I like to say that in business, “relationships are revenue.” Relationships with customers, suppliers, partners, colleagues, potential customers, or even the undefined relationship … they are all revenue.

When I was working at Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters in Atlanta, I tried to remember this whenever someone dropped by our roastery unannounced looking to buy some coffee. We didn’t sell coffee at the roastery. We were basically a manufacturing facility and warehouse, but if you were nearby and asked your “smart” phone for coffee, it would send you to our roastery.

My approach when someone walked through the door expecting to buy coffee was to welcome them, explain that we didn’t sell coffee but their phone didn’t know that, and to almost always offer them a tour. In six years, I greeted dozens of people who walked into the roastery looking to buy a cup of coffee or a bag of beans and not one of them ever turned me down when I offered to give them a tour.

All photos by Olam unless otherwise indicated

When you work in coffee, especially when you work around roasting, it’s easy to forget that most people still believe coffee is created by magic, and when you offer to let them see the magic, they get excited. I didn’t give walk-ins the full blown tour/lecture/tasting we provided for planned visits or potential customers. I gave them the “drop-in dime tour,” a cup of coffee, a five-minute swing around the roastery and often, though not always, a small bag of coffee.

While it is true that some of these visits led to business relationships of one sort or another, the vast majority did not, or they did and I never learned of it. Still, in my mind I tried to treat everyone that visited not just as a valued customer, but as a valued customer who was my personal guest.

When I say “relationships are revenue” I don’t mean that relationships are a part of making money, though that is certainly and critically true. What I mean is that positive relationships, in and of themselves, contain value, even if they are short and sweet. Relationships are one of the rewards of doing business. Even bad relationships (the ones we hopefully learn to keep short in business) are valuable as learning experiences.

Not everyone thinks this way but fortunately, almost everywhere I have ever worked for any length of time, people thought this way, even at Disneyland, in its way, 30 years ago. Olam certainly thinks this way.

I began thinking like this long ago when I sold men’s shoes for the Nordstrom family (the job before Disneyland). My boss told me that people were not buying shoes from me, they were buying how it felt to buy shoes from me. This is a common sales refrain, but I didn’t know that at the time. I took to it like it was secret knowledge and decided I would create a relationship with every customer I could, even if it was a relationship that lasted only 15 minutes. This meant I didn’t sell as many shoes on any given day as other sales people because I gave the customer my full attention, I listened closely, and made their pace my pace. If they seemed open to receiving it, I tried to give them something they didn’t have when they sat down, other than the shoes, a little information about something like shoe care and repair, shoe making, the history of certain shoes, proper fit. The people who sold the most shoes “turned ‘em and burned ‘em.” They made a lot of money but they had few repeat customers.  I had a lot of repeat customers, people who would ask for me or call ahead to see when they could come by and see me. I was never a top salesperson but I had less income volatility than the “top dogs” because I had a steady stream of regular customers, and when floor traffic was slow I could call some of my customers and let them know what was new.

Photo courtesy of Nordstrom

We were the number one men’s shoe department in the company back then, full of top performers. I once asked my boss if he ever thought of asking me to transfer to another store or department so he could bring in another top dog (we called each other “shoe dogs” because we spent our days fetching shoes).

I will never forget his answer. “No way, because you are what people think of when they think of Nordstrom.” He meant I was the PR version of a Nordstrom employee, and I took it as a compliment. There were other shoe dogs who made more visits to the cash register than I did, but my boss understood (and taught me) that the relationships I created were just as valuable. “They are selling shoes,” he said. “You are creating customers.”

It dawned on me then, and stayed with me, that the people in a company are a product too, and not in some cynical sense, but in the best sense. “Taste our coffee and meet our people,” you might get tired of hearing me say, because I think it’s the best marketing plan ever.

When I worked at the Specialty Coffee Association of America I used to say that part of my job was to make people feel good about being a member of the association. I wasn’t always successful, but when a member walked away from a conversation with me or out of a meeting I wanted them to feel good about paying their membership dues, paying for a booth on our exhibition floor, sponsoring an event, or volunteering their time. Whatever it was, I wanted them to feel like they made a good decision and the only tool I ever had in my tool box beyond honoring commitments was to value the relationships.

These things are not stunning revelations and many great business and management writers have been saying these things since long before I carried a shoe horn in my back pocket 30 years ago. Nevertheless, I need reminding now and then. Maybe it’s never occurred to you that how you treat people might act as a kind of synonym for your company, but that’s really the way it works. In fact, I can provide proof and at the same time take a little risk and make you a promise: The next time you’re experiencing the business equivalent of the “fog of war,” when things feel overwhelming and confusing and you feel uncertain, ask yourself this question, “What is really important here?” Then answer that question with “The relationships.” I promise you this little exercise will help lift the “fog of business” and bring some clarity, and a little clarity can be extremely valuable … you might even call it revenue.