Managing Business Relationships

Empathy and Collaboration is Key to Business Sustainability



Managing Business Relationships

The ability to identify and adjust to other people’s ways of working is very important in today’s rapidly changing global business environment. Technology influences on our lives are all pervasive and deliver a lot of benefits. However, technical advantages are short lived – and the perspective that it is ‘people make the difference’ is regaining the high ground. Business leadership continues to seek ways to gain competitive advantage, either through improvements in efficiencies, product or service uniqueness, customer responsiveness or technology enablers. However, we are now transitioning from the perspective that technology is the principal means of gaining a competitive advantage back to an understanding of the criticality of interpersonal relationships. Greater empathy for customer, stakeholder and employee agendas is very much a topic in business circles in the aftermath of the global financial crisis and the subsequent volatility of economic and political events.


The Trust Factor

The consequence of the erosion of trust – which was always a fragile resource is more pronounced today as opportunist and phoney online commerce; the increasing lack of integrity in political circles; and the accelerating rate of litigation against once credible organisations makes it harder to know who to trust. In a business development context, the only real antidote is get closer to buyers and engage in an authentic manner. This requires approaching a transaction from the buyer’s perspective or having empathy with the problem they are trying to resolve. The purpose of a business is to solve a problem, and it is hard to diagnose what a customer needs if we are only talking about ourselves and our latest and greatest gizmo. Achieving empathy in a buyer/seller engagement is much more than actively listening to someone. It requires an investigative attitude by customer facing professionals in order to better understand the buyer’s ‘world view’. This opportunity only occurs if trust is established if they are going to influence decision makers or their recommenders. In essence, business empathy requires the ability to understand the task and personal agendas of buyers and associated stakeholders. In other words, different personality types.

With the marketplace having suffered the equivalent of a cardiac arrest due to the financial meltdown ten years ago, insightful business leaders are changing strategy to put a stronger focus on how customers like to buy, and less on pushy sales approaches. More empathy and integrity, and less snake oil, is the approach being adopted by market leaders. This requires vendors to put themselves ‘in the shoes of the customer’, and to genuinely look at the engagement from the customer’s perspective, not just their own. It demands more than just the spouting of a few clichés or ‘objective’ research testimonies (in your favour of course). 

Today’s buyer, as validated by our own experience, requires consistent evidence during one-to-one engagements that the solution provider is listening to them; trying to analyze their core requirement; and collaborating with them to deliver the best outcome. In business development, this applies across all customer touch points. However, most businesspeople are creatures of habit, we will only change old approaches if there is a compelling reason to do so, or if our current time worn approaches are no longer working. One thing is certain, the new global marketplace with its better informed (a.k.a. Google empowered) and more demanding buyers, have easier access to products and services and are more discriminating as far as choices are concerned. 

Relationship Attitudes start at Home

Managing interpersonal relationships skill is not just relevant to the customer, it is especially applicable to internal engagementsand negotiations. Leaders today are required to make a conscious decision to either change their previous self-centred approaches or wither on the vine. Career progression is all very well, but the foundations have to be in place to earn it. Pointing fingers from the comfort of a corner office might have worked in less economically challenging times when the customer wasn’t king of the business ecosystem. However, today’s leader must create a work environment where staff are intrinsically motivated to give their best effort during their workday – because delivering top class customer experiences requires staff to be self-motived to deliver it. The benefits of a harmonious workplace are well known. Having low interpersonal tension is key to staff maintaining a strong focus of key performance indicators (KPI’s). To achieve this degree of focus and harmony, we need to understand what motivates staff to behave the way they do and what their criteria is for a productive engagement. It is important that what is practiced the same level of empathy internally within the business that is provided to our most valued customers segments. Many companies only play lip service to this notion, but the consequences for such lack of integrity becomes glaringly obvious when the marketplace shrinks. The great companies to work for typically understand the ROI of empathy and to increase investments in staff motivation initiatives when times get tough. They know what’s required to get all hands-on-deck within a collaborative and empathetic workplace to weather the storm. They know that loyalty is always earned and can never be assumed just because of the leader’s title.

Punishment and Rewards

From a punishment and rewards perspective, people will only step out of their ‘comfort zone’ if there is a good chance they will get a return on their effort. In a business development context, the reward was usually a sale, bonus or a promotion, but more often today it’s about remaining employed. Typically, those who are particularly successful in business have effectively demonstrated empathy and understanding for a customer, staff or a stakeholder’s agenda – both at a task and personal level. Today’s successful leader – as different levels in a organisation, has usually taken the punishment of putting their own agenda on the ‘back-burner’ in order to allow the other person to win first, thereby gaining a reward (winning a sale, getting promoted, negotiating a contract, etc.). Those who don’t are usually less successful and even the few that somehow sidestep the rigor will eventually get caught out. 

Staying in our comfort zone (i.e. applying the same old familiar moves) or taking the risk to move out of it (i.e. being versatile and adaptable) is a matter of personal choice. Ultimately, we will only change our approach if we have a personal motivation to do so. The stakes are much higher in today’s marketplace, so a formula for success is to have greater empathy for the individual behaviour patterns and personality types of those we lead, sell to, or influence. At a minimum, we need to be more self-aware of our personality nuances and how they can invoke either a positive or negative reaction in others. Managing business relationships effectively is centred on empathy and collaboration skills and will deliver top and bottom-line improvements. The consequence of ignoring these vital skills will become very evident when the pressure comes on the business to perform in a difficult climate and only those customer centric organisations with intrinsically motivated staff are best positioned to survive and thrive.  


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