Beyond the Handshake: Jack Estes DeBrabander Shares His Tips for Cultivating and Maintaining the Best Business Relationships

  • 24-March-2020

Everyone has just finished their second round of drinks. You’ve effortlessly moved past the small talk and slam dunked your pitch. Your client has made it clear that you’re the one they not only want for the job, but need for the job to get done right. You’re both grinning from ear to ear as you firmly grasp each other’s hand and commit to the beginning of a wonderful working relationship together. Step one: check. But now what? What can you do to ensure that this relationship not only goes smoothly, but creates countless leads that continue well into the future?

Michigan State student, Jack Estes DeBrabander knows that the closing handshake isn’t the end, but rather the beginning of a working relationship. “Before my client leaves that room,” he says, “I make sure that they know without a shadow of a doubt, that they made the best decision possible, and that I am the perfect fit for their business needs.” Jack shared with us some of the norms that he follows to ensure that his business thrives.


“This by far is the most important of all the things I do. If I say that I’m going to be somewhere at a certain time, unless I’m dead, I will be there.” Jack uses the old axiom on punctuality: If I get there 10 minutes early, I’m on time. If I get there on time, I’m late. And if I’m late, that’s unheard of! “Someone once told me that arriving late comes across as if my needs are more important than someone else’s. If I arrive late, I’m telling them that my time is more important than theirs.” Timeliness doesn’t only apply to physically arriving for an appointment on time, but also applies to any projects or tasks that you said that you would complete. If you tell your client that you will have the report or product done within a week, then it will be done at least by the day before the week is over, if not sooner. Now, don’t set yourself up for failure by committing to timelines you can’t keep. That only sets you up to have to come “hat-in-hand” apologizing for not getting something done in time, and then having to try to convince your client that you will meet the next deadline. There’s a reason why your cable installer gives you a window for when they will be coming over. They know how long a job is going to take, but there’s always those unforeseen issues that may have a ripple effect on the rest of their day. It’s better to under-promise (let’s say, two weeks to get it done), and then to over-deliver by getting it done in less.

Giving and Keeping Your Word

“The second rule that I follow is that whenever I give my word, they can take it to the bank.” This rule goes hand in hand with the first one about timeliness. Maybe you know someone who makes promises all the time, and you know that they’re going to let you down, apologize up and down, and promise to never let you down again. Think about it: do you trust them, or do you just chalk it up as “that’s how they are”? That might work for so long if your friend keeps forgetting their wallet, but in business, it’s often one strike and you’re out! Unfortunately, we live in a time where it’s OK to make promises you can’t keep just to get the business. So what if they don’t come to us again, we’ll just make up for it in volume. “That’s the wrong attitude to have,” says Jack. “My customers learn right away that I’m a man of my word, and because of that they will have no problem pointing me towards other people when I ask for referrals. Without referrals, my business would be dead in the water.” In the age of e-mails and calls, it’s hard to look someone right in the eye as you make your commitment to them. If you are face to face, be sure to look that person right in the eye as you make that commitment and hold that gaze until you know that you mean business. If you make a commitment via phone call or email, then I say something like, “I’m looking forward to getting you project x, by y date, so that we can plan our next z steps.”

Listening to the Client’s Needs, Even After the Sale 

 “When I meet with a client, I make sure that within the first few minutes of our interaction, that they made the right choice coming to me for help.” Part of this involves asking the right questions about what the client is looking for and what they have done in the past. The next step is the most important, and that is listening to what the client says. So often we go into these meetings with our solutions layed out without having first asked what they are looking for.

“Seek first to understand, and then to be understood. Ask a lot of probing questions, and then come back with a solution that is tailor-made to their specific needs. Now, once you deliver to your customer, it doesn’t stop there.” Jack continued, “One thing I have learned is that the fortune is in the follow-up. They may have additional questions or needs, and unless you do some follow up, you won’t know what they need. Going back to the customer a day after I deliver, and then a week, then a month, and then three months later lets the client know that I wasn’t just interested in the sale, but more importantly, the continued business relationship. I even send them a thank-you card in the mail after our first meeting telling them how much I appreciated them taking the time to meet with me. Then I send another one after we conclude our business. I even send them thank you cards if someone they referred does business with me or not. It’s those tangible things that no one does anymore that has the most impact. Who knows, that extra dollar or two you spend on postage may turn into thousands of dollars down the line.”

Think about the best experience you had eating at a restaurant. All servers know that their job is to take your order and bring you food. However, it’s the expert servers who not only tell you the specials of the day, but they listen carefully to what you ask for to ensure that your order is taken correctly and delivered exactly the way that they wanted it. The successful follow-up comes shortly after starting your meal, when they check in to make sure the food is to your liking, they ensure that your waters are full, and right before you finish your meal, they ask you if you’re interested in desert or if you want another glass of wine. This isn’t done just to show that they care about you, but it’s also their way to upsell your more product so your ticket price goes up, and hopefully their tip as well. Look at each and every sale as not the end, but rather the beginning of a long and profitable relationship.

Become their go-to “expert”

“The last thing I make sure of is that my client knows is that I’m their go-to expert.” Now, you may think that you can smooth-talk your way into convincing your client that you are the person with all the answers. However, a few directed questions by the client will either confirm or negate their trust in your abilities. You need more than just talk, but the actual product knowledge and skills to back up your claims. So what does it take to become an “expert” in your field. Depends who you ask. For the longest time, 10,000 hours was the bar to help you become an expert in any competitive field. This “rule” was first popularized by the book Outliers, written by Malcolm Gladwell. With the advent of the internet, however, you can shave several hours off that time by “sitting at the feet” of experts in any field you choose. Learning how to do something is just the first step. Becoming an expert involves actually “doing” the work and applying what you’ve learned.

The new “normal” to become an expert may in fact be quite less than 10,000 hours. In his book, The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything, author Josh Kaufman explains how just practicing a certain skill for 20 hours helps solidify your learning, and thus makes you knowledgeable about a certain subject.

“The trouble comes when we confuse learning with skill acquisition. If you want to acquire a new skill, you must practice it in context. Learning enhances practice, but it doesn’t replace it. If performance matters, learning alone is never enough.” ― Josh Kaufman, The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything.

He adds that committing to 45 minutes per day for a month, should get you to the 20 hours. Then after that, you commit to another 45 minutes per day improving that skill or knowledge or starting to learn something new.

Another thing you can do is surround yourself with knowledgeable people and delegate tasks. In the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith played Chris Gardner, a door-to-door salesman looking to get into the lucrative career of being a stockbroker. Sensing that the interview team wasn’t convinced that he was the right person for the internship position, he confidently looked over to the interview team and said with conviction, “I’m the type of person that if you ask me a question and I don’t know the answer, I’m gonna tell you that I don’t know. But I bet you what, I know how to find the answer and I will find the answer.” Now, here he didn’t portray himself as the expert, but rather the person who could seek out those with the answers, and then solve the client’s problem. “The first step,” Jack Estes DeBrabander states, “is to let your client know that you aren’t going to pretend you know everything, but rather, you do know how to get the information needed, and then use that information to deliver on the promises you make.”

It is when you have the credibility in your customer’s eyes that they will be more than willing to direct you to others when you ask for referrals or send people with similar needs your way.

“As I shared before,” adds Jack, “my clients aren’t just customers. They are a testimony to what my business has done for them and what it can do for others. So if I’m going to be able to stand apart from my competitors and weather the storms of a down economy or anything, I need to make sure that my business relationships are solid.”

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