THE PRINCIPLES OF BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS
Agency Success Conference presenter shares
five foundations for stronger connections
By Christopher W. Cook
A few months ago, I attended the Agency Success Conference, organized by Better Agency—an all-in-one insurance agency tech solution provider. With a schedule filled with educational sessions, attendees were offered plenty of strategies to implement when returning to their offices. One session, delivered by Erik Garcia, covered the fundamentals of building relationships.
Garcia is a financial advisor with Plan Wisely Wealth Advisors, agency owner of Garcia Insurance Services, and co-host of the Building Us Podcast, as well as the Stuff About Money Podcast, based in New Orleans, Louisiana, Garcia started in the insurance industry in the captive arena in 2001, focusing primarily on the life insurance and investment side of the business. In 2004, he and his father joined their agencies together. Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area the following year.
“After Katrina, my dad had people walking out the door and it wasn’t because of bad service. He had no markets,” Garcia recalled. “So, in 2010, we launched an independent agency, and we talked about the importance of relationships. We all value relationships. Most of us come to these conferences not to sit through another presentation on processes, but to see each other.”
Why do relationships matter? An 80-plus-year ongoing study at Harvard has found that healthy, nurturing relationships lead to better health and that solid relationships throughout your life lead to healthier lifestyles.
“The connection between relationships and health is so strong that, at age 50, the number of solid relationships that you’ve had in your life is a better predictor of your health 30 years down the road than your cholesterol levels,” Garcia said.
To discuss the importance of relationships, Garcia’s presentation offered five principles. “There’s a lot of overlap, so it’s not five individual things,” he said. “They are really easy to understand, but isn’t it true in life that sometimes you need to be reminded often of the basic things that matter?”
- Be empathetic. “Empathy is foundational to building strong relationships,” Garcia said. He shared a story about his daughter consoling a classmate who was crying at a birthday party.
“Empathy gives us the ability to step into someone else’s shoes and share people’s emotions; conferences like this are so valuable from a relationship standpoint because we’re having a shared experience,” he said.
A study of 15,000 leaders across 20 industries found that the ability to listen and respond with empathy was the most critical driver of a team’s overall performance. “The problem is, too often as advisors we try to respond before we listen,” Garcia said.
“There were rising rates after Katrina, and if you had heard one person’s story, you’d heard them all. I got tired of it; you’d be on 30-minute calls, your voicemail filled up and it was six months straight of the same story over and over again. I wanted to be like, ‘I get it, James, your house flooded.’ But that was a time to be empathetic.”
To become more empathetic, “stop talking, and listen without judgment, offering advice or interrupting,” Garcia advised. “Interrupting shows a lack of interest and a lack of respect.
“Sometimes people call you because they want you to confirm something that they’re already doing; they’re not ready to hear your advice. You have to convey to them that you care and that you understand their perspective. People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”
- Be curious. “One of the best ways to grow in empathy is our second principle, being curious,” Garcia said. “When you walk into a room, especially if you’re networking, your goal shouldn’t be to be the most interesting person in the room, but rather the most interested person.”
Author Rasheed Ogunlaru said: “Be genuinely interested in everyone you meet and everyone you meet will be genuinely interested in you.”
“Be curious and ask good follow-up questions; understand the person’s values,” Garcia said.
Scientific studies show that when a person answers follow-up questions it can lead to an increase in neural activity (release of hormones) in the areas of the brain associated with reward (dopamine) and pleasure (oxytocin).
When talking to someone you hope to build a relationship with, asking open-ended questions is a great approach. Some include:
- Why do you think you enjoyed (fill in blank) so much?
- If you could do (fill in blank) over again, would you do it differently and how?
- How did you get to where you are today?
- What was it like to (fill in blank)?
- What’s been the best part of (fill in blank)?
An additional tip for “being more curious” in your conversations includes trying not to end a statement with a period. Ask questions—“questions,” Garcia said, “that transcend current issues.
“Ask about people’s passions, challenges, and interests. If you do end a statement with a period, be sure it invites open-ended feedback such as, ‘Tell me more about (fill in the blank),’” he explained.
- Compliment others. American author Leo Buscaglia said: “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
“Studies where participants were asked to compliment one another have shown that consistently, people underestimated how good their compliments would make their recipient feel,” Garcia said. “The study went on to say that 90% of people believe that they should share compliments more often, but 50% of them don’t do it.
“A compliment is a low-cost way to make others feel appreciated and valued. Isn’t that how we retain clients, to make them feel valued?”
Garcia referred back to the birthday party he attended with his family. “There was a Ninja Warrior course and this kid was bossing it. I went up and told him he was really good at it. He smiled and went off. It was only a small compliment, but you could tell it meant a lot to him,” Garcia said. “The challenge with compliments is that you’ve got to be genuine and ‘others focused.’ People can sniff out B.S.”
While we should be careful when it comes to complimenting someone’s appearance, a few things we can more safely compliment are people’s efforts, behaviors, ideas and goals.
- Reach out to people. “I was preparing for this presentation and I got an email from a guy I had met a couple weeks ago, wishing me good luck,” Garcia said. “Studies have found that people reliably underestimate how much reaching out to someone means to the other person.”
“The connection between relationships and health is so strong
that, at age 50, the number of solid relationships
that you’ve had in your life is a better predictor of your health
30 years down the road
than your cholesterol levels.”
—Erik Garcia, CFP®, BFA™
Certified Financial Planner™
Plan Wisely Wealth Advisors
But be careful with automation.
“Don’t confuse automation with reaching out to people,” Garcia advised. “Sometimes it’s good to fill the gaps, but when you actually make time to do it yourself without automation, it sends a different kind of message.”
He also suggested spreading out personal messages and “doing unexpected things at unexpected times for people.”
- Be sincere. The final principle silently runs in the background of all the other ones, because “none of this matters if you’re insincere,” Garcia said. “If you don’t have sincerity and authenticity, and you’re just trying to manipulate people, people smell it, and that relationship will fall apart quickly.”
Stephen Dubner said in his Freakonomics: “Sincerity in general is central to generating trust. And it’s crucial for healthy, meaningful relationships.”
When it comes down to it, “If our net worth is measured by the quality and the quantity of relationships that we build throughout our lives, who do you want to be?” Garcia concluded.