4 Strategies for Building Deep Business Relationships

It's important to build relationships long before you need them.

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By Bart Foster

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

One of the most important books my dad ever gave me was Dig Your Well Before You're Thirsty by Harvey Mackay. Mackay tells a story about a friend who got a call at two in the morning from someone he hadn't talked to in more than ten years. The caller was semi-hysterical because his accountant had called him that afternoon and told him he was broke; his company couldn't make payroll, and if he didn't retrieve the checks he'd written, there was a good chance he would go to jail. He needed $20,000.

Mackay's friend offered to lend him a few thousand dollars, but he didn't give him all he needed even though he could have. Why? Because the connection just wasn't there anymore. Not only did this 2:00 a.m. caller not dig his well before he was thirsty, he waited until he was dying of thirst before he even broke ground.

The premise of Mackay's book is that it's important to build relationships long before you need them. The biggest thing that resonated with me in the book was the concept that a network never sleeps. To this day, that is still a guiding concept in my life.

Here are four simple strategies you can implement to go the extra mile and show people you are interested in getting to know them. Taking the time at the very beginning of a relationship will make the difference. These simple steps apply to building relationships in business and the rest of life as well.

1. Learn Names

The first step in establishing deeper level connections is to learn and remember people's names. Make an effort to learn a name the very first time you meet them.

I'm sure you've been in social situations where you have a neighbor that moves in. You might ask their name the first two or three times, but once they have lived there any longer than that—five or six months—and you still don't know, it becomes awkward. It comes across as insensitive not to have taken the time to learn it.

The same goes with teams and coworkers. When somebody first joins your team, you have the unique opportunity to get as much information from them as you can. Open up and be vulnerable, share, be empathetic, understand where they're coming from, and try to learn all about them. Take notes and establish that deep connection early. If you wait too long to take this step, it becomes more difficult.

2. Try 4, 3, 2, 1

If you have ever found yourself at a networking event struggling to connect with the person you're speaking with, or find it challenging to get beyond small talk, a technique I have used very effectively is called 4, 3, 2, 1. In short, you want to have 4 stories, 3 facts, 2 quotes, and 1 question ready at all times. You may not actually share all of these in every conversation, but having them ready to share eliminates the awkward silence in conversation and invites the other person to share more about themselves as well.

4 Stories: Humans are hardwired to remember stories. Not only does telling a story let the other person get to know you, but when told well, it makes you memorable. Of the four stories you have ready to tell, one should be personal, one business, one should demonstrate a challenge, and the other should demonstrate a time you were successful.

3 Facts: Think about three facts you are passionate about, that are not widely known, and that you think are pertinent and relevant to the kinds of people you speak with on a regular basis.

2 Quotes: Memorize two quotes that inspire you and know who said them. Sharing these can be inspiring and even prompt further conversation.

1 Question: The question should be one you can ask to anyone in the world. This could be a billionaire, or it could be a homeless person on the street. The question I like to ask is, "Knowing what you know now, if you had to do it over, what would you tell yourself twenty years ago?".

3. Ask the Right Questions

Each person is unique. This is a simple statement, but the more you show genuine interest in your coworkers, your neighbors, your friends, and even your family members, the more likely they are to open up and trust you. Start with questions. What are their personal values? What are their strengths and abilities? Understanding another person's true motivations can lead to a deeper level of trust. Knowing where others are coming from, and what makes them tick, allows you to better react and respond to their needs.

One of the questions I love to ask when I am in a conversation is, What is giving you energy right now? It's very open-ended, but when I can understand what matters to people personally, professionally, and in their family life, I know how I might be able to help that person in specific ways.

On the business front, the more I can help a person achieve their goals, the more buy-in I will get as their leader. This is a give-first mentality. Helping someone will make them want to reciprocate.

4. Send Handwritten Notes

When I first started at Novartis, I spent a few weeks rotating through various departments to learn more about the company. As a global pharmaceutical company, there was a lot to learn. During training, a customer service specialist spent three hours showing me how Novartis' customer service operates. Afterwards I wrote a short note to say thank you, expressing how much I appreciated her taking the time to help me get up to speed.

A year later, I passed by the woman's desk who had provided the training, and she had the card I wrote pinned up on her bulletin board. It touched me so much, because it had taken such a small amount of my time—no more than twenty seconds to write—but was so special that she still had it pinned up a year later.

I realized then how much it matters to people when I take the time to show support and genuine gratitude. When I used to attend a lot of conferences, I would try to tap into the power of handwritten notes whenever possible. When I knew some prospects and clients were staying in the same hotel, I'd send them handwritten letters. Of course, the gesture stood out. After all, how often does somebody at the hotel bring an envelope or a small package to your room or call and say there is an envelope waiting for you downstairs? Each time someone received a letter from me at a hotel, they'd be surprised and delighted. I knew they'd remember that letter for a long time.

The Art of Building Relationships Before You Need Them


The art of building relationships before you need them is only step one; it's the most superficial aspect of relationship building. These four strategies will help you create a meaningful connection, but they are just the beginning of your journey.

After this step, you must continue investing in each relationship to deepen connection and build trust. Establishing deeper level connections requires maintenance and upkeep, but it's one of the best things you'll ever do, both for yourself and for your career.

This article is excerpted from Bart Foster's book, BusinessOutside: Discover Your Path Forward.

Bart Foster

Bart Foster is the founder and CEO of BusinessOutside®, a facilitation and training company focused on engaging, inspiring, and empowering individuals and teams to get outside in nature and outside their comfort zones.

Bart is an entrepreneur and seasoned global executive who began his career at Kellogg’s and Novartis. After climbing the corporate ladder and building a successful healthcare startup, Bart found his true calling as an advisor, speaker, and coach to executives throughout the world. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife and two kids. Most mornings, he can be found hiking the peaks above town, usually with someone in tow, discussing business, outside.

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