Build Your Business by Building Relationships with Other Companies

by Margot Carmichael Lester, Staples® Contributing Writer

Building business relationships with other small business owners is an effective way to solve problems, leverage economies of scale and increase sales. Even if you’re located in the same shopping center or town, if you offer different but related products or services, you won’t be hindering each other’s business. In fact, you will likely find the opposite.

The results of great business relationships with other businesses can be as simple as posting a sign for a neighboring store in your window or as large as a co-sponsored community event. The key is that each business has something to offer the other, and does so willingly in the name of mutually beneficial success.

Where to Meet

There’s never been a better time to make new connections. Between online and in-person activities, there are many ways to meet others and do business, such as:

  • Industry & Chamber Events: These events are made for making connections and building relationships with other businesses. “Try the largest, ticketed events; the free meet and mingles; and the smaller, structured forums or roundtables, and see which is the best fit for you to meet potential partners,” suggests Meg Branson, former senior vice president of the Chapel Hill–Carrboro Chamber of Commerce. “Then stick with it. The longer you attend, the stronger your relationships will grow.”
  • Chamber Sponsorships: Get even more from your chamber membership with sponsorships and featured presentations in person, online and in print. “Showcase what you do during display opportunities at business expos, golf tournaments and networking events,” Branson says. “Sponsor larger events for a speaking opportunity. Offer fellow members a special deal or discount on your product or service, and partner that promotion with a direct mail piece and/or a print or email newsletter ad. And make sure your directory listing is up to date and describes what you do and how to get a hold of you.”
  • Social Networks: “To meet strategic partners, vendors and prospects online, there are a ton of groups in social media,” says Mary Beth Huffman, a certified SCORE Mentor and principal with IMPACT Marketing and Public Relations in Carpentersville, IL. “On Twitter there are chats almost 24/7. Do a search by subject. Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ have groups too. Select the ones that are a good fit for your goals and fit your schedule.” You can also ask colleagues which networks they use and what results they see from participation. Then try out a handful to see which are good fits for you. “Use social networks to share your insights and knowledge with other local businesses and create awareness,” says Eric Groves, co-founder and CEO of Boston-based Alignable, a free local-business social network.
  • Service Providers and Vendors: These professionals have wide networks that might not overlap with yours, so ask them to connect you with folks who are good matches for your business needs.

Start with Two Questions

Regardless of where you meet another business owner, Larry Nelson, vice president of workshops for the SCORE Dallas Chapter 22, recommends answering two questions before you make first contact:

  • What’s in it for you?
  • What’s in it for them?

Think carefully about what you have to offer the other business, how you can help them address a need or achieve a goal, and what, specifically, you want or need them to help you accomplish. “If you have a good answer for both questions, then you should proceed with introducing yourself,” he says.

Sometimes, what you need is ideas and answers. In these cases, your approach is strategic, but social. “Most companies have similar problems — too much inventory, too-high receivables, high employee turnover, low morale, not enough working capital and many others,” Nelson says. “Networking with other businesses allows you to find out how they are dealing with these problems. By sharing your issues with others you'll find many options to choose from, and then you adapt what you hear to meet the needs of your own organization.” These connections can also introduce you to consultants and coaches to offer additional insights and expertise.

Other times, you need products and services. In these cases, your approach is transactional. “Put your sales hat on,” says Nelson. “This is a sales call, so ask for what you want. Be quick, to the point and respect the time of the person you're talking to. If there is follow-up to do, define who's going to do what, when is it to be done and who's responsible for getting back to the other person within what timeframe.”

The Right Mix

“Use a mix of online and in-person activities to build business-to-business relationships,” Groves suggests. “All small business owners are incredibly busy,” so finding different ways to get to know each other and leverage each other’s business is smart. Once you’ve established a connection, some ways to work together to build business relationships include:

  • Complementary Co-Marketing: Identify businesses whose products and services complement your own and create a little marketing synergy. “Throw events with other businesses that your customers might also need, invite owners to write guest blog posts on your blog, and look for publications where you can go in together on an advertising campaign,” Branson advises. You can also include a mention of each other’s business in your respective email newsletters. This helps you both extend your marketing budgets and get your businesses in front of new customers.
  • Special Neighborhood Events: Take advantage of proximity by partnering with other enterprises in your immediate area. “Rally a group of businesses — in a shopping plaza or on Main Street — and coordinate a day-long event like a sidewalk sale or holiday stroll,” Groves suggests. Service businesses can host an information fair or educational event with neighboring businesses, offering important tips and advice in an informal setting. This helps participating businesses “cross pollinate” through a fun, low-key event.

One last tip: When you make good connections, don’t forget that gratitude goes a long way. “Formalize a thank-you system for folks who give you viable leads or referrals,” Branson says. “Send a hand-written note, a gift card or a local treat, and return the favor!”

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