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Building Professional Relationships: Four Steps to Success

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Think about a time when you were talking to someone and it was clear their focus was somewhere else. Or, perhaps they were waiting for you to finish talking just so they could talk. It is a frustrating experience, right?

We all do it—it is human nature for our minds to be in several places at once. But the key to being seen and heard by others is intention. Building professional relationships in a thoughtful manner—being present, communicating clearly, and listening intently—can help position you as a trusted advisor and reliable business partner in your organization.

“Empathy and trust are necessary ingredients to maintain a relationship of relevance,” said Willie Chan, sales enablement and support manager at Renesas Electronics America.

There are four things you can do today to help improve your professional relationships:

  1. Develop your people skills
  2. Utilize intentional networking
  3. Embrace the four levels of acknowledgment
  4. Work to improve your verbal skills

Developing People Skills

There is a character in the cult-classic movie, Office Space, who is of questionable value to the organization where he works. He is notoriously grumpy, doesn’t have any deliverables, and is a clear blight on the company’s resources. However, when asked what he does by a pair of auditors, he angrily shouts, “I have people skills!”

Many people in sales enablement inherently think they have people skills—and they generally do—but there is always room for improvement. With a few focused exercises, you can further improve those skills.

Mirroring body language

Body language says a lot without uttering a word. People perceive those with the same body language as friendlier, so try mirroring body language for alignment. This subconsciously signals that you share the same outlook as the person with whom you’re speaking.

Creating resonance with keywords

Every company has a unique culture and set of keywords and phrases employees use to signal that they’re on the same page. By changing your notetaking habits to capture the precise words that others use, you’ll be able to repeat those keywords back to them—demonstrating that you are really listening and establishing a sense of trust and understanding.

Connecting with personal stories

Relationships are built around connection. Whether it’s shared hobbies, mutual friends, children in the same grades, or something completely different, finding a personal connection with others in the workplace is a surefire way to build affinity. Finding a way to connect on a personal level is critical to success, as people will remember your stories even if memory of the conversation’s purpose eventually fades.

“Get to know others as human beings,” said Jen Spencer, vice president of sales and marketing at SmartBug Media. “There is a difference between somebody who you can be real with, you can grab a coffee or a drink with, and you want to sit and eat lunch with. You’re going to be honest with that person vs. somebody who you are meeting with…because it is in your job description. Invest in that personal relationship.”

Utilizing Intentional Networking

As the old adage goes, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” This couldn’t be truer in sales enablement.

“There’s a correlation between the quality of our relationships and the results that we’re going to get,” said Darlene Samer, senior manager of global sales readiness programs at LinkedIn. “We can move mountains when we’re trying to roll out our initiatives that have expectations of [others] if the relationship is in fact intact.”

Networks don’t just materialize overnight—those who benefit most from personal networks develop and maintain relationships intentionally. They dedicate time on a regular basis to develop and maintain connections, instead of calling someone up only when they need something.

Create a routine

Creating a routine around building your network is one of the best ways to ensure you stay top of mind. Dedicate a certain amount of time each week to develop your connections. You can start small by taking someone to lunch on Friday or grabbing coffee on Tuesday and go from there. Whatever you decide, be consistent with it. Identify a target number of outreaches per week and be sure to include both new contacts and people to reconnect with to maintain relationships. Don’t forget to reach across domains and look to build relationships with others with whom you would not normally interact.

Make it easy to say “yes”

No one likes to be approached solely for what they can do for others.

Cultivate your network when you don’t have a specific favor to ask. Reach out just to build the relationship and get to know the person better with no hidden agenda, with a low-risk, low-time commitment request. “Want to grab coffee?” is much easier to agree to than, “I need your help on this specific problem.”

When you meet, acknowledge their expertise, and either ask for advice or offer assistance, avoiding the non-specific “how can I help you?” If you’re offering to help, be specific and offer resources you think they could use. This approach makes it much easier to ask favors down the road and get a “yes.”

Keith Ferrazzi’s book, Never Eat Alone, is an excellent resource in intentional network building and a recommended read.

The Four Levels of Acknowledgment

Showing genuine appreciation for the work of others, building trust, and establishing confidence in the process are important parts of building interpersonal relationships. Most of us are well-versed in basic acknowledgment, and upon that foundation, we can do more.

In Lisa Goldman and Kate Purmal’s book, The Moonshot Effect: Disrupting Business as Usual, they outline four levels of recognizing others, from simplest to most meaningful.

Level 1: About the thing

The simplest and most common form of acknowledgment, level 1 requires very little in the way of time or effort. Examples include, “That was a terrific presentation!” Or, “Good work shipping the release on time.” Level 1 acknowledgment demonstrates that you are aware of someone else’s specific actions and you appreciate their effort to deliver something.

Level 2: About the person

Moving beyond a deliverable, level 2 acknowledgment is about how the person is perceived by others. Examples include, “You showed resourcefulness in your problem-solving.” Or, “You helped us better understand our customers with your in-depth research.” Level 2 acknowledgment demonstrates that you’re aware of the person’s value, beyond a specific project or deliverable.

Level 3: About the personal impact

If level 2 is about the person, level 3 is about how that person’s actions impact you. Examples include, “You’ve inspired me to take action.” Or, “I’m creating a new concept based on your research. Do you want to be a part of it?” Level 3 acknowledgment gives credit to the other person for their role in changing your perception or inspiring action on your part.

Level 4: About the broader impact

Level 4 acknowledgment turns an individual into the hero of a larger group. Examples include, “You made it possible for the company to complete that software upgrade on time.” Or, “We couldn’t have completed that re-org without you.” Level 4 acknowledgment demonstrates awareness that the individual is a critical component of a larger effort.

Improving Your Verbal Skills

How you say something is every bit as important as what you say. Valuable conversations require an equal balance of listening and talking, where each participant feels seen and heard. There is a measurable difference between talking at someone and talking with someone. So, to improve your verbal skills, you need to work on both talking and listening.

Speak with authority

We often speak and process at the same time, creating confusing messages and burying the important aspects of our thoughts in filler words and chatter. When you speak directly—and with authority—people notice. Tone is important—we don’t have emojis to soften the spoken word.

  • Practice eliminating filler words. Words like “you know”, “okay”, “alright”, etc. serve no purpose and force the listener to parse what you’re saying to get to the point.
  • Avoid words that reduce the certainty of statements. Examples include, “I only want to…” or “In my opinion,” diminish your point and put a shadow of doubt in the audiences’ minds.
  • Do without the adverbs. Writer Steven King famously said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” They’re superfluous and most often not needed. For example, “I’m very happy,” is better stated directly as, “I’m thrilled.”

Speak less; listen more

Listening is the best way to learn what others think and need. The best sales professionals are those who are keen listeners. They hear and observe those around them and ask clarifying questions to further understand their clients’ needs. Clarifying questions are also important to identify the gap between what someone says and what you hear (and vice versa).

“If there is only one big thing that I teach people, it is that they really need to listen first,” said Kirsten Boileau, global head of digital enablement services at SAP. “Listen twice as much as you speak.”

Relationships are the currency in which all of your professional transactions are based. By focusing on these four aspects of nurturing them, you can strengthen partnerships with cross-functional teams, build trust with stakeholders, and gain authority with your internal customers: the salespeople you enable. With high-quality relationships across the organization, you deepen the potential for impact of your sales enablement efforts as a result.