3 tips for building strong, ethical relationships

There’s a whole lot of talk circulating around ethics these days. As a society, without strong ethical boundaries, we’d come undone. But no matter how ethical we think we may be, sometimes understanding the boundaries can be a little murky. After all, as Billy Joel said: “We’re Only Human.”

When it comes to the purchasing side of the business, even great intentions can lead you down the wrong path. Just ask Dr. Sharron Koch. Not only is she a purchasing superstar with JHM Hotels, but she is also an independent consultant helping companies avoid ethical dilemmas regarding the hospitality purchasing universe.

To her, the centerpiece of a strong ethical code within the industry requires one to build relationships on a foundation of mutual respect. She also spearheaded a study forging new ground in this interesting arena to help her figure out the tenets of a strong, ethical and equally beneficial relationship.

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Koch says mutual respect is key. Building it means making an effort to get to know each other on a personal level. Respect also grows when there is a shared interest around a quality product, and when parties make a sincere effort to look after each others' needs. It’s like any relationship: the more you give, the more you are likely to receive in return. But don’t give so much that you feel like someone is taking advantage.

“Not allowing yourself to be put in a position of unfair advantage is the biggest hurdle, and not always easy to maneuver," Koch said. "In hospitality, there is always a willingness to go above and beyond for the customer; it’s important not to take advantage of this willingness.”

1. Start the conversation, start the relationship

As hoteliers and hospitality practitioners, we’re all experts in small talk. I know I can do 20 minutes anytime on how traffic and weather affected my flight into whatever town I happen to be in. But that sort of chatter, while pleasant and well meaning, doesn’t build valuable relationships. It’s more of a placeholder move that doesn’t fully connect you to people.

Koch says to focus on family, work and hobby-related questions. “Buyers want to be made to feel like a person and not just another sales avenue,” she said. Also, don’t be too aggressive, pushy or salesy. That just turns people off.

2. No shortcuts

It takes time to build mutually beneficial, ethical relationships. Don’t expect to start selling to someone after the first 20-minute meeting. That's not how relationship-building works. “If it does, it’s a red flag that something was not ethical," Koch said. She also adds that some first-time visitors bring some sort of food to an introduction, which is nice but necessary. For her, first meetings are as much about sizing up the person as the product they’re selling. A product may be awesome, but if the person selling it doesn’t feel right, then a deal won’t happen.

3. Lunch vs. dinner

This is a tough one. While lunch is pretty typical, dinners can get elegant, expensive and time consuming. And if someone is not careful, they may unintentionally be setting themselves up to be beholden to someone; consciously or not.

So while this is not illegal, of course it is important to tread carefully. I mean, how would this business get by without wining and dining? But it’s worth a warning. I am always up for a free relationship-building meal, but I always do it only if there is no direct expectation of quid pro quo. I’ve had a few instances where people felt they owned me after buying me a dinner. They are no longer people I chose to deal with.

Glenn Haussman is editor-at-large for HOTEL MANAGEMENT. His views expressed are not necessarily those of HOTEL MANAGEMENT, its parent company Questex Media Group, and/or its subsidiaries.

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