We’ve talked a lot in recent posts about the idea of “relationship equity” and I’d like to revisit it again today – it particularly struck me as a friend of mine recently accepted a job offer and when she announced the company she was working for, suddenly people were coming out of the woodwork to ask her for favors and help. Many of those people aren’t connections she’s regularly in touch with – in other words, they have no relationship equity with her. It reminded me of another story.

Recently, I received an email from someone I don’t know – like everyone, I get LOTS of these, but this one struck me. He must read my blog, because he mentions it in his note. He even manages to spell my name correctly.

However, the purpose for his email is to tell me about this blog post he wrote, to suggest that I use it as the subject matter of one of my own posts, and that I tweet out his link to my Twitter followers. In fact, he goes so far as to mention that his is a topic worthwhile of discussion by the entire legal blogosphere. Really?

Well, I’m certainly not biting.

And why not? Perhaps his article is interesting, even provocative. Perhaps I will have something to say in response, or thoughts to add.  But for me, he’s broken a cardinal rule, and asked for a favor without having any relationship equity at all.

As I mentioned above, relationship and social equity are things we’ve talked about here before – we’ve defined “social equity” as “how you build your credibility online to increase your perceived value by others.” So, by extension, I would say that relationship equity is how you build your credibility in general to increase your perceived value.  Further, the more relationship equity you have, the stronger the bond is.

There are those with whom I have strong relationship equity – these are my friends and family.  I may even have strong relationship equity in professional relationships – these are the connections that I work hard to establish and nurture over time, by staying connected regularly both in-person and online. The underlying factor here is trust – over time, we have built up mutual trust and our relationship is not based simply on taking things from me (or vice versa). We have a strong existing relationship, so any requests or favors are simply part of that existing fabric. That’s one of the reasons it’s so essential to keep your business relationships vibrant – to sustain that relationship equity. And why is that important? When you have that trust:

  • The client is much more likely to call you first when they have a new piece of work. Either they know you can handle it directly, or they know you can point them to the person who will handle it just like you do.
  • The referral source is more likely to call you first when they have something that you can handle – they know you well enough to associate your face and name with your practice or industry expertise (and sometimes your city/country), so they’re confident in calling you up to take care of their client.

From this close circle, where you have the strongest relationship equity, there is a growing sphere of people, and each layer has less and less equity. On the outer reaches of the sphere would be people within the industry with whom you have either rarely or never interacted.

These people have no relationship equity with you, and you have none with them.

In today’s world, we’re bombarded with information. For example, even though I checked my email from my mobile over the weekend, I came in to 1,400 emails in my inbox this morning. The majority of these are spam, of course, but there are also those that are just noise – potentially useful information, but thrown at me so constantly that I ignore every one. The busier I am, the more likely I am to ignore the “noise.”

So the thing that will make something stand out for me involves this relationship equity – we’d all like to believe that we treat each client exactly the same, that each email or phone call that comes in gets exactly the same level of attention and importance assigned to it as any other. But if we’re honest, that’s not the case. While some matters will be more about what fires we’re putting out today, and what priorities are on our plate, some are dictated by who we have the most relationship equity with. When you see an email pop up from someone that you really like, who has worked hard to engage and connect with you, you may skip reading the other emails and read and respond to theirs first. You may ignore what’s on your desk to take their call. It’s human nature.

If you want someone to consider your requests the same way, you have to be working on building that relationship equity with them.

What if you DON’T have relationship equity? 

What if you don’t have relationship equity, but you need some help? There are still ways you can get around it.

  • Acknowledge the lack of relationship: When someone assumes a relationship without any previous interaction (and honestly, no reputation within the industry that I’m familiar with), acknowledging the lack of relationship equity can go a long way. It comes off as honest and transparent, instead of “sales-y” and rude. You may also have some connection with the person you can use – for example, when someone is a member of the ILN and sending a referral to another member that they may not previously have met, we suggest that they not only copy the Administration on the email, but that they also introduce themselves as fellow Network members. Establishing a connection to try to at least start some relationship equity is key.
  • Let it happen organically: If there’s not an immediate need, but you think that you may have some future connections, now is the time to start building. Ask the person out for coffee or a drink, ask to have a phone call to get to know their business needs better, etc. Ensure that you are doing most of the listening, and asking most of the questions, so you can look for opportunities to add value, rather than trying to find ways they can help you.
  • Use (outside) relationship equity: Obviously, there will be people within the industry with whom this person has strong relationship equity. If you can identify who your mutual connections may be, you can ask them to introduce the two of you – note that you are using up some of your relationship capital with the mutual friend by doing so. But instead of making a cold call, especially if it’s necessary in a situation where you’re making a request, having a mutual connection make the introduction can soften your approach.
  • Catch me (them) at the right time: It happens sometimes that someone will catch me at exactly the right moment – the stars align, I have a few minutes to think, and I’m interested in the subject.  So I’ll read the email or chat on the phone.  But it’s pretty rare, and the timing has to be just perfect (hint: last thing on a Friday afternoon is NOT it).

What are the lessons here for lawyers?

  • It’s a marathon, not a sprint: Building relationship equity is not a sprint. With very few exceptions, you are never going to engage in a business development activity for the first time and immediately get a client. It’s just not natural. But every activity that you participate in is a building block, and that will get you to your goal. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but someday. I just returned from our Annual Conference, where I heard so many stories of lawyers receiving work from current ILN members, from lawyers who had left member firms and gone in-house, or moved to other firms, and all because they come to conferences and show up to everything they possibly can and meet as many people as they can.
  • If you build it, they will come: We’ve all heard and chuckled at the Field of Dreams quote, but it’s true. It’s all about  building those relationships, and it happens one step at a time. You listen, you connect, you engage, you share, and over time, you will find that you have more and more relationship equity. The Field of Dreams is an apt corollary here – when Kevin Costner’s character starts building the baseball field, no one shows up the first day. But he keeps working at it, and keeps working, and once the entire field is built, both the ghost players and the fans come, in droves.
  • It’s just not all about you: We talk about this ad nauseum here, but it’s true – when it comes to relationship-building, you have to be in it for the other person. Genuinely. The more helpful you are, the more equity you will build, and the more likely that person will eventually become loyal to you and want to help you out in some way.  So this means knowing what your clients and potential clients want to hear from you, and how – and this is one size fits one, not one size fits all. If you’re not sure what your clients want, ask them.Sometimes, you also have to look at it from your perspective – not in the sense that you should be thinking about what you want, but what you would want if you were in your clients’ shoes. For example, is your client going to want a note from you late on a Friday? Are they going to want to get bad news on a Saturday morning, or can it wait until Monday? How likely is it that they’d be happy getting a bill without a heads up on extra charges? Or getting the bill last thing on Friday afternoon? We all like to clear things off our desks before the weekend, but take a few minutes before engaging with clients to ask yourself whether you would want a service provider coming to you with the same information in the same way, or at the same time.

    Obviously, there are exceptions to this – we’d all want to know if there was a major leak in the house during home renovations as soon as it happens. And there are similar client emergencies that require the same level of attention.  But there are also those things that could wait, or those things that just add to the noise that we’re already getting so much out of. You may have noticed that those who people listen most closely to are the ones who speak the least – usually, they only speak when it’s very important.

What do you think, Zen readers? With all of the noise out there today, how much does relationship and social equity mean to you?