"Authenticity" Might be Cliche, But It's Essential to Building Client Relationships

by JD Supra Perspectives
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“Authenticity” has become a dirty word.

It’s right up there with some of the other most hated buzzwords and phrases – “at the end of the day,” “thinking outside of the box,” “synergy,” “value add,” “circle back,” “bandwidth.”

Are you cringing yet?

But even though the word “authenticity” might make your skin crawl, it’s actually a pretty important concept – it’s a buzzword for a reason.

For the purposes of this post, let's look at a definition for authenticity. Merriam-Webster says it means:

: real or genuine : not copied or false

: true and accurate

: made to be or look just like an original

So when you’re building relationships (and in my mind, all of our personal and professional interactions can be termed as either relationship-building or networking, because we’re always enhancing those connections), are you the original? Or a copy of yourself? A fake version that you put out for the world to see?

I know that’s getting very deep and of course, there are “masks” that we have to wear in certain situations because that’s what is appropriate, but the truth is that people can tell whether you’re being original or a fake.

We can all agree that we get a gut feeling within a few minutes of talking to someone as to whether they are like us – are they friendly, relaxed, willing to be conversational? Or are they always pushing their business on us? Even under the guise of trying to be “helpful?”

Truthfully, perhaps those people are being authentic. They may be natural salespeople, who would use any and all conversations to talk about themselves and what they care about, instead of actively listening and engaging with their audience.

This post is not for them.

It’s for the rest of us, those who may be genuinely interested in other people and perhaps believe that our product or service is so good that they could really benefit from it. And because of that, maybe we’re pushing a little too hard to get to a sale.

It’s the pushing that we have to be wary of.

For me, good networking isn’t about the end game – it’s not about the sale or the client engagement. It’s about starting and building relationships, getting to know people.

In many cases, the people I get to know may not need the help that I can offer them, ever. Sometimes, they need my help, but not for the type of work that I get paid to do. And that’s fine. Perhaps I can introduce them to the right person, or serve as a sounding board for something, or offer my advice when they ask for it.  I’m quite happy to do that.

And I never know – someday, that person may meet someone that they know needs my professional assistance. Because I’ve been willing to be helpful – genuinely willing – their minds are open to and looking for opportunities to help me back.

That all takes time…and authenticity.

We’ve talked a lot about tactics for networking, ways to build relationships, and how that can all lead to business development.. But the key here is that you have to authentically want to do and use those things – if something doesn’t come naturally to you, it’s not the right tactic, and you shouldn’t force it.

So I have two questions to ask yourself to determine if you’re being authentic:

1. Does it feel natural? 

For some of us, public speaking is painful. We’re terrified, our hands shake, our throat dries up, and we rely too heavily on reading from the note cards in front of us. For others, they can get on stage with just a little bit of preparation, and speak entirely from their experience, engaging the crowd and interesting people in their topic whether it’s relevant or not. Clearly, it’s more sensible for the latter person to focus on public speaking as a tactic – they’re comfortable with it and it comes naturally to them. Those of us in the former group may be forced to speak publicly once in a while, and there are things we can do to adapt, but it should never be our go-to tactic. 

The key is finding what works for you. That’s authenticity. 

Similarly, some people love to write – they can write paragraphs upon paragraphs on a subject that they’re passionate about with little preparation, and draw in readers with their prose. While others will struggle to get words down on paper, and end up writing things that are very dry and not engaging. Those in the former group are natural writers, and they should use that, while those in the latter group should look for what their strengths are.

The key is finding what works for you. That’s authenticity. Where is your comfort zone? I’m not advocating never leaving your comfort zone – I regularly push myself to try new things, and I find either I love them, kind of like them, or totally hate them. But over time, those new things and my tried and true tactics, teach me what works for me, and what doesn’t.

And what works for me won’t necessarily work for the next person, so I have to focus on knowing myself best, and using that knowledge to my advantage. That’s authenticity.

2. What would I want? 

The other key here is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes – how would I want to be treated? A friend recently told me the story of a service provider who had called her up, and told her that she was bad at her job because she wouldn’t purchase his product. I have trouble believing that anyone would think someone would purchase their service after being bullied and insulted into it (though I’m sure it happens), and I know he wouldn’t have wanted to be treated the same way as a potential customer. 

...put yourself in the other person’s shoes – how would I want to be treated?

For me, I want to be treated with respect; I want the other person to want to understand what my needs and limitations are, to be willing to work with me to get to my end goals, and to focus on getting to know me as a person and professional, so that they can give me the best service. 

So I regularly try to do that with my own relationships – both personally and professionally.

When someone seeking my business is respectful, gives me the space and time to determine whether the thing they’re offering me is both of benefit and worth the investment, and tries to be of help to me (whether they’re getting paid or not), I’m both more likely to give them my business AND to stay a loyal customer. 

And if I have to purchase a product or service for some reason, and the other person is pushy, selfish, or can’t be bothered to think outside the box to help me reach my goals (I know, two buzzwords in one post!), then I’m going to extricate myself from that relationship as soon as I can and take my business elsewhere. I’m also more likely to share my negative opinions with other people in the industry if they ask for a review. 

To me, authenticity is also about being considerate – thinking about how I would like to be treated, and doing the same. And I would never want a hard sell.

Being authentic in your professional relationships sounds intimidating – it sounds as if you’re supposed to make yourself vulnerable and share all of your secrets. But that’s not the case. The idea here is to get to know who you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and then to use your strengths to your advantage. It’s about being honest with the people you’re engaging with, and having natural conversations instead of the forced ones that you “think” you should have.  It’s about being yourself, and not having a “persona.”

So take a look at your relationship development activities and behaviors and make sure that they really work for you – and then you won’t have to worry about being “authentic” or not; you just will be!

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[Lindsay Griffiths strengthens lawyer connections as the Director of Global Relationship Management at the International Lawyers Network. This post was originally published on Lindsay's terrific blog, Zen and the Art of Legal Networking. Connect with Lindsay on LinkedIn and follow her additional writings on JD Supra. ]

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