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People matter. As you work to grow your small business, the relationships you establish with those who help you run it play a major role in your success. You get to know some of them (like your employees) pretty well through everyday interaction; vendors and partners, however, may be more out of sight, out of mind.

I’m a great proponent of changing this dynamic, because everyone who touches your business has the potential to influence others with respect to your business. And even if you don’t see them very often or they operate in a different part of the country, that doesn’t mean you can’t get to know them as individuals.

Get Personal with Your Vendors and Employees

Formality and structure are important concepts in the small business world, but they sometimes get in the way of forming personal relationships. Forming a connection takes time, but you can often speed up the process by interacting in the right low-stress environment, like a casual dinner with vendors, partners and employees so they can all get to know one another outside of work. We’re all busy, but don’t underestimate the value of downtime interaction.

For instance, when an employee sees you only as an authority figure on the job, every interaction is viewed through that lens. Spend a bit of time off-the-clock with your employees and you’ll be amazed by what you learn from one another on a personal level, which can improve how you interact on the job.

The best downtime activities incorporate teamwork and a shared experience. You can take up volunteering or host an event that’s as fancy as a party in a suite at a high-end show, or as simple as a wiffle ball tournament in the parking lot. But don’t make it just about employees; invite others who have an impact on your business, like your UPS delivery driver or other employee-facing vendors and partners.

While you might look at this as team-building, it’s really something more fundamental and important. The relationships you build are what makes your team of vendors, employees and partners effective, not the other way around.

Look Them in the Eye Digitally

What if you don’t have many employees or your vendors are spread out over vast distances? No problem. With social media, Skype, email and so many other tech tools available to build relationships, you can simply look them in the eye digitally. Get to know them on social channels (and make sure your employees do the same). Take a look at their profiles and see what types of things they like to post, what interests they have and what activities they like to share publicly. Look for commonalities and incorporate them into your conversations: “Hey, Tom, I saw the picture of that big fish you caught on Facebook. We’re looking to sponsor a fishing tournament around here. Can you tell me more about tournaments in your area?”

Looking and listening for commonalities has always been the mark of a great networker in face-to-face interactions, and the same goes for digital ones. Don’t let distance keep you from getting to know the people with whom you and your employees interact. Those relationships can be just as fruitful as face-to-face interactions, and you never know where the next big idea can come from. It could grow from a Tweet, a Skype conversation or the sharing of an article online. Many of the people who touch your business have expertise that you can tap into when you get to know them, as Jim Kolb, the florist in the video below, can attest.

For more insights into Small Business, click through to Progressive Life Lanes!

Think About How People View You

When you visit the Facebook page of House of Flowers, the business featured in the above video, you’ll find tons of video content and images, often featuring the owner, Jim Kolb. Video puts a name and face to Jim’s content, which makes it easier for the viewer to form a connection regardless of location. This is something to think about in terms of both connecting and branding.

Just Do It

Looking people in the eye digitally isn’t really difficult to do, but it does take a bit of practice. As mentioned earlier, visiting social media profiles to learn more about an individual’s interests is a great way to find common ground if face-to-face isn’t an option, and even when it is, the information gleaned can be very helpful in forging a connection. If a vendor, employee or partner posts something interesting, leave a thoughtful comment to get the conversation started.

Be Nice, and Be Human

The biggest key to looking people in the eye digitally? Just be nice. People respond to friendliness and being nice automatically helps you avoid unpleasant social media faux pas.

As a small business owner, surrounding yourself with people who can add to your expertise helps you offer a better product or service and enhances the customer experience. Whether developing those relationships in person or connecting online, a friendly disposition and an effort to reach out can make all the difference. The bonds you build can open doors within your business that you may not have even realized were there.

This post was written in partnership with Progressive Insurance. I have been compensated, but the thoughts and ideas are my own. For additional small business tips, check out… Progressive’s Small business Big Dreams program.

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