This post is all about relationship selling, but I’m going to start with a little thought experiment for you.
Let’s say a stranger hits your car when backing out of a parking lot.
What a jerk, right? How dare this idiot not pay attention. Now your day is ruined.
Okay. Now what if the person who hits your car is your best friend?
Aw geez. That’s an inconvenience, but you know what? We all make mistakes. Let’s hash this out.
Let’s turn to a different set of scenarios.
A stranger gives you an apple pie. For free. With little context.
Hm… is the pie poisoned? Did you miss something?
Now imagine your best friend giving you an apple pie. For free. With little context.
What a nice gift!
Thanks for indulging me with these silly examples. I promise they have a point.
We have two situations, one negative and one positive. In both situations, the stranger gets a negative experience – they’re met with anger/hostility and doubt/skepticism, respectively, while the friend gets a positive experience, met with forgiveness and gratitude.
Because you have a relationship with your friend. A pre-established rapport that grounds your interactions and makes it so both positive and negative experiences are easier received.
Obviously, you can’t be friends with everyone. But through the power of relationship selling and ongoing customer engagements, you can make your prospects much more likely to buy from you – and much happier with their overall experiences.
So, let’s learn about relationship selling and how you can leverage it to close more deals.
Table of Contents
- What is Relationship Selling?
- Relationship Selling vs. Traditional Selling
- The Advantages of Relationship Selling
- The Drawbacks of Relationship Selling
- What Are the Basic Features of Relationship Selling?
- How to do Relationship Selling Right (in 5 Steps)
What is Relationship Selling?
Let’s start with a simple definition of relationship selling. Simply put, relationship selling is a sales methodology that prioritizes building personal, human relationships with leads and prospects to close more sales.
Relationship Selling vs. Traditional Selling
The easiest way to understand relationship selling is to contrast it with transactional selling. In transactional selling, you only have one goal: selling something to your customer. The whole point is to complete a single interaction, get the money, and move on.
This works okay for some types of businesses, but in other areas, relationship selling is superior.
In relationship selling, you’ll work on building a true relationship with your clients from day one. With a warmer, long-term relationship, you’ll end up landing more sales, having healthier communication, and increasing client retention dramatically – at least, that’s the idea.
The Advantages of Relationship Selling
Why is this approach useful?
It builds trust.
Relationship selling builds trust.
With this approach, you’ll establish personal rapport long before making a pitch. Your customers will grow to see you as a trusted advisor – a friend who’s on their side.
This makes it easier to land the sale, since the customer will trust what you have to say, but it’s also important for communicating and managing issues later on in your relationship.
Like a friend who accidentally backs into your car, your customers will be more likely to forgive you and work through an innocent mistake.
You get to know your customers.
This is also a great chance to get to know your customers. When relationship selling, you’ll go through an extended sales discovery process. You’ll figure out what’s important to this customer, what they’re currently working with, and what their plans for the future are.
Again, this makes it easier to land the initial sale – and puts you in a much better position to manage a long-term relationship.
And you’ll get to understand your target audience better so you can refine your approach going forward.
It lets you take advantage of a long sales cycle.
Some businesses have long sales cycles.
Generally speaking, if the purchase is expensive or if it has the power to impact a business for years to come, people want to take their time making a decision. They want to spend weeks, if not months reviewing their options to minimize risk.
For relationship selling, this is great – it’s just an opportunity to build the relationship further.
You’ll maximize retention.
Customer retention is often more important than acquisition.
Relationship selling is all about retention. Instead of just trying to close sales and earn revenue, you’re trying to build a network of strong relationships that can last for years.
The Drawbacks of Relationship Selling
Alright, so are there any real drawbacks to this strategy?
The short answer is yes.
It takes a lot of time.
It takes time to build a relationship. If your customers are making small purchases or quickly moving on, it may not be worth the investment.
It can be difficult to measure results.
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if your relationship strategy is working – or if it isn’t working, what the root cause of the failure is.
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How do you measure the level of trust a customer has in you? How can you pinpoint where this distrust arose?
Negative experiences can ruin a relationship.
Relationships are made or broken by experiences. And unfortunately, all it takes is one sufficiently negative experience – like a salesperson who cracks under pressure – to jeopardize a relationship.
What Are the Basic Features of Relationship Selling?
Now onto the practical side.
If your business can benefit from relationship selling, there are a few hallmarks of relationship selling that can help introduce your culture to the strategy:
- A focus on the customer, not the product. In relationship selling, the goal isn’t necessarily to pitch the product as cleanly and attractively as possible. It’s not about moving as much of the product as possible. It’s about learning as much as possible about the customer, making the customer happy, and keeping the customer around. Most of the focus is on the customer, so if a sale takes place, it’s because the product is a naturally good fit for them.
- Open communication. Relationship selling is also distinguished for its persistent, open communication. Salespeople work like consultants or advisors (see consultative selling), providing their honest opinions and factual information. They work transparently, and often with the customer’s best interests in mind.
- Long-term strategies. Everything in relationship selling is optimized for the long term. It’s not about closing the sale today. It’s about turning the prospect into a customer with the potential to stay loyal to your business for years. The payoff may not be immediate, but it will be powerful.
