To learn the art of relationships you need the right artist to teach you!
Business dinners are a rite of passage in the sales world. Whether they are networking opportunities within your company or a dinner with clients, every person in sales is bound to become a business dinner veteran. I recall my first business dinner with a client. I was a young salesperson and my manager arranged a dinner with a potential client at a nice Italian restaurant just outside the Chicago loop. The name of the restaurant was the Como Inn and I have perfect recall of what we ordered (gnocchi with a pesto cream sauce and side of sausage) and what I learned that night (the importance of relationships).
We met our clients at the restaurant and after the perfunctory hellos, handshakes, and small talk we took our drinks to our seats and ordered dinner. I remember flipping through the menu in a buzz. Who cared what we were going eat? I remember feeling exasperated as everyone chatted about what looked good and what wine would go with what entrée. All I wanted to talk about was which of our products best suited their needs and how many they should order! For me, food and drinks and conversation were a distraction to what we were there for.
“The art is the ability to build effective relationships with prospective and existing clients. And that’s done really through effective interpersonal skills. There’s a certain degree of personality, but true art requires dogged determination. It requires energy, enthusiasm, team spirit and a variety of other attributes and qualities that are extremely important.”
—JERE BROWN, Former CEO, Dimension Data, Americas.
Dinner progressed like a slow motion opera for me. As the bread and then starters and entrée and finally deserts and after-dinner drinks came and went, so did the opportunities to land the deal. I kept bringing the conversation back to the business, but my manager kept thwarting my efforts by going off on tangents about vacation spots, bucket lists, personal anecdotes, social and family stuff. The clients were more than happy to oblige. Although the conversation was lively and animated, I was increasingly frustrated that we weren’t getting down to business. I felt like I was in a silent wrestling match with my mentor, and I was losing. I kept looking for the signals and finally just let him lead us in what I saw as the obviously wrong direction. I remember feeling disappointed in myself and in my manager—I began to wonder if my manager was all he was cracked up to be.
After dinner we shook hands with the prospect and headed back to our car. Standing in the parking lot, my manager turned to me and said in a kind but direct voice, “George, you probably thought that we were here to close the deal. Wrong. We came here to have dinner. Relationships first, business second.” I felt like a kid standing in front of one of my football coaches, head bowed and humbled, slowly realizing just how mistaken I had been. This is why we have sales leaders, I thought, because all those textbooks, professors and coaches, as great as they are, can’t cover everything. Any sales trainer can teach you about the functionality of a product, enough time analyzing data can give you the leverage points of a company, but it takes an experienced guide to show you how to adjust your behaviors in a meaningful way. Learning how to build trust, how to build a relationship is an art. Every person in sales needs to understand the importance of relationships in business.