At Dallas-based More Cabbage, a social PR, branding and web-design firm, they utilize a four-step process to build trust-based business relationships. “We have to be willing to make friends with other people, even if they’re not willing to do business with us,” explains founder and “Head Cabbage” Chris Conant. “That level of friendship has to happen before business can happen.”
At More Cabbage, the process of building both client and colleague relationships involves the following four trust-building steps:
1. Find common ground. “We’re focused on building friendships with clients,” Conant says. He tries to match up clients with staff members so that relationships can develop in which both parties “genuinely like hanging out with each other.” Sometimes common ground means aligning clients and staff along gender and age lines, but not always. “We’ve had really unique scenarios, where we’ve matched young persons with an older person and the older person was the client, and they just adored the younger person.”
2. Recognize where you can help. “Good communication comes down to finding out what’s motivating the person you want to build a relationship with,” says Conant. During lunch with a prospective client, Conant learned that the man was worried about his son, an out-of-work carpenter. Afterwards, Conant made a few calls to local cabinetmakers and asked if they’d accept a resume. The man was so appreciative of Conant’s thoughtfulness that he immediately asked how he could return the favor. Conant recalls, “What I did wasn’t weird. It was natural. It was organic. I didn’t send him some big gift basket that would have been really awkward.”
3. Hold the relationship together. Stay in contact to nurture the new friendship. “You can’t be in relationship unless you’re reaching out to people,” says Conant. “So we have to be sure that’s going on.” This involves periodic follow-up to stay abreast of what’s happening in their lives.
4. Monitor reciprocation. If you’re doing these three things and someone isn’t interacting back, then Conant says, “it’s a relationship that someone does not want to build with you, and we don’t want to force it.” Accepting that there is no interest on the part of another party is important because it allows you to dedicate more time and attention to nurturing existing relationships and starting new ones.
These same four principles are also the foundation of the services More Cabbage provides to its clients. For instance, More Cabbage helps clients find common ground with their customers through highly efficient “Social PR” strategies that use LinkedIn and Twitter to initiate new relationships with specific individuals. The key in such a strategy is to build familiarity along a relationship continuum and draw people increasingly closer to making a purchase with your company over time.
Chris Bekermeier, the vice president of sales & marketing at Indiana-based PacMoore Products, says he wasn’t particularly interested in changing agencies when he heard Chris Conant speak at a local event. Bekermeier’s firm, a contract manufacturer, had ignored social media in favor of search engine optimization (SEO), but he was attracted to Conant’s vision of social media as a tool for strategic relationship building. He wound up taking his account to More Cabbage.
“It was a little bit of departure,” says Bekermeier. “The other marketing firm had never used social media. They didn’t believe in it, and had always warned me against it. But Chris’s approach is to utilize social media to drive SEO, to build relationships and connect with people.”
With a diverse client base that includes companies and organizations in healthcare, higher education, retail, manufacturing, law, energy, and financial services, More Cabbage has grown rapidly to 19 employees. At the heart of the firm’s unique culture is attracting employees who care about people, and then reciprocating by treating those employees with exceptional care. When one relatively new employee was struggling to make appointments with his failing old BMW, the company leased a new Honda Accord for him and paid for the insurance as well. Another employee who needed extra time off got it, no questions asked. Other employees don’t resent such instances of special treatment, Conant explains, because the company culture is one of genuine care and concern for each other, so everyone comes to work motivated to collaborate and contribute.
It’s a message that Conant instills through constant repetition in the office. When More Cabbage’s Benna Combs-Bland posted an entry on the company blog entitled “18 Signs You Work at More Cabbage,” number 17 was: “You’ve heard Chris say, ‘people do business with people they know, like, trust and connect with,’ like, a thousand times, but you’ll never get sick of hearing it.”
When we focus on building relationships first, employee productivity and client purchases come naturally and consistently without the need for aggressive management or sales tactics. The same principles of employee and customer loyalty that drive retail and consumer brands are equally effective for business-to-business companies. In both cases, it’s less about marketing or advertising, and more about building trust-based relationships with employees and clients one at a time.
Ideas to Consider
Chris Conant looks for opportunities to make a lasting difference in the lives of his employees, and they in turn look after his clients with equal passion and commitment. Is there a life-changing difference you might make for one team member who is now facing a personal or professional challenge? Can you envision how making such a difference might solidify your relationship with that team member?
Think for a moment about several of your most important clients? Do you understand what concerns each of them the most, personally and professionally? If so, where might you recognize an opportunity to offer help that you hadn’t before?
Conant advises that B2B firms in particular need to shift their paradigm for business development to a “Social PR” strategy that focuses less on generating leads and more on initiating relationships with a carefully selected list of potential clients. How might this approach be applied at your firm?