B2B Reality Check: Are Your Business Relationships Too Shallow?

I’’ve learned a lot from Mark W. Schaefer, a marketing professional, professor and friend I first met through Twitter about three years ago. Mark’’s Twitter account is quite active, too. He’’s one of the pied pipers of the microblogging service with more than 20,000 followers (I’’m among them somewhere). The difference with Mark is that he has an amazing ability to listen while he plays, and he responds in an almost superhuman way to almost anyone who makes an effort to engage him. It could be about marketing, social media, blogging or life, and whether you’’re curious, inquisitive, contrarian or doubtful, he’’ll often reply. That’’s an unusual quality among social media gurus. Schaefer writes the blog {grow}, and with it he’’s built an entire community of engaged individuals who enjoy active discussions in the comments section under each post.

B2B Reality Check: Are Your Business Relationships Too Shallow?Although we’’re now good friends and have often met to collaborate on major B2B marketing projects, we sometimes disagree. The following excerpt is from one of Mark’’s recent blog posts:

Ten years ago, if you had a business crisis, you could probably count on those deep relationships to help pull you through, at least to a certain extent. Today, and especially after the recession, people just don’’t have time for relationship-building. I can’’t imagine inviting a customer to a weekend of golfing any more. Everybody is doing what used to be three jobs. Who has the time for building business friendships?

I wonder about the long-term implications for business when relationships are negotiated through spreadsheets and emails.

Maybe there will be backlash and a re-focusing on deep relationships at some point. There was recently a story about tech start-ups scrambling for office space near Twitter because of the live networking opportunities. Kind of ironic. Seeking deeper offline relationships with people dedicated to spreading low-impact online relationships.

A business relationship renaissance. Could that be a competitive advantage for you? Or, is the age of empathy over?

I left a comment below that post disagreeing with Mark. Not surprisingly he responded, and not only thanked me, but suggested my comment would make a good blog of my own.

I try to take Mark’’s advice often, so here it is:

I’’m not much of a fisherman, I suck at golf and I’m not a natural networker at business functions. But your story resonates with me because I’ve been fortunate enough over the past 30 years to have experienced some remarkable relationships with both clients and vendors. Business isn’t just about the good times and the easy wins; it’s about partnership, mutual respect and, at it’s best, friendship.

In business, as in life, things can go off course. In my experience it seems to happen at the worst possible times, and if not for the patience, shared responsibility, fairness and understanding, my business wouldn’t have survived as long as it has. I hate mistakes, but they happen. Strong business relationships can overcome them, learn from them and rebound.

Over the past few years my business relationships have been based more on conference rooms, phone calls, emails and retweets than shared experiences like the fishing trip you describe. I’ve always considered marketing to be my favorite sport, though. I enjoy the hunt, the competition and the rewards. And it’s especially nice when it’s the result of some tough choices, bold moves and shared risks by my clients and our agency. Navigating through challenges is scary as hell, but it can also be half the fun.

I have hundreds, if not thousands, of new professional contacts through social media engagement. Some of those “virtual friendships” are developing into actual working partnerships. The optimist in me believes these relationships, although different from old-school business friendships, are just as strong.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree that “virtual friendships” have ample opportunities to develop into active business relationships? Or do you think they are weak links with little chance of development? As Mark asks at the conclusion of his article, “Is the age of empathy over?