In good times and in bad: How strong are your business relationships?

Conventional wisdom among grief counselors says that going through hard times does not create problems in a relationship. It amplifies them.

That means if there is an issue with trust, it gets worse. If there is poor communication, the problem is exacerbated. Or if there is a difference in values and priorities, it becomes more apparent.

Luckily, the same is true for the positive aspects of a strong relationship. If communication is excellent during good times, it will actually get better during challenging times. If trust is evident always, it won’t waver when other stressors put pressure on the relationship. And so on.

Business relationships are no different.

The difficult times and economic challenges of the past few months have reinforced the value and strength of your existing business network and relationships. Are you happy with how that has gone?

The independent community bank where I work often claims that it matters where you do your banking despite most banks offering similar products and services. The same is true for all your professional relationships. Most professionals are competent at performing the task they are hired to perform, but do they go the extra mile? Do they actually look out for you, give you extra attention when you need it, and suggest solutions you haven’t already thought of?

It’s easy to be a good partner when things are going well, but when the chips are down, it’s much easier to see who is on your side. How do you find the right partner for when the picture isn’t so rosy?

7 factors for finding the right match

Much like any relationship — a marriage, a friendship, your favorite family member — the right match brings out the best in you, helps you realize your full potential, and enables you to build the life you want to live.

Your bank and other business partners can be that kind of relationship.

These seven questions can help you evaluate and identify those relationships that are worth their weight in gold (or maybe their weight in toilet paper these days):

1. Are they available when you need them? Let’s start with the basics. Is your banker, accountant, lawyer, etc. available when you call or email them? Do they get back to you within a reasonable timeframe with helpful information? If your business support team disappeared during this time of economic uncertainty, then it’s time to find partners who shine in a crisis.

LESSON: If your rep or contact doesn’t respond quickly and helpfully in the best of times, they won’t get better when times are tough.

2. Do they know you and your business? The last few months made it clear that it’s good to work with people who actually know your name rather than being just another number in their book of business.

For example, many businesses — and individuals, for that matter — needed to refinance loans, extend terms, or renegotiate payments based on the current conditions. I was told by many of our customers that our bank was much more willing to work with them and try to improve their situation. That didn’t surprise me because our community focus makes us more familiar with your company and the community/clientele you serve. We want to serve and protect the finances of those same people and businesses.

LESSON: A company’s mission matters. Find partners whose values and priorities match up with your own.

3. Are they proactive or reactive? During the recent safer-at-home orders, our bank took a very proactive approach to helping our business customers. Instead of waiting for people to call in a state of desperation, our business and commercial bankers got on the phone and started calling customers to ask, “Are you ready?” and “How can we help you be more ready?” Based on their concerns, we suggested options and helped them create a plan for different scenarios.

LESSON: Anyone can answer questions. Partner with people who actively try to help you succeed.

4. When they make decisions, whose best interest do they have in mind? Are your business partners offering products and services that make life easier for you or for them? Obviously, the best relationships are mutually beneficial for all involved, but what happens when that’s not possible?

For instance, there were a lot of reasons why any bank or financial institution might not want to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program. In fact, my bank had to create an online system for accepting and processing applications from scratch in just five days. The rules were changing almost daily. Plus, we were relocating all our own employees at the same time to work from home or to safely assist customers in drive-thru locations. Yet, every discussion focused on the fact that our customers would need this help and guidance, so we better just figure it out. The same thing happened during the widespread floods a few years ago. We created a Flood Relief Loan with low or no interest to provide short-term relief for people and businesses who needed quick cash for common damages.

LESSON: As Mr. Rogers used to say, in a crisis, look for the helpers. Obviously, most businesses are trying to make a profit. However, how do businesses act when everyone is in need?

5. Are they adaptable? Many businesses struggled to pivot during the COVID crisis because they simply weren’t equipped to adapt to a new way of working quickly enough.

LESSON: Look for partners who focus on solutions. They will have a mindset of continuous improvement and adapting to the reality of a constantly changing marketplace.

6. Are they technologically savvy without relying on technology to survive? If we’re being realistic, we already know that life probably won’t go back to the way it was before. We have seen how modern technology can make meetings happen remotely or money move electronically. That said, were you still able to interact with real people when you needed to?

We knew that technology would be important to managing the PPP process efficiently and effectively, but we also knew that it couldn’t stand alone. We took steps to reach out after receiving each application with a call or email letting applicants know we received their information and asking if they had any questions about next steps.

LESSON: Without a doubt, technology will be more important than ever moving forward. Make sure that adequate technology is paired with a personal touch.

7. What’s their measure of success? In talking to colleagues and customers alike, I was struck by the pride I felt in the way our organization approached our role. Many people talked about the number of applications processed or the amount of money involved, but our bank always talked about how many jobs we could save and people we could impact. It’s a subtle difference, but it matters. In fact, that mindset took us a step further to brainstorm other ways we could make a positive influence on local businesses. We chose to give double points to credit card holders who “bought local” and encouraged our own employees to consider takeout from local restaurants.

LESSON: Businesses and people who are active in their communities in good times will know how to help in the bad times. They are already tuned in and connected and committed.

If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it has been that we should not take anything for granted. But remember, your business partners shouldn’t be taking you for granted either.

Paul Manchester is senior vice president-chief retail officer at State Bank of Cross Plains (SBCP) and helped create SBCP’s Small Business Banking Team.

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