“The art of good business is being a good middleman.”
Since I first heard this line in the 2004 British film “Layer Cake,” it has made an impression that has stuck with me. Not only was this statement a major point in the movie, but it also applies to real-life business — especially small businesses. To me, it means that good business is all about good relationships.
As a full-time social media guy I often feel like I’m the middleman. I reach out to people, make connections and then quite often put people in touch with each other — whether it’s connecting a customer with the right product manager or a web designer with a potential client. If I can’t manage relationships, I fail at my job.
The same goes for any small business owner. If you can’t manage relationships, your business will suffer.
As a small business, for example, you typically don’t get the luxury of not ever having a bad review. Almost everyone has had an unhappy customer take her business elsewhere due to a less-than-perfect experience, and then share it with her friends — or worse — with everyone on the Internet! This is when managing relationships really comes into play. It’s an opportunity to turn a negative experience into a positive one by being proactive: reach out to the customer to listen to their feedback and work together to come up with a solution. And if necessary, assume the role of the middleman to connect that customer to a third-party who can resolve their issue.
Make every customer count
Annie, Bob, Ricardo, Jessica — you know your customers’ names and faces, their jobs, family members, needs, goals and even dreams. The more personal connection and time you have invested in your customers, the more loyalty you’re likely to earn. They might even become brand advocates for your business.
I think a good way to build these relationships over time is to mix it up between online and offline interaction. Social media is great for sharing experiences and finding common ground, for thanking your customers for their feedback and inviting them to get to know more about you and your business. But it’s not quite enough.
You’ll build stronger relationships if you take the next step, using social interactions as a springboard for meeting face-to-face. If you’re participating in a trade show or conference, setting up at the local farmer’s market, or selling street food in front of the courthouse on Thursday — encourage your social friends to meet you there! Having already connected via social paves the way for smoother conversations in person.
I’ve had the luxury of going to some events with web developers and designers after engaging with their content via social and found that:
- They’re usually even cooler in person.
- Mentioning a recent social interaction is a great icebreaker.
Good business doesn’t mean using the latest technology, shiny object, or even always being the best in your field, though that helps. It’s the human connections you make that trump everything else. If you can read and manage people you’re going to succeed. You’ll land better deals, get introduced to new people, and remain top-of-mind.
Get out there and get interested
You may have heard the saying “Life is all about who you know.” I’ve heard it hundreds of times, but I think it’s a little off. More accurately the saying should be “Life’s about who knows you.”
How do you make these personal connections? You might think of things like conferences, business card exchanges and LinkedIn. Those platforms serve a purpose, but they’re not always the ideal way to make real connections. There’s just no substitute for getting out there — even beyond your comfort zone — to interact with people on an individual level.
Go to a dinner you’re not particularly excited about with a client or friend of a friend. Attend or organize a local meetup for that WordPress or Etsy group. Take a few extra minutes during your interaction with a customer — at the register, on the sales floor, in the aisles, wherever — to get to know them better. It’s such a simple but powerful way to start building a relationship. Just be genuinely interested in learning one new thing about that customer.
Get out there and advocate for others who you believe in and eventually they’ll notice and start advocating for you and your business.
The middleman method
So let’s simplify this into an actionable bullet list. Being a good middleman comes down to:
- Being willing to get out of your comfort zone
- Genuinely taking interest in customers and companies you partner or do business with
- Not worrying about having to be the best to succeed, but trying harder than everyone else and being memorable to others
- Constantly finding new ways to connect with people
In honor of Small Business Week I challenge you to apply those five basic principles of being a good middleman to your work routine. Get out there and learn one new thing about five people this week.
Feel free to come back and post in the comments your new experiences. What did you learn? What worked? What didn’t? I’d love to hear your stories!