The ROI of Relationships

I recently overhead a consultant talking about the need to stay in touch with contacts, even if they never turn into clients. I completely agree. But then I winced when I heard how she described her thought process: “I know I’ll never make any money off her, but…

Words matter. The words you say out loud matter and, perhaps even more importantly, so do the words you say to yourself. And what you say in your head often winds up being reflected in how you act and the words you do choose to speak. When we let ourselves think in crass terms, even in jest, we reinforce the worst of being in business – seeing everyone as a mark, as nothing more than how much we can make off them.

As I reflect on the colleagues I really look forward to seeing at an event or just going out for coffee with, I can’t even imagine a dollar figure attached to any of them. I probably do get referrals from some of them, and I may directly do business with a few of them. But my goals when I’m spending time one-on-one with someone isn’t ever to cultivate a client. It’s to expand my mind, to challenge my ideas, to spark a new thought. As I think back on the conversations I’ve had with contacts over the past month, I can attribute all the following to people “I’ll never make any money off”:

  • I learned how my information-vendor clients perceive themselves and their competition and what their biggest concerns are
  • I got new ideas on how to structure my web site to better highlight my service offerings
  • I was reminded by example of the value of following instincts and strategically taking risks
  • I brainstormed ideas for a conference presentation I’m developing on informational interviews
  • I learned how a colleague successfully reached out and sold five-figure packages of services to a new market

Ultimately, I will profit from every one of those conversations by having a better perspective, better marketing strategies, and fresh ideas, none of which I would have gained merely from participating in social media or attending a webinar.

Of course, there are some activities I do evaluate primarily on whether I’ll make money from them. If I have to invest significant preparation time (say, over 5 or 6 hours) or spend more than a few hundred dollars, I ask myself what my tangible take-aways will be and how I can maximize my time. Can I focus on making contacts with people I wouldn’t have found any other way? If I am giving a presentation, can I leverage my exposure by adding subscribers to my newsletter or selling copies of my books? Can I set up a meeting with someone I admire and would like to get to know better? Or would this time be better invested in writing a newsletter article for my clients, pitching a presentation idea, or working on volunteer responsibilities?

I don’t tend to give away a day’s time just to be nice, but I will happily spend non-billable time if I see a payback — either directly or by enhancing my professional value in other ways. And after any meeting, whether one-on-one or a group setting, I run through an informal checklist to make sure I get the most value from my time. I ask myself:

  • Did I enjoy the meeting? Would I want to meet with this person or group again? Did I feel like it was time well spent?
  • Did I learn something new, or at least a new perspective on something I’m already familiar with?
  • Can I share what I learned — in an article, a blog post, or in a presentation?
  • Do I have a way to stay in touch with the person or people I met? (While there’s nothing wrong with handing out my business card, I consider it much more important to collect others’ cards. That way, I can follow up afterward with a personal note, a link to a resource we discussed or an invitation to subscribe to my newsletter.)
  • What could I do next time to get even more value from my time?

While there are always practical business considerations when solopreneurs invest their time and energy in face-to-face meetings, it’s important to look beyond the bottom line to find the full value.