Small Business

Using Strategic Relationships to Level Playing Field

David Nour, Guest Columnist
Bernhard Lang | Getty Images

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” - The Art of War By Sun Tzu

Years ago I learned that selling, consulting, my products, services, company, and even industry I worked in were secondary factors. In essence, everything that I did, every organization that I represented, every metric of success I ever came up with was predicated by the fact that I was in the relationship business.

If I believed that as the foundation of gaining access, earning trust, delivering that which I promised, performing, and repeating the process through a business relationship lens, then I could compete. Not just with competitors of my own size, market reach, or capabilities but as a small business, often against much larger organizations — with stronger brands, deeper pockets of resources, and considerably wider market reach.

That’s the real power and promise of strategic relationships: to level the playing field for small to medium-sized organizations that may not have the national or the global brand recognition or the resources to simply throw at challenges or opportunities.

You see, strategic relationships are an essential part of the fabric of doing business in much of the rest of the world. As a matter of fact, in many countries, entrepreneurs focus on building a relationship first, from which they do business. Unfortunately, in North America, we’re so focused on the business part that if, and only if, that part works, we’ll think about building a relationship. Hence, there is a disconnect when we approach opportunities and the other side doesn’t look like us, sound like us, or come from similar backgrounds.

So what’s the answer? What can small and medium-sized businesses do to more effectively compete against larger organizations? Focus on what I refer to as the new norm of competing in a strategic relationship world, inspired by my friend and mentor, Alan Weiss, PhD:

1. Become an object of interest. Create market pull. With unique insights, intellectual property, independent perspective elevate yourself above the market noise. Those who matter will seek you out!

2. Develop diverse, quality, value-based market relationships. Invest time and effort to understand your market dynamics, from the consumer of the value, not just your lens as the provider of it. Critical to understand how value is perceived, received, applied, and impacted, not just added.

3. Ensure eonomic buyer. Focus on individuals who both have the challenge/pportunity you can solve or enhance and have the willingness and ability to expend resources to get it addressed. If what you’re offering is not a priority on their radar, they’re not going to return your calls or emails.

4. Provide value: provoke with a contrarian perspective. Way too many executives I meet are surrounded by people who will tell them what they want to hear versus what they need to hear. Don’t be afraid to provoke them to think differently about their business. Ask “game changing” questions they haven’t considered before. Offer value in how to address those market opportunities, talent challenges, or strategic distribution challenges. Prove your credibility by the questions you ask versus the advice, products or services you provide.

5. Develop a trusting relationship. Only when you lower your self-interest and really focus on improving their outcome, will you earn their trust. Only when you earn their trust, they will choose to do business with you. Competing effectively is about a series of “yeses!” Focus on one “yes” at a time: in the first meeting, build rapport, establish credibility, and determine next step; that’s it!

6. Conceptual agreement on objectives, measures, value (OMV). Through an engaging and impactful dialogue, candid exchange of interesting ideas, and tough questions ascertain their real objectives (defined as business outcomes), measures of success, and the value to the organization for achieving the stated outcomes. Only when you have conceptual agreement on OMV, will you be able to discuss how you may be able to improve their outcome!

7. Value-based proposal. It should simply be a written encapsulation of the previous discussions including value-based options and fee ranges for those options. Not more of the same, but a deeper value-add for the desired results. Your fees should equally represent a deeper value-received by the organization, often a fraction of the agreed upon value to the organization when the outcomes are achieved.

8.  Rinse and repeat: Make no mistake about it, performance trumps all. Relationships create that extra edge; that preference if not insistence for you, your organization, or your brand. Relationships go bad with misaligned expectations, so work diligently to align expectations early and often. Above all deliver as promised never losing sight that your products, services, methodology, how you do what you do, how many hours it takes you to do it, etc. means very little — that’s all input! The only thing that matters is their output! How are they better off because of you? The real works begins after they say, “Yes!”

After all, success against the competition is based on deception. When you’re able to develop strong, value-based relationships, you will be able to “attack, use your forces, be near, and make them believe to the contrary!” If it worked for Sun Tzu centuries ago, it just may work for you in 2012 and beyond!

David Nour is an enterprise social strategist and the thought leader on Relationship Economics® - the quantifiable value of business relationships. He is the author of " Return on Impact - Leadership Strategies for the age of Connected Relationships (ASAE, 2012).

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