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six steps series

The Art of Selling: The Intimacy Curve and Relationships

Learn about the intimacy curve and its role in the art of selling in this insightful article series by Georgina Smith. In part two, Georgina explores understanding relationships on the intimacy curve.
3 min read

Last week, I introduced you to the intimacy curve and why it’s important to understand it when you’re involved in any interaction with another human being. You can read that article here

This week I want to explore understanding where a relationship is on the intimacy curve. 

You’ll remember that when a relationship is at the top of the intimacy curve, it’s characterised by transactional and fact-based communication.   

A romantic relationship (as we explored last week) could look like this: 

“Hey, what’s your favourite colour?” or “What’s your favourite restaurant?”  

“I dropped my jacket off to be mended at the tailor, can you pick it up on your way home, please?”  

It’s transactional, and if a romantic relationship stays here, it’s unlikely to last long.   

Yet I have observed many business relationships that operate here, some quite successful. It’s efficient, works, and gets the job done, right?  


There are two potential problems with operating your critical business relationships at the top of the intimacy curve.  

  1. What happens when something goes wrong?  
  2. Someone with better intimacy skills may come along and eat your lunch  

Let’s look at the first issue: when something goes wrong. Let me take you back to that romantic place again. You’ve met someone, you like them, and there’s been some brief transactional communication at the top of the intimacy curve. You arrange to meet for dinner at a restaurant. It’s been a hell of a day at work, and you leave late to get to the restaurant. Then, you get held up in traffic because it’s raining, and when you try to phone ahead to warn your date that you’ll be late, your phone is dead. You arrive flustered, wet, and frustrated.   

Have they even waited for you? That depends on whether they think you’re worth it – and that depends on how much effort you’ve put into the intimacy curve up front.   

This makes no difference in business relationships. You meet a potential client, but you don’t make much effort to get to know them. Your office is efficient and carries out all the necessary tasks on time as expected, but pretty soon something will go wrong, and the quality of your relationship will be the thing that saves you. If you don’t have an intimate relationship, robotic efficiency will only get you so far.  

Seth Godin refers to this as the ‘benefit of the doubt‘. Things do go wrong, and in business you must expect this, but you need to have built up enough benefit of the doubt to weather the storm. My next article shares tips on moving up and down the intimacy curve.  

Now for the second point: Someone is eating your lunch.   

Let’s go back to the romantic analogy for a second. You met someone, and you like them, but life has been really busy as you’ve been traveling for work and away at the weekends. It’s just been a crazy few weeks. You’ve responded to every message they sent you within 24 hours (standard romantic early days SLA), but other than that, you’ve made little effort to move down the intimacy curve, both in conversation and physical presence.   

They go to a friend’s birthday party and meet someone who is a specialist in the intimacy curve. They are interested – and interesting, which makes them special and wanted. Point to them – and if you’re not careful, they will get more points because of the effort they are making.   

Why is it any different in business? People do business with people, which is why understanding relationships is key to business success. However, the one difference in business is that it falls to the whole business to work the intimacy curve: It’s up to everyone to understand your clients from the top and all the way through the organisation.   

A great exercise after reading this article is to plot your critical relationships on the intimacy curve. Consider the nature of your interactions and the depth of the relationship. How many people in the business contribute to the relationship, at what level, and how much value do you add? 

Key Points:
  • The top of the intimacy curve is characterized by transactional and fact-based communication, which can only take a relationship so far.

  • In business, it is essential to move down the intimacy curve to build strong relationships and create a ‘benefit of the doubt’ for when things go wrong.

  • Understanding relationships is crucial for business success, and it is up to everyone in the business to work the intimacy curve, adding value to the client at all levels.