Creating strong relationships with prospects in order to foster trust is an important part of sales. Salespeople can help to build that trust with a relationship selling strategy, which helps to form stronger connections and convert more leads into sales.
In this post, we’ll explore the basics of what relationship selling is, why it’s so effective and how you and your team can effectively put it into practice.
Table of contents
What is relationship selling?
Relationship selling refers to a set of sales activities that help create a personal connection between a seller and a prospect or buyer as part of the sales process. Building strong relationships has become even more important in the last year, as buyers cite that they are craving supportive consultants that they can rely on in tough times.
For it to be effective, relationship selling must be dictated by a sales strategy that informs every touchpoint between a salesperson and customer.
While transactional selling focuses on making as many sales to as many customers as possible, relationship selling means adopting a long-term sales approach. Rather than trying to make a quick sale, the old school traditional selling mantra of “Always Be Closing” is cast aside and the relationship becomes the priority—a choice that has multiple benefits.
Why relationship selling is so effective
Zig Ziglar once famously said, “If people like you, they’ll listen to you, but if they trust you, they’ll do business with you.”
Whatever you sell, whether it’s a $1 product or an enterprise-level service, there has to be an element of trust before a prospective customer will hand over their hard-earned money. They have to trust that you will hold up your end of the deal and deliver the product or service and that their solution will fulfill their needs, address their pain points and ultimately solve their problem.
This is even more important when the process takes place online. When anyone can set up a website full of promises, prospective customers are more hesitant and less likely to buy. Relationship selling gives you the opportunity to prove that your value proposition holds water.
According to Charles Green, author and founder of Trusted Advisor Associates, intimacy is a key factor in the trust equation. When it comes to sales, intimacy refers to the feeling of safety a prospective customer feels when dealing with a salesperson; the assured belief that they have their best interests at heart and would do nothing to embarrass or otherwise harm them. While we’ll learn more about specific ways to build intimacy later, the overall effect of relationship selling is to build that feeling of intimacy that leads to trust.
In addition to building trust, relationship selling involves treating prospective customers like actual people instead of sales opportunities in their CRM. Starbucks recognized this back in 2012 when they started writing customers’ names on the side of cups. Their VP of marketing and category for the UK and Ireland, Ian Cranna, explained the decision:
“Starbucks customers already expect the coffee to be the best, and they told us that the emotional connection they feel in every store is what sets us apart. This campaign highlights the culture in all our stores, and the strong desire customers have to feel like an individual when so much of the world feels impersonal.”
Relationship selling takes that a step further because it moves beyond basic personalization to build a genuine emotional connection for long-term results.
It’s important to note that relationship selling becomes more important when you’re dealing with long sales cycles, complex solutions and expensive products, as these generally require higher levels of trust and stronger relationships. This also applies when you’re selling services that rely on repeat custom or ongoing commitments, such as SaaS solutions, membership sites and other subscription-based services.
By taking the time to build stronger relationships with your prospects and customers, you’ll also stand out from the competition. Rather than trying to compete on pricing or features, relationship selling is its own differentiator. This is great for attracting new customers (including by referral) as well as retaining existing ones, in turn leading to increased customer lifetime value (CLTV) and reduced churn.
Relationship selling techniques
Relationship selling demands that you understand the underlying principles and qualities that support a long-term relationship.
While being liked isn’t enough to win every sale, it’s certainly difficult to make a sale if your prospects dread your reps’ calls. This is where soft skills, such as managing relationships and effective communication, become invaluable. Our 2020 State of Sales report found that respondents who regularly work on their soft skills were 7% more likely to have hit their sales targets the year before.
Some might argue that their job is to make the sale, not make friends. However, likability doesn’t mean that your sales reps should blindly agree with everything the customer says. Sometimes, they’ll need to have difficult conversations or point out when the customer is mistaken. Relationships are two-way and they’re stronger if there’s mutual respect. For example, if a rep books a meeting for a certain time, being punctual shows that they respect the prospect’s time.
In sales, intimacy means having your prospects’ best interests at heart. Not only should your reps have an understanding of the prospect and what they need, but the prospect also needs to sense that you truly care about those needs.
This starts with understanding who’s involved in the purchase and who’ll be affected by it, going beyond the obvious decision-makers to identify the other stakeholders and potential influencers.
Gaining that knowledge means that your sales reps need to do their research and have honest conversations about decision-makers and others who’ll be affected. Of course, they’re unlikely to find out everything they need to know on the first call. It takes time to discover those not-so-obvious relationships. However, if they’ve done the job of being open and honest, they’re more likely to hear the real answers, even if it takes a few calls.
Once they’ve identified all the relevant people, they’ll have a better understanding of how your product or service can help and what the most important factors for the prospect are.
Don’t be tempted to try to fake intimacy, though, as that can easily be sniffed out. Anthony Iannarino calls out those ‘one-to-one’ emails that are really one-to-many. For example, if you send a follow-up email that is personalized with the prospect’s name but obviously templated in the body (i.e. it references no relevant insights related to the prospect) it’s not going to help you build a relationship.
Empathy, a key skill for salespeople, is often defined as the act of walking a mile in another person’s shoes—you may not be able to relate to the unique challenges they face, but you can work towards understanding what it’s like to face those challenges.
To do this, you must go beyond the persona and focus on the person themselves. For Andy Paul, author and founder of The Sales House, that involves not just knowing how they’re feeling but understanding why they’re feeling that way, using cognitive empathy to understand the context rather than being moved purely by emotions. “I think we tend to slip serve into sympathy [...] and that’s not useful to them, but understanding is.”
This is another quality that can’t be faked. If a prospect suspects that your rep’s empathy is nothing more than empty platitudes or words in a sales script, it will have the opposite effect and lead to distrust, further alienating them.
Honesty and authenticity
Honesty is at the core of every relationship. However, honesty and sales don’t always have the best history. Back in 1960, economist Theodore Levitt famously wrote that “selling concerns itself with the tricks and techniques of getting people to exchange their cash for your product […] The customer is somebody “out there” who, with proper cunning, can be separated from his or her loose change.”
Unfortunately, this negative view persists today, just one reason why honesty has to be a priority with relationship selling—even if it’s at the expense of making a sale.
Sometimes that’ll mean explaining why your product isn’t the right fit for them at this time, or even recommending an alternative. While it might seem counter-intuitive, a willingness to take the long view and focus on your customers’ needs instead of your own is key to building trust and could still lead to a competitive advantage. By keeping your word and acting in their best interest, you show that you can be trusted.
Closely related to honesty is authenticity, where you show up as your true self. When your sales reps are authentic, they recognize that it’s better to be human than perfect. If they don’t know the answer to an unexpected question, it’s okay to admit it. However, being caught out in even a small embellishment or trying to evade questions can be enough to irreparably damage trust.
Putting relationship selling into practice
While having the right underlying skills is helpful, your team will only get the best results if they’re put to use throughout the sales process. The following steps will help your reps act on those skills and build stronger customer relationships.
1. Know yourself
When dating, it helps to have an honest understanding of what you bring to the table and what you’re looking for in a potential partner. Likewise, when selling, your reps should already know their (and their product’s) strengths and weaknesses, as well as their sales objectives and goals.
2. Identify the right prospects
The next step is to create a list of prospects that are a good match and are compatible with your reps and their objectives. As powerful as relationship selling is, it takes