If you ask 10 entrepreneurs to tell you the key to business success, you're likely to get 10 different answers. I'm sure one would say product innovation, and while that's definitely a significant factor, it's not the right answer. And, yes, there is a right answer.
The key to business success is winning and keeping customers. And the key to winning and keeping customers is, and has always been, relationships. The world's greatest business experts - Peter Drucker, Mark McCormack, Regis McKenna and others - have all said the same thing in one way or another.
Unfortunately, you, my friends, have all been sold a bill of goods. You've been told that spending your time building your personal brand, growing your social media network, improving your productivity, identifying and enhancing your strengths, and engaging your employees, among other things, will make you successful. They won't.
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No matter what you do for a living or aspire to become, none of those fads du jour will have a material impact on how things turn out for you or your business. But building real relationships with real people in the real world will. Not convinced? Here's why relationships are the key to business success:
Your most important asset is your network - not your virtual network, your real one. Every successful executive and entrepreneur will tell you, their most important asset is their network, and they don't mean social network. They mean people they actually know and work with in real time because they're the ones that actually get things done. One real relationship in the real world is worth more than 10,000 social media links, likes or followers.
Sales transactions are between two real human beings. Even with ecommerce, most sales transactions are still between two human beings. Think about it. Every significant B2C and B2B transaction involves a buyer and a seller, not to mention all the channel development and pre- and post-sales support. And the best product doesn't necessarily win. Buyer behavior is mostly subjective and relationships are a big factor. In a service business, they're the biggest factor, hands down.
When opportunity knocks, it's always a person knocking ... and answering. As much as we like to fantasize about opportunities just falling in our laps, the truth is, that never happens. Of the thousands of career and business opportunities I've been involved with over the past 30 years, every single one involved a real relationship. Every job, every piece of advice, every business deal, every vendor relationship - there's that word - every single one.
So what does all this mean? It means there's a good chance you're wasting precious time, even years of peak earning potential, focusing on the wrong things to build your career and grow your business. I learned that lesson the hard way.
Ten years into my engineering management career, I thought I had everything going for me. I was young, I was smart, and I worked hard, but it was all about the job, the product. And you know what? I wasn't really going anywhere. Until one day, some guy changed my life by talking me into making the transition to sales and marketing.
It took a while to learn the skills that would ultimately make me a senior executive in the high-tech industry and then, a successful management consultant, but I can attribute everything good that happened to me over the next 20 years to that fateful day and the relationships I've built since.
Which reminds me of a time, long ago. I was working at home and had just gotten off the phone and looked up to find my wife standing in the doorway. She looked at me in a sort of circumspect way and said, "Aren't you supposed to be working?"
"I am working," I replied.
"No you're not," she said, "You're just BS-ing."
I said, "That's right. That's my job."
Back then, she didn't get it, but now she does. It's just like watching grass grow. You can't see anything happening but one day you wake up to a beautiful lawn. Building relationships and a successful business career is just like that. Call it a leap of faith or delayed gratification if you want. All I know is, it works.
Steve Tobak is management consultant, executive coach, columnist, and former senior executive of the high-tech industry. As managing partner of Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting, he's been a trusted strategic advisor to executives and business leaders for more than a decade. Contact Tobak.