How to do Relationship Selling Right (in 5 Steps)
Now for the meat and potatoes.
The idea behind relationship selling is so simple it should be easy to understand and easy to start executing. But if you want to see better results, there are a few important ways you’ll need to refine your approach.
Step 1. Identify target prospects
Everything starts with choosing the right leads, prospects, and opportunities. In other words, you have to know your customers.
You’ll start by researching your potential target demographics and coming up with customer personas that match your intended audience. Once you understand the people who will bring value to your organization, you’ll do a much better job of targeting them.
This way, you won’t waste time building relationships with people who will never have an interest in buying your products. You’ll also greatly increase your chances of eventually selling to the people with whom you’ve built good relationships.
After researching and analyzing potential audiences, you can start finding promising candidates through a variety of channels, such as:
- Networking. The simplest sales strategies sometimes work best. Start by expanding your professional network. Attend networking events, circulate business cards, and get to know people in your city. The bigger your network is, the more relationships with promising prospects you can build.
- Referrals. It’s also helpful to get referrals – especially if you already have some strong customer relationships under your belt. If your customers love you, they’ll be more than willing to recommend you to someone else.
- Social media. Let’s not forget about social media. Thanks to these platforms, you can connect and start building a relationship with just about anyone in the world.
- Various marketing/ad campaigns. To be fair, you can use almost any marketing or advertising strategy to generate leads. As long as they fit your customer profile, it may be worth trying to build a relationship with them.
Check out my guide on how to build a targeted list of prospects for help.
Step 2. Establish common ground
Your relationship has to start somewhere.
Just like on a first date, or meeting a friend for the first time, the first thing you should be doing is establishing common ground.
Show that you have the same interests, the same goals, or at least the same types of experiences.
You’ll establish contact by cold email outreach, cold phone call, a social media message such as LinkedIn outreach, (see my guide on social selling), or maybe even an in-person networking event.
Depending on who you’re talking to and how you met, you can commiserate over the problems associated with the industry, compliment the venue, remark about the weather lately (if you are geographically near each other), comment on an event you’re both scheduled to attend, or just make small talk about a hobby you have in common.
Once you have a few points of connection over common ground, your target customer will be far more likely to hear what you have to say.
Step 3. Become an active listener
Did you know that roughly two-thirds of lost sales are lost because of the salesperson’s indifference or apathy?
One of the easiest ways to build a strong relationship is to just shut up and listen.
Listen and pay attention to what your customer has to say. Ask lots of engaging questions. Get to know who they are, what they want, and what their core grievances are.
Politely listening and showing interest will instantly forge a connection between you – and provide your salespeople with knowledge they need to close the deal.
Don’t talk too much, especially in the beginning of a new relationship. Let your prospect do most of the talking.
Step 4. Follow up persistently
A shocking 80 percent of prospects will say “no” up to 4 times before eventually saying yes. Despite that, most salespeople give up after just a few attempts of closing the sale.
Additionally, relationships aren’t built from a single interaction. They’re built over the course of many repeated interactions, unfolding on a somewhat consistent basis.
What’s the common ground here?
You have to follow up if you want to succeed. Reach out on a regular basis and stay top of mind if you want to become a better relationship seller. Persistence is key.
For help, see my guide on how to write a follow up email.
Step 5. Become a trusted partner
Your relationship approach to selling will start to take off when prospects begin to see you not as a salesperson, but as a trusted partner.
There are a few ways to do that:
- Add value. Your job as a relationship seller isn’t primarily to sell a product (though it will come to that eventually). Instead, it’s to add value. Give good advice. Provide answers to tough questions. Provide knowledge and resources. The more value you can objectively add to their life, the better.
- Be honest and transparent. Next, remain as honest and transparent as possible. This should be an easy one. The more consistently you give honest, direct answers, the more your prospect is going to trust you.
- Be reliable. Always be there. If it’s hard to reach you, or if you’re not willing to give advice suddenly, it’s going to mar the relationship. Instead, always be willing to provide something; if you don’t have an answer, lead them to someone who has one.
- Be authentic. This may be a hard one, depending on your personality and approach. If you’re trying too hard to be a helpful, knowledgeable partner, it could come across as stiff, insincere, or manipulative. So seriously. Let your personality shine a little bit. Talk to your prospects the way you would a good friend or family member. Crack a few jokes. Be yourself. You’ll be more confident and be seen as more trustworthy as a result.
Remember, relationship selling is a long-term strategy. It’s not about persuading your customer to purchase your product as quickly as possible. It’s about building as much trust as possible – and from there, the sale will happen almost automatically.
Be prepared to run into delays, lengthy episodes of consideration, and disappointments along the way.
As long as you stay trustworthy, persistent, valuable, and kind to all your prospects, eventually your relationship selling strategy will pay off.
Since this is a blog post, I don’t get the opportunity to form a relationship with you before making my pitch.
But seriously, if you want to see my relationship selling game in action, start the free trial and I’ll reach out and try to get to know you 😃
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Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before selling it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.