I was writing a chapter for a book the other night
when a visual photograph of how I learned the value of relationships in
business came flooding into my mind. I couldn’t help but smile at the
memory and I thought I’d briefly share it with you here.
I was a brand new Major Account Sales Executive for 3M Company.
I had already been with the company a couple of years and had broken all the sales
records for people in my position. So, I was promoted and expected to
now call on major accounts. However, I was primarily assigned accounts
where we had never had any business which meant that I had to go out
and find new customers – only in larger companies with more gatekeepers
One of the accounts I was expected to “open” was
a steel company headquartered near my home town. It turned out there
was one man whose primary job was to manage the copier equipment and
supply program for the entire country. His name was Frank. Did you ever
meet someone and instantly know there was going to be mutual loathing
between the two of you? That was Frank and I. And, it took us both
about 10 seconds to make our determination.
To me, Frank was
someone who plods though life all wrapped up in habit, routine and
insignificant details. And, since I was very driven (probably called
Type A at the time); I found everything Frank did to be frustrating. I
would ask him a question and I’d wait for the answer. And, I’d wait.
Frank would usually pull a pipe out of a holster he carried on his belt
and begin the process of filling and lighting it. Since that took at
least 5 minutes, I was on to the next question since I assumed he
forgot the first one. And, just about the time I was on my fourth or
fifth question without an answer, Frank would respond to the first
question which led to more frustration and loathing for the man. And,
so it went each time I paid a call on Frank. I was getting nowhere and
I dreaded having to go see him.
Then one day, I stopped at a drug
store near his office. This was back when I smoked and I was going to
get a pack of cigarettes. While at the cash register, I saw a display
of corn cob pipes. They were inexpensive so I picked one out and then
picked out a bag of pipe tobacco that looked familiar to me. I stuck
them in my suit pockets and made a resolution that when Frank went to
light up, I’d do the same. Maybe if we had pipe smoking in common he’d
find me more acceptable.
And, so the meeting began as before.
Only, this time I pulled out my pipe and tobacco when Frank went for
his. It was the most animation I had seen from the man in months. He
said, “I didn’t know you smoked a pipe.” I told him, “I hadn’t been for
long.” And, then I asked him about the tobacco I had picked out and if
he liked it. He went out to tell me more about tobacco and pipes than
anyone, in my mind, would want to ever know – over the next 2 hours! It
turned out he blended his own tobacco and he told me mine was junk with
perfume added to make it smell good. He had me dump it and gave me some
of his private blend. And, so we smoked pipes and we talked and we got
to know each other.
Over the next few months we found out we had
a lot more in common than we did in differences. It turned out we had
both grown up in the same little Ohio town that I had left years before
but he had lived there his whole life. When we started comparing notes
we found out we knew a lot of the same people and that my younger
brother had dated his daughter for a while. (I was worried when I heard
that but it turned out fine.) We started meeting for lunch. He always
had lunch at his desk so on the days we had a meeting scheduled, he
packed a sandwich for me. One day down the road, after a few pipes,
sandwiches and meetings, Frank said something like, and “I guess we
ought to talk about copiers.” And, so we talked and he bought. I
finished the year as one of the Top Ten Ranked Sales Executives in the
United States for 3M. Frank and his companies business was one of the
It’s all about the relationship. I had figured out
that if I wanted to communicate with Frank and have any kind of
business relationship, which was the whole idea, I was going to have to
learn how to communicate with him the way he was comfortable. Talking
at a 1,000 words a minute and interrogating him before he liked and
trusted me was never going to work with Frank. It isn’t going to work
very often with any of your clients either.
The next time you’re
having a problem establishing a relationship with someone, think about
Frank and pipe smoking. Find some common ground. Focus on them not your
services or products. Don’t interrogate people. Learn to match the pace
and tone of their speech. If they speak slowly softly and you speak
fast and loudly – slow down and lower the volume. Put them at ease and
get them talking about themselves and things of commonality. Most
people like to talk about what they do in their spare time and their
families. People have to “buy you” before they buy anything from you.
It really is all about the relationship!