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Passion, People and Principles

Friendship Skills and Strategy

post # 413 — August 1, 2007 — a Client Relations, Strategy and the Fat Smoker post

My forthcoming book, STRATEGY AND THE FAT SMOKER, is an exploration of things we all claim to know, but few of us actually do. For example, many firms claim that what distinguishes their organization is that their people are client centric and act like trusted advisors. However, few of these organizations, when they hire, have programs to select for people who have basic friendship attitudes and skills and few have systematic programs to help their people develop them.

As others have observed (for example, Pfeffer and Sutton in their book HARD FACTS, DANGEROUS HALF-TRUTHS & TOTAL NONSENSE) we should draw upon what we already know from relationships in our personal lives when it comes to understanding business relationships. People and firms often don’t do this. It sometimes seems as if, when they come to work, people leave behind everything they have learned about interacting effectively with others.

If you have an active social circle and people like being with you, the odds are that you will have a significant advantage in learning the skills and habits of business development. If, on the other hand, you’re a social recluse, you will find it more difficult to convince clients to see you as a trusted advisor they wish to work with.

The way most clients choose professionals is essentially identical to the way people choose their friends. They look for professionals who can (a) put them at ease, (b) make them feel comfortable sharing their fears and concerns, (c) inspire trust in their ability to oversee both the client and his transaction, and (d) prove their dependability.

Creating these feelings in others begins with having the correct attitude — a sincere interest in others. However, the outward signs of this genuine caring are often conversational and interpersonal skills.

If you want to win a client’s business, it’s necessary to give the client the chance to talk to you, person to person, about their needs, wishes, and wants. The key is to make it easy and comfortable for the client to share his or her feelings and secrets. In short, if you really want to win a client’s business, you must know how to have a conversation.

Imagine a dinner party conversation. What makes a good conversationalist in such a setting? He or she:

  • Has a fresh point of view, but does not try to thrust it upon everyone else
  • Speaks politely and respectfully
  • Tells good stories to illustrate key points
  • Is good at drawing other people’s views out and drawing them into the conversation
  • Speaks intelligently on a variety of subjects, but is not afraid to admit areas of ignorance
  • Avoids trotting out well-worn arguments or clichés.
  • Listens with genuine interest
  • Is light-hearted in style, but always respectful of others’ views

All of these conversational skills also apply to effective marketing and selling. You may remember to behave this way at a dinner party, but do your client meetings really meet these criteria? What about your seminars, speeches, articles, blogs, and websites?

Is the tone of your client interactions friendly, inviting the client to chat, to think about ideas and to encourage both sides to get to know each other as people?

Suppose you want to be good at building romance: getting another person to work with you to build a mutually beneficial, mutually supportive relationship. What characteristics would make you good at this? Most of us have discovered that whether it is love, friendship, or work, people respond best when they believe that you are (among other things) considerate, supportive, understanding, and thoughtful.

It’s worth pausing and asking yourself right now: do people think I am considerate, supportive, understanding and thoughtful? Do my friends and acquaintances? Do those I work with? Do those I manage? Do those I serve? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then it’s worth asking yourself, “Why not? What’s the problem?”

The answer is likely to be some variant of the fat smoker syndrome. You know what’s good for you, but it takes attention to a lot of detail today to get the reputation that’s going to benefit you in the future.

A reputation for being supportive, for instance, must be earned through social habits. And to be seen as considerate, you have to be able to remember information that people share about their lives, proving that you listened and paid attention. It also helps to follow up with skillfully phrased questions about what you were told last time you met. The idea is demonstrate concern, not intrusiveness, with a question like, “How did it work out with that guy you met?”

To be viewed by other people as supportive also takes thought and careful attention to language. It is important to remember that friends don’t judge each other. They don’t evaluate. They don’t point out each other’s weaknesses. Suppose that your friend has a child who is badly behaved. You don’t say, “Your kid is a little horror!” or “You’re raising that kid incorrectly,” even though both statements may be true. Instead, a friend could say something like, “Have you ever thought about doing or saying such and such to little Ashley?”

Having the ability to respond with the right phrase in real time takes practice, as do all social skills.

As individuals, or as organizations, it is possible to set out to develop friendship skills. However, like all aspects of the fat smoker syndrome, it requires a concerted effort to invest today in building skills (and relationships) that will pay off tomorrow. Unless they are already naturals, relatively few individuals – and even fewer organizations – have the self-discipline to stick with the program. That’s why it’s a successful strategy for those who do.

Do you know of firms that make a competitive advantage out of all this by selecting for and training these attitudes and skills? Can it be done?


Duncan Bucknell said:

Definitely can be done. Question is (always) whether firm management have tthe courage to do it… The bigger the firm, then probably the harder it will be.

Contrast this ‘real world’ approach to people and relationships with the inherently masked, and less trusting world of online environments such as Second Life. (The virtual avatars may trust each other, but the real people manifestly do not, or they would not hide behind the avatar.)

If I may be so bold, I’d encourage people to have a look at the WSJ law blog post today – http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2007/07/31/second-life-the-law/

Is this really a good way to attract the right types of work and clients? Seems to be in direct contrast to all that is and has been said on this blog.

posted on August 1, 2007

Wally Bock said:

New York

when I was in high school. He and my mother often entertained at events filled with prominent business people, politicians and diplomats from the United Nations.

Before every dinner party, my mother would sit my sister and me down. She went through all the guests, referring to her indispensable index cards, and saying things like the following.

“Mr. Garrett will be here. He’s the president of a company that buys and sells silver. You can ask him questions about that. And he loves fly fishing. You can ask him questions about that, too.”

Decades later the lesson that stays with me is that the best dinner party conversationalist is often the person who asks the most interested questions.

posted on August 1, 2007

Prem Rao said:

It’s mostly about being a good listener, isn’t it? Skilled communicators are able to draw out so much from the other merely by listening attentively.

Many of us need to improve in this largely under-rated skill. Everyone thinks he/she is a good listener. Most are not.

I believe being an effective and empathetic listener is crucial to being a good conversationalist.

posted on August 3, 2007

Susie Wee said:

Just a quick note to say I think this is brilliant. We hear about courses on leadership, personal effectiveness, teamwork, collaboration, and networking, but to explicitly call out “friendship” is brilliant.

As for selecting/hiring people with friendship skills, I think there is some self-select that happens during the interview process, since people tend to join companies with cultures that they are comfortable with. So, if you really value friendship skills, then you could discuss it during the interview. The question is are you willing to lose candidates because they don’t believe in friendship skills. Personally, I’d say that losing these candidates is worth it, since life is short and I prefer to have pleasant co-workers who can operate in a team environment and who can interact with customers/clients unsupervised. But other people may have different priorities.

posted on August 6, 2007

mahesh golani said:


well i sincerel;y believe that you are born with certain traits. you are either a listener or a good conversTIONALIST.you cannot possibly be both. once you have decided whaT KIND OF PERSON YOU ARE, YOU GOT TO POLISH YOUR TRAIT…THATS ALL. Personally i am a good conversationalist and i always was. to be a good conversationalist i had to be very knowledgeable. to be knowledgeable you gotta be a good listener at some point of time. combine all this and then presto you are a winner

posted on November 3, 2007

Lindsay said:

Trully ineresting analysis. Very actuall artice. Bravo!

posted on April 6, 2008

mp4 player said:

I think there is some self-select that happens during the interview process, since people tend to join companies with cultures that they are comfortable with. So, if you really value friendship skills, then you could discuss it during the interview. The question is are you willing to lose candidates because they don’t believe in friendship skills.

posted on May 11, 2008