44. 5 Secrets to Successful Business Relationships

(with Craig Earnshaw)

44. 5 Secrets to Successful Business Relationships

“Personal relationships are the fertile soil from which all advancement, all success, all achievement in real life grows.”

-Ben Stein, American writer, lawyer, actor, comedian, and political and economic commentator

Relationships aren’t just important in our personal lives. 85% of positions are filled through networking, and 70% of people found a job through connections in a company (Source: review42.com). So how do we build strong relationships in our business? 

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Craig Earnshaw started off as the founder of LifeLink. He sold the company in 2004 and currently works as a startup investor. He is also currently a professor of entrepreneurship at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT, specializing in teaching IT entrepreneurship.

In this episode, Craig and I will discuss the secrets of successful business relationships.

1. Honesty with Ourselves, Our Teams, and Our Customers

When Craig first started his company, they only had about 40 employees. With each employee, Craig would sit down and talk to them. One of the things he talked to employees about was honesty. He would specifically talk to them about being honest with themselves, their team, and their customers. 

By being honest with themselves, Craig means that if an employee is not capable of the job, Craig would ask that they tell him, not covering it up or faking it. He promised that if they came to him for help he would help them. He’s hired people with geology degrees and, through working together, has made them into developers. 

Along the same lines, Craig asked his employees to be honest with their teams. Being honest with our teams creates an understanding that helps us to create camaraderie in a working environment. We shouldn’t fake it with our teams either and should ask for help if we need it. 

Third, and probably most important for the company, is absolute honesty with our customers. LifeLink sold to all of the biggest life insurance companies in the country; it was a dangerous world to work in, with giant companies trying to help them sell a complicated product. All kinds of mistakes could be made, and the liabilities were quite large. In the 25 years that Craig worked at LifeLink, he was never involved in a lawsuit. He attributes this to the fact that he was always honest with his customers and knew how to manage expectations.

2. Managing Expectations

“The most important thing you can do in your life is to manage expectations”

-Craig Earnshaw

Craig didn’t start out his career as a salesman, but as he and the company became more sophisticated they learned how to sell better. Many of their competitors were telling insurance companies “We are the smartest guys on the planet. We have the coolest software. We always deliver on time, and we don’t have any bugs.” This kind of approach set their clients’ expectations extremely high, too high for them to meet. Then, it harmed the relationship when they were not able to meet the expectations.

Craig and his company, on the other hand, loved to tell insurance companies “This only works if we have a partnership with you. You have to tell us what you need, and then we have to try to deliver that to you. We’ll do our best, but I want you to remember that we’re just the dumb software guys.” It was Craig’s favorite line to tell them, and he’d say it to every client at least 10 times. 

When we set expectations that low we can always over-deliver. That was Craig’s goal: under-promise, set the bar low, and then over-deliver. We must be transparent and honest but do it immediately. As soon as we start promising the moon, we’ll be in big trouble because nobody has control over that.

Along the same lines, saying no is one of the best ways to give us credibility. If we’re able to say no when people ask for new features or ask us to do new things that are not our core competency, it actually gives us more credibility because we’re not over-committing.

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3. Selling to the Middle of the Pyramid

When Craig teaches his class, he often draws a pyramid and tells his students that it represents the number of life insurance agents, the worst agents are at the bottom and the best agents are at the top. Then Craig will ask his students “Who am I trying to sell to in that pyramid?” Almost everybody will pick some place in the middle of the pyramid and draw lines, saying he’s selling from here up. Craig will then explain to them that he doesn’t really want to be selling to the very bottom or the very top of the pyramid. 

Those at the bottom of the pyramid are often too casual. They’re usually not full-time agents and not worth the time or trouble. Those at the top of the pyramid can also be a lot of trouble. They’re often super demanding, accustomed to having things like custom illustrations done for every presentation. They probably have a staff of six or eight people, and they look to Craig as another member of their staff. No matter how hard we might try to make those guys happy, we just can’t. Craig tried to focus on the sweet spot or ideal customer in the middle of the triangle.

4. Connecting through Level 10 Passions

When I asked Craig who the most credible person in his life is, he quickly responded by telling me about his father. His dad has never let Craig down. The whole time Craig was growing up, his dad was a bishop (the unpaid minister of their local congregation), and Craig was always proud of that. When Craig’s dad was released as bishop, there was a meeting where everybody said what a wonderful guy Bill Earnshaw was, and Craig says that was one of the proudest moments of his life.

When Craig was about 15 years old, he told his dad he wanted to get his pilot’s license. His family didn’t have a lot of money, but instead of telling Craig no, his dad told him he’d look around and see if he could find a way for Craig to get it. He found a flight instructor who was building a plane in his garage. The man agreed to hire Craig, giving him one hour of instruction for every two hours of work. Craig got his license for a total of $400, only paying for the plane. 

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Craig’s dad connected with his son through a level 10 passion just as we can connect with our customers through their high-level passions. Craig’s father found Craig’s level 10 passion which was becoming a pilot, and he figured out how to help Craig achieve that. By doing that, he associated himself with Craig’s level 10 passion, and his credibility and connection with Craig increased.

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

-Dale Carnegie

5. The Secret to Giving Advice

Craig’s best mentor in his business life was a man named Walt. He was a customer, and Craig ended up working in Walt’s office because Craig’s company did so much work for them and the insurance company they represented. Walt, in the kindest way, used to tell Craig that he couldn’t sell worth anything, present worth a darn, or manage people worth a darn. Then he helped Craig improve each of those weaknesses. 

Walt took Craig to lunch all the time, never letting Craig pay for lunch. Craig kept trying to pay, but Walt would never let him pay for lunch, saying, “No, you’ll have somebody you’re mentoring later in your life and you can buy their lunch.” Because of that, now Craig takes two or three of his students to lunch every week and pays for it.

The secret to giving advice is first we have to gain credibility. Once we establish credibility, then we can give the most direct advice or the advice that is necessary but hurtful. When we’ve established a relationship, we can really help the people we’re mentoring. When they take that advice and their life improves because of it, our credibility increases. 

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Key Takeaways

Thank you so much Craig for sharing your stories and knowledge with us today. Here are some of my key takeaways from this episode:

1. We must be honest with ourselves, our teams, and our customers to help each other and build a great working environment.

2. Don’t over-commit. It is much easier to over-deliver on our promises when we set the bar lower initially.

3. Potential customers on the low and high ends of our pyramids often are not worth the effort it takes to sell to them. If we focus on the middle of the pyramid it is often the sweet spot of our ideal customers.

4. Our credibility can increase if we can connect through level 10 passions in our relationships.

5. In order to give good advice, we must first establish a relationship and credibility with those we’re advising. Once we do that, they will be more likely to listen and trust our advice. When the advice works, it helps to further increase our credibility. 

Connect with Craig

If you enjoyed this interview and want to connect with Craig you can find him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/angelcearnshaw/.

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    About the author

    Nathan Gwilliam

    Nathan Gwilliam

    I help organizations navigate tectonic shifts that are transforming the business landscape, so they can optimize marketing, accelerate profits, and make a greater difference for good.

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