The below post was written by Dan Coughlin, an executive coach, management consultant, seminar leader, and keynote speaker.

What is a valuable relationship?

A relationship is where two people know each other’s name and something about the other person.

A good relationship is where two people know each other’s name and something about each other, and care about each other. For example, I have a good relationship with my neighbors. We know each other’s name, we know something about each other’s kids, and we ask each other how those kids are doing.

A valuable professional relationship is where you know each other’s names, you know something about each other, you care about each other, and you provide each other with the Three I’s: information, insights, and introductions. Information are the things the other person could know that would be useful in his or her work. Insights are tips that you have learned through your experiences that can help the other person succeed. Introductions are when you introduce two people who can potentially add value to each other.

What is a business ecosystem?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an ecosystem as “everything that exists in a particular environment.” Everything a person needs to survive and thrive is in his or her ecosystem: air, food, water, protection, other people, etc.

A business ecosystem is all the relationships you need to survive: employer (which could be you), employees, customers, suppliers, prospects, connectors, etc. Your ecosystem consists of all the valuable relationships you have in it. The strength of your ecosystem depends on the quality of the people in it, and the quality of the relationships you have with those people.

Your Sales Come through Your Ecosystem

You don’t sell anything through a cold call or at networking event. There is one and only one goal for making a cold call or attending a networking event, and that is to begin a new relationship. All you want to accomplish is to get to know another person’s name and something about the other person. Hopefully you will be intriguing enough that the other person will get to know your name and something about you.

From there you can show interest in the other person. You can actually genuinely care about the other person.

From there you can build a valuable relationship with the person where the two of you will exchange information, insights, and introductions.

Then you will become part of each other’s ecosystem. You will learn what the other person has to offer in terms of products and services and why they are of value, and the other person will learn what you have to offer in terms of products and services and why they are of value.

When you have a need or know of someone who has a need for the other person’s products or services, you will begin to move the sales process forward for him or her. When the other person has a need or knows of someone who has a need for the products and services that you sell, the sales process will move forward for you.

Focus on Building Your Ecosystem of Valuable Relationships

Building an ecosystem takes time and effort. You have to be intentional about it. You will build many relationships that do not directly lead into sales for you. Keep building your ecosystem anyway. Keep building valuable relationships where you exchange information, insights, and introductions.

It’s fun to do that. It’s fun to meet new people and to add value to them in some way. This makes life more interesting, and you will learn along the way. This is how you build a healthy environment to work in. You just meet a person, learn his or her name, learn something about the person, and then casually exchange information, insights, and introductions. And then continue to do this with that person, and with other people.

You Just Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Please remember this phrase: you never know who will open a door for you, and you never know how big the room will be. Please put that phrase somewhere so you can see it every day.

As you meet people don’t try to predict if they are going to buy a ton of products and services from you, or if they are going to introduce you to some great customer. Instead just focus on building a relationship, and then a good relationship, and then a valuable relationship. That’s it.

Never Forget the Great Value of Free

And here’s one more phrase to remember: never forget the great value of free.

When you give your time and talent and attention to another person for free, you never know what might come back to you. You can give your information, insights, and introductions to other people for free. Free is an amazing thing. It might open up new valuable relationships for you, and you never know where they might lead you.

A Few Personal Stories from My Own Ecosystem

When I was starting my business in 1997, I was still teaching high school math. I had a student named Tim. I volunteered to organize an event for parents on leadership, and I had heard that Tim’s father was good at strategic planning so I invited him to speak. It turns out his dad was a regional vice-president of McDonald’s USA. He ended up not being able to speak, but we met for lunch. We developed a valuable relationship. He eventually guided me into ten years of consulting work at McDonald’s USA that stretched across the U.S. and involved more than 700 of their executives, managers, and franchisees.

In 2001 I met a woman at a meeting who was just starting out as an independent consultant. I offered to meet with her to offer some insights on how she could grow her business. Then we didn’t talk at all from 2003 – 2015. She remembered my name, and in 2015 introduced me to three people who became great clients of mine.

Whenever someone says he or she is interested in working with me as an Executive Coach, I always say, “Here’s how I do it. The first three sessions are free. There is no charge at all.”

Free allows both the other person and myself to see if we can have a good working relationship. We can see if we have good chemistry in working together. It also allows the other person to actually see what Executive Coaching really is like in the way I do it. Most people really don’t know what it is in they’re getting into with a particular Executive Coach, and free allows them to learn if it’s something that will be of value for them.

Whatever your organization sells, if there is a way that you can allow people to experience it for free and to learn what it would be really be like to have it, I encourage you to offer it for free. The person will get to know whether they like your product or service, and he or she will get to know what it’s like to work with you and the other people in the organization.

Never forget the great value of free.

There is no better example of an industry that relies so heavily on the ecosystem of valuable relationships than real estate.

In order to truly reap the value, both personally and professionally, continue to pour effort into strengthening and broadening these relationships with the Three I’s: information, insights and introductions.

Whether it be offering rookie information and advice to a new business owner, or initiating a networking introduction between two business-savvy millennials, your efforts will not go unnoticed. The person in front of you in line at a coffee shop or in the airplane seat next to you could open doors that you did not know existed, and lead to success in 2017.