"*Article originally published on CityBizList"

Rethinking How We Sell. This past month, we explored the challenges of perfecting your elevator speech and getting that next meeting. And the final column of the year struggled with how to make a business relationship more than the byproduct of a sale. The challenge is in understanding how a passion for what we do relates to how our business relationships actually work.

Beyond a Cog in Another’s Wheel. As 2016 came to an end, I asked a series of questions:

Which clients you’re most likely to retain over time; which ones are willing to give you honest feedback on how you’re doing, partnering to improve what you do; which ones connect you with like-minded prospects; which are the ones you enjoy working with when the day’s done?

Which clients are most likely a flight risk; which unceasingly complain, constantly re-trade, are the least profitable for you; create the most distractions from what is really valuable?

Then I asked whether your sales pitch might have something to do with who ends up as your client?

Purposeful Connections. Leslie Woodward thinks it does and my conversation with her got me thinking differently about how to purposefully connect with our clients. And before you flee, Leslie was the leading sales performance executive for one of the country’s largest banks, successfully driving growth for a national sales team managing over 5,000 clients and $30B in loans. Metrics driven but purposefully so. Through her consulting firm, Leslie now coaches others on how to transform their approach to growing their businesses.

Don’t Ask It. First, let’s start with what not to do. “Why would you ever lead a conversation with a question that would make you cringe if you were on the receiving end of it,” asks Leslie. Avoid such networking chestnuts as the weather, sports, politics, vacations – before you ask a question, ask yourself whether you would “cringe” if it was asked of you. With this filter, what not to ask is deceptively simple; the challenge is to have the discipline to reflect – to avoid starting a “safe” conversation when you have the opportunity to shape a “purposeful” one.

Finding Common Ground. So Leslie asks “what question would you want to be asked of yourself?” She defines one of the elements we all search for as finding “common ground.” Finding common ground requires asking questions, according to Leslie, to find a shared purpose, to explore why each of us does what we do. This requires “knowing your own passion and purpose, and understanding whether you're really connected [to what you do].” For Leslie, if we don’t understand why we do what we do, then it’s impossible to find common ground with others in what they do.

Enrollment. The other element we all search for in relationships is what Leslie describes as “enrollment.” She reminds us that “you buy from people you like and connect with.” Enrollment is the process of connecting. It requires “intrepid questioning and calling it like it is.” “Starting with yourself and then the other allows staying connected to yourself and the other person.” Unlike superficial networking – again think: weather, sports, politics, vacations – Leslie suggests questions that focus on why you do what you do and probe why others do what they do. Enrollment moves past insight to engagement.

Clarity vs. Opacity. Exploring “what's going on with yourself and the other person” enables you to strengthen that connection. As Leslie explains, “we're mirrors for each other, however clear or opaque.” Clarity doesn’t come from the superficial conversation. An easy conversation may seem clear but doesn’t lead to insight. Insight only comes from a thoughtful, probative and engaged conversation. If you think about it, some of the best experiences in networking are when we’ve left a conversation that has moved past the predictable and engaged us resonantly. What’s equally remarkable, on reflection, is how rare such conversations (and experiences) are. Purposefully building relationships in this manner, Leslie cautions, “is hard work.” As we each start 2017 anew, we have the opportunity to reset how we engage others and, frankly, to determine what types of relationships would we like to foster this year.

With more than 25 years’ experience in law and business, Newt Fowler, a partner in Womble Carlyle’s business practice, advises many investors, entrepreneurs and technology companies, guiding them through all aspects of business planning, financing transactions, technology commercialization and M&A. He chairs the Board of TEDCO and serves on the Boards of the Economic Alliance of Baltimore, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Chesapeake.