My builders are not as friendly as they used to be," one colleague recently complained to me. Another said, "I can't seem to arrange meetings with my builders ... and I am only trying to keep in touch." Hundreds of salespeople have told me, "My clients are not just customers ... they are my friends."

Wrong! Your customers are business clients, not friends. I have seen many friendships and even families that were destroyed by bad business relationships. Friendship can be a wonderful byproduct of a solid business relationship, but not the foundation of it.

This economy has not changed the dynamics of business relationships, but merely exposed what was true all along: Business is business. So when a salesperson complains that his customers have changed, in truth they haven't. It had been possible in the past to get away with mediocre selling skills because the economy was booming. Builders were happy to get attention. Many salespeople unintentionally took their business relationships for granted and focused on processing the orders that were flooding in. The industry is different today. If you want to succeed in this ongoing industry depression, recognize that contractors are clients first. This means that your dialogue must focus on issues related to the client's business. It's not enough to merely promote your products and supply bids. The Sales Leaders of the coming decade will be those who offer business resources and solutions to their clients.

Here are some ways you can escalate the quality of your conversations with builders:

Focus on their business challenges
The next time you talk to a builder, listen first. Try to understand the sales and marketing challenges that your builder faces. While you're at it, listen to understand the operational challenges and how your builder manages costs. You will become a powerful asset to your clients when you start to grasp the special qualities that distinguish successful companies.

Your problems are irrelevant
Friends commiserate and open their hearts to each other. They describe their frustrations and the difficulties they face on the job. Builders are your customers and, while they may listen, it is far more professional to refrain from expressing your personal problems.

Offer ideas that help them succeed
This is the area where most salespeople fail. They know how to do a take-off and quote a job, but they don't know how to help the builder make more money. If you have done a good job listening to and focusing on the business challenges of numerous builders in your market, you will be equipped to offer ideas on marketing, sales, operations, cost management, safety, and code compliance. You will be a resource that makes you valuable to your customers–and their first choice among suppliers.

I get that some of your builders may actually be your friends. But even if you hunt and fish with them on the weekend, that does not mean they owe you anything. Guilt is not a solid basis for a long-term business relationship. If a builder is truly your friend, then you would not mind if he purchases materials from a competitor, just as he won't mind that you sell to his. If you can separate the business relationship from the friendship, then you truly have a friend.

When it comes time to build the business relationship, you are owed nothing. In today's environment, you must earn every opportunity. Build strong business connections by listening to your clients' business challenges. The economic difficulties of today have provided an opportunity for heroes to emerge. Be courageous while listening to the business frustrations of others while keeping yours to yourself. You will earn more respect and obtain better opportunities to build business relationships.

Rick Davis is president of Building Leaders Inc., an LBM advisory firm specializing in sales management training. He is an international speaker and author of Strategic Sales in the Building Industry, a BuilderBook publication. 773.769.4409. E-mail: [email protected]