11 things to do at the start of a new business relationship
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11 things to do at the start of a new business relationship

Posted by Matthew Stibbe
Speed Reading Mode

Once you've done the deal, it's a good time to think about what makes relationships work and how to ensure that each marriage is all honeymoon.

Make your business relationship last.

Here's how to make this a long-term deal, not just a one-off fling.


Be friends first.

Try to find common ground with your partner. As a freelance journalist and now in marketing, I find that the best business relationships I have are with people I like. The ones that went off the rails always involved someone I didn’t like. It helps to be friendly, enthusiastic and to start with the assumption that everyone is going to get along.

Get into bed with the right person.

As John Coulthard says, it’s essential to ‘think individuals not organisations’ and ‘negotiate with the right person’. In my experience, the most important thing you can do is to find the right champion for your work at your client. This is the person who understands

Set expectations.

Aparna Singh said I think establishing expectations clearly is very important. This is one reason why companies/individuals that do business together often end up feeling let down/cheated at a later stage. I agree. I wrote earlier that writers are from Mars and clients are from Venus, so agreeing what is in scope is very important. I use a detailed project brief.

It’s all about them (even when it’s about you).

One of my clients defined marketing as “talking about clients on your terms, not talking about yourself on their terms.”


It’s a cliché that men don’t call the day after a first date and that women want them to. But in business relationships, it is essential to build trust by communicating early and often. Trust is certainty based on past experience. Doing what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it is essential at the beginning of a relationship. If you get the proposal in on time, your client will be more confident that you’ll get the whole project in on time. If you return calls quickly at the beginning, it’s more likely you’ll return calls later when there’s a problem.


Don’t overpromise.

Another way to corrode trust is to overpromise and under-deliver. Make sure you know what you can realistically achieve and plan your schedule and deliverables accordingly. See my previous article: How to budget for, plan and measure writing output.


Shake hands.

Aileen Gonsalves, is an actress and director. Her golden rule is to go in and shake hands with everyone in the case on the first day of rehearsals. Last night, we went for dinner at a restaurant in Hammersmith and the owner shook hands with us as we went in. It makes a big impression.

Be a trusted advisor.

David Maister’s book The Trusted Advisor is one of the few business books that I really respect. Read it. It explains how to build a business relationship on trust.

Be specific about money.

In business, there is always money in the relationship. But as with personal relationships (or political ones), it is more likely to be destructive than constructive. This is why it needs special handling. For example, I always try to speak to people personally about money issues rather than sending an email.

Relationships are projects too.

Despite what you see on Mad Men, account management is not about three-martini lunches. It’s about project management. Schedule calls, identify criticalities, reconcile differences, use formal change control, set service level agreements, pay attention. Good relationship management is not rocket science but it’s not an accident either.

Understand the ending.

I think it’s very healthy to understand one another’s red lines. It’s also good to define the way a relationship will end when everyone is positive and cooperative. A business pre-nup, if you like. This could be the successful completion of the project with a debrief and dinner. Or it could be an agreement about how the project will be closed out and wrapped up if one party walks away. My policy, which may be controversial, is that you should make it as easy as possible for your clients to fire you. It’s a commitment to them that you will stand or fall by how good your work is and how much effort you put into the relationship, not how good your lawyer is.


The most important thing you can do is to go into any business relationship understanding your emotional boundaries. Knowing how you will conduct yourself and what you want to get out of it will help you to stay sane and calm throughout the relationship however long it lasts. Make sure you have people in your corner that you can talk to about the trials and tribulations you encounter, don't let it all build up. And when that all fails, there's always gin. 

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[This blog was originally published in 2010 and has since been updated in 2020]

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