The Friendship Strategy, by David Maister

Many firms claim that what distinguishes their organization is that their people are client centric and act like trusted advisors. However, few of these organizations, when they hire, have programs to select for these attitudes and skills and few have systematic programs to help their people develop them.

An organization where everybody did have a consistently high level of friendship skills would truly achieve a differentiated strategy! David Maister uses the lessons of our personal lives to explore how the habits and skills of friendliness can be applied in a business setting.

In trying to understand how to build business relationships, we should draw upon what we already know from relationships in our personal lives. People often don’t do this. It sometimes seems as if, when they come to work, people leave behind everything they have learned about interacting effectively with others.


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If you have an active social circle and people like being with you, the odds are that you will have a significant advantage in learning the skills and habits of business development. If, on the other hand, you’re a social recluse, you will find it more difficult to convince clients to see you as a trusted advisor they wish to work with.

The way most clients choose professionals is essentially identical to the way people choose their friends. They look for professionals who can (a) put them at ease, (b) make them feel comfortable sharing their fears and concerns, (c) inspire trust in their ability to oversee both the client and his transaction, and (d) prove their dependability.

Creating these feelings in others begins with having the correct attitude—a sincere interest in others. However, the outward signs of this genuine caring are often conversational and interpersonal skills.

If you want to win a client’s business, it’s necessary to give the client the chance to talk to you, person to person, about their needs, wishes, and wants. The key is to make it easy and comfortable for the client to share his or her feelings and secrets. In short, if you really want to win a client’s business, you must know how to have a conversation.

There’s nothing conceptual or special in this use of the term “conversation.” Think of it literally, the way we all use the word in everyday speech. The characteristics of a conversation include:

  • It’s person to person; not role to role. People use normal language, not “corporate-speak.”

  • Both sides talk, and what one says is dependent upon what the other has just said.

  • Both parties are engaged in joint problem solving; neither is trying to win or prevail.

  • It’s designed to allow people with different views to learn from one another.

    Marketing (and/or selling) begin to work when a conversation moves away from being a role-to-role exchange of capabilities, contracts, and costs and becomes a person-to-person interactive dialogue about ideas, beliefs, and perspectives. Only then can it build the chemistry, confidence, and commitment that lead to new revenues.

    Imagine a dinner party conversation. What makes a good conversationalist in such a setting? He or she:

  • Has a fresh point of view, but does not try to thrust it upon everyone else

  • Speaks politely and respectfully

  • Tells good stories to illustrate key points

  • Is good at drawing other people’s views out and drawing them into the conversation

  • Speaks intelligently on a variety of subjects, but is not afraid to admit areas of ignorance

  • Avoids trotting out well-worn arguments or clichés.

  • Listens with genuine interest

  • Is light-hearted in style, but always respectful of others’ views

    All of these conversational skills also apply to effective marketing and selling. You may remember to behave this way at a dinner party, but do your client meetings really meet these criteria? What about your seminars, speeches, articles, blogs, and websites?

    Is the tone of your client interactions friendly, inviting the client to chat, to think about ideas and to encourage both sides to get to know each other as people?

    This doesn’t always come naturally to everyone. For example, if I am in the wrong mood and find a dinner party to be an effort, I may ask the person on my left, “And what are your hobbies?”

    “Oh,” the person might reply, “I love mountain climbing.”

    At this point I have to fight an overwhelming desire to turn immediately to the person on my right side to save me from having to ask the first person a follow-up question. Mountain climbing! Ye gads, this is going to be a long night!

    Other people, however, can and do immediately think of three or four follow-up questions—“Where do you go?” Do you climb alone?” What got you started in this?”—and can continue posing additional questions all evening long.

    By the end of dinner, their table companion, who has done nothing but talk about herself the whole time, has come to regard the questioner as an enjoyable person to be around. She will look forward to meeting again.

    So it is with business development and client relations. The most trusted advisors in every profession are not those who have a ready answer for every client problem, but those who can, through questions and conversational style, put the other person at ease, make him want to tell you about himself, and engage in a dialogue.

    And, just as in personal life, this is done not by trying to be impressive, but by learning how to show a genuine interest in other people and keep them talking.

    Can this habit be abused? Yes. Will it work if you are only faking it? No. Can you leave it out? No.

    Doing this requires that you are comfortable in your own skin, and that you are who you are. Much of traditional marketing is designed so that people aren’t required to put their own humanity on display. They hide behind formal, corporate language and tactics.

    Not only are such approaches ineffective, but they create the impression that the professional or the individual (and the firm) is afraid to let its hair down.

    This has been an excerpt from David Maister's new book, "Strategy and the Fat Smoker: Doing What's Obvious but Not Easy"

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