationships. Relationships are not something you can get by sending out more email marketing, they instead suggest a two-way exchange. Technology - particularly internet technology - has exploded the number of ways we have to communicate and created one-to-many communication channels that start to let us scale individuals and our conversations but picking the right tool for the job is not at all obvious. Relationships mature and as they do, the intensity and depth of conversation needs to increase or the relationship will plateau.
Thinking about how relationships evolve between individuals is helpful.
The first stage is the encounter. Sometimes this is random and at other times it is more orchestrated by one of the individuals. This encounter can be physical or virtual and the channel (in person, over the phone, email, webinar, etc.) will partially determine how quickly the relationship moves to the next phase.
The second stage is recognition. This happens when both individuals can put a name/face with a context (i.e. "That's Joe from my daughter's playgroup"). There are a number of ways to get from the encounter stage to the recognition stage and this is where a lot of people go wrong. Often recognition comes from repeat encounters but that can take a long time, particularly if the parties in question are overloaded with information (and I would argue most people worth building relationships with - in the business environment - are overloaded). The fastest way to get to the recognition stage is to have an interaction that is highly relevant and has something to offer - an idea, a perspective, an experience. When this is the case an encounter and a relatively brief interaction can lead instantly to recognition.
The third stage is relationship development. Once two parties recognize each other they can move into building a relationship. To build a meaningful relationship there much be a joint initiative. Whether that is going to an event together (in the social world) or working on a joint project (in the business world) there must be some reason to stay in touch that is relevant. An old colleague used to occasionally send funny Dilbert cartoons out to his contact list and I get Plaxo update requests all the time but neither is sufficient at developing my relationships with the individuals in question other than reminding me that I haven't actually had an substantive interaction with those past colleagues in a long time. Those activities are not necessarily bad but they are not advancing the relationship.
The fourth stage is friendship. Friendship - whether in the social or business realm - represents a degree of trust above that of colleagues. People often lose sight of this stage of a relationship in business - myself included. We get wrapped up in getting to the end goal and think that friendship is ancillary to the process - and depending on the project or goal, it may not be necessary. However, for certain business relationships which are strategically important, friendship is incredibly useful and it allows initiatives to proceed more quickly than if people are not friends above and beyond the work relationship. A true friendship will allow two people, ironically, to operate more autonomously because they trust each other and the decisions they will make so constant re-calibration and discussion is not needed - and that saves a lot of time. Additionally, successful people usually have more than enough work and projects to choose from and because they have to choose, they will prioritize projects with friends more highly because they are more enjoyable, easier, and faster.
The fifth stage is intimacy. This stage is not appropriate for most relationships - there are a limited number of people that anyone can have an intimate relationship with - and by intimate I mean close and enduring, not necessarily romantic. In the business world intimate relationships do have a place - some bosses, mentors, and colleagues will progress to this stage and it enables even more synergy and speed but this stage is difficult to achieve and can rarely be achieved through the intent of one person. There are some business situations where this is ideal - co-presidents of a large organization (Anne Mulcahy and Ursula Burns at Xerox seem to have achieved this level of partnership) - but intimate relationships are typically formed outside of business structures and demand a level of compatibility that is hard to find anywhere, let alone within the bounds of a business structure.
Now think about all the ways in which we can encounter, develop relationships, and create friendships - essentially all the communication tools we have available to us: in person meetings, email, phone, IM, social networks, webinars, video conferencing, and virtual worlds. Each of those channels allows interactions but some are better than others at advancing relationships. Some tools are only good at broadcast (email for example) while others provide layers of meaning that provides important context (phone conversations come with intonation, video conferencing displays gestures, etc.).
Mis-use of communication channels is rampant - and I am often guilty in this respect. Email should never be used before recognition is achieved because why would anyone read an email from someone or a company they do not know in an age where we are overloaded with incoming streams of information? If someone gives you the opportunity to meet with them, don't use it as a broadcast session, use it to have a conversation that enables future recognition - information can then be sent via email and it is likely to be read if the person has found you relevant and interesting.
There is a huge range of communications options today and understanding how much meaning they convey and matching that with your relationship maturity and your goals is critical.
What do you use the following tools/features for?
- Meetings (physical)
- Phone call
- Text message
- Social Networks
- Video conferencing