Building Business Relationships

Learn how to assemble and maintain successful service provider networks.

It's not just the customers who drive your business.

Whether you're a solo practitioner or you work for a multistate corporation, you depend on a vast network of people with varying expertise to help get the job done. Establishing, fostering, and burnishing those professional relationships is an integral part of your business's success.

“In any real estate transaction, there are other folks involved — not just the real estate broker,” says James V. Cahill, CCIM, vice president and manager of the Staubach Co.'s Bethesda, Md., office. “You have attorneys, accountants, appraisers, construction folks. [Some] are world-class service providers, and [others] are just giving bare-minimum service. It's important that you identify and seek out people in those industries who are going to perform at the same level [as] you.”

In other words, it sometimes takes a village to complete transactions. Commercial real estate professionals often depend on related-industry service providers to help deliver strong, consistent client service. Building a well-tooled network of trusted professionals takes patience and persistence. Good people are out there, but it's your job to identify proven performers, make sure they share your goals, and keep the communication lines open so relationships remain positive.

Seek Out Winners

To begin, hone your assessment skills. “You need a genuine interest in other people to find out what kind of character they have,” says Tom Hoban, chief executive officer of Coast Real Estate Services in Everett, Wash. “When you ask them to do something for you, and they're paid for that service, [you have to know] they're giving you the highest level of attention.”

For example, Coast assembles a preferred vendors list for its property management portfolio. To be included on the list, vendors “have to first prove themselves in the field,” Hoban says. “We generally find quality vendors — from a carpet cleaner all the way up to a structural engineer — by listening to our people. We ask our people to let us know when vendors perform well; those [vendors] who get consistently good remarks will make the list.”

Cahill also recommends using independent research and basic experience. “As you're working on projects, you're going to come across service providers, and you're quickly going to be able to determine who is good and who is not so good,” he says.

Many related-industry professionals understand this and set their own high service standards. “Consistently delivering” is critical, says Brian Hayes, CCIM, national business development director for Opus North in Rosemont, Ill. “Whether it be a schedule, budget, quality issue, or responsiveness after a deal is completed — all of that is very effective marketing.”

Beyond identifying solid performers, you also want to create business opportunities. “You need to seek out people who have the basic understanding of what marketing and business development is all about,” Cahill says. “Because if they don't get it — if they don't understand that it's a two-way highway — you're not going to get that return business.”

He employs a coaching method: “At some point, very early in the relationship, you have a frank conversation with the other provider and let them know that you're interested in people who can offer the best service to your clients. If you trust them, and they can demonstrate that they're going to perform for your client, you are going to be someone who can help them get in front of new business. But in return, the expectation — and they have to know this — is that when you perform well for their clients, they're going to keep the referrals coming your way.”

Building strong reciprocal professional relationships starts with high-end delivery. “You have to be willing to give a lot before you get something in return,” Cahill says. “And you're only going to get something in return after you've demonstrated that [the other provider] can trust you and that you're going to provide a level of service that's going to make them look good.”

Hoban agrees. “If your word isn't worth anything, over time, these relationships erode. The fundamentals of business start with trust.”

Look in the Right Places

While it's easy to spot top-notch performers in action, it sometimes requires a little research to find them initially. Referrals from trusted colleagues are ideal, but sometimes the well runs dry. Then where do you look?

Hoban puts stock in those who belong to credible industry-related professional and trade organizations. “There are meaningful criteria required for people to get into those groups, so that definitely can validate someone,” he says. “There's a little more traction there. I can count on that vendor; they're committed to the industry at a level that requires some financial commitment, some time commitment, and even ways to qualify their business.” Hoban also networks through his college alumni association, which has been “enormously successful,” he says.

However, Cahill urges using some caution. “You have to approach trade organizations the same way you approach service provider relationships,” he says. “You have to make sure there's going to be a payoff. The best way to do that is to research organizations that you think are going to offer opportunities and then try them out.”

But, “You can't just belong to an organization — you have to be active in it,” he adds. “If you get involved on committees, and you're getting to know people and becoming friends, it's less of a business relationship and more of a friendship. That's when those networking organizations start working and become very powerful tools.”

Other professionals stress the friendship angle as well. “Turning business relationships into personal relationships has been much more helpful in building my business,” says Patrick J. DiCesare, CCIM, of Patrick DiCesare Properties in Greensburg, Pa. He suggests golfing as a good way to break the ice. He treats business contacts and others from their companies to rounds. “When you spend four hours playing golf with somebody, it really softens the introduction of the relationship and helps promote future business relationships.”

Talk the Talk

Perceptive communication skills are vital to sustaining professional relationships. “You need to be informed,” Hayes says. “You need to understand how people work; there's a tendency to want to impose your way of doing things onto their way of doing things, and it should be the other way around. You have to work within the context of how they make decisions.”

To that end, meet with “all kinds of people on a regular basis … so that you're always in the mix and aware of what's going on and the realities of those particular situations,” he says.

“There's no question that you have to talk the language, but you get there by asking questions,” Hoban adds. “Most of what I've learned about how people's businesses work is just by asking them, talking to them.”

Once you've established solid relationships, you still need to work to keep them strong, and communication is critical. “You need to be touching bases,” Cahill says. “Offer [other service providers] opportunities and provide them with information that can help them in their business development activities. Let them know about seminars, invite them to participate in panel discussions, offer to co-author articles that could be used for marketing purposes.”

Seminars are especially effective. “They offer you the chance to showcase your area of expertise and are a great opportunity for people who need your services to hear good advice without you coming off as a salesman,” he says. When putting together panel discussions, “identify topics of relevance to your prospects and have other panelists who can add to the content. It's a multidimensional approach in which prospects walk away with information that they feel they can use.”

DiCesare maintains a steady flow of information to leasing agents in particular (he owns 11 office buildings and shopping centers in the Pittsburgh area), including periodic “leasefaxes” detailing market information. “It keeps that top-of-the-mind awareness for brokers,” he says. “I often get comments from brokers saying they appreciate knowing what's on the market.”

E-mail makes it easy to stay in touch on a regular basis with quick reminders and greetings. Adrian A. Arriaga Sr., CCIM, principal of AAA Real Estate & Investments in McAllen, Texas, goes a step further. He takes a digital camera to meetings, conferences, and other occasions, photographs participating colleagues, and e-mails the photos after he's returned home. He's gotten a good response from appreciative subjects, he says.

Arriaga also relies on a more traditional form of correspondence: thank-you notes for jobs well done. The pen-to-paper approach stands out, he says. “The art of thank-you notes has been lost. Think about it: When was the last time you got a handwritten note from someone thanking you for something?”

Above all, finding and nurturing good business relationships takes persistence. “You're going to find the right people eventually, but you have to work at it,” Cahill says. “They're not going to find you if you're not working at finding them.”

Sarah Hoban

Sarah Hoban is a business writer based in Chicago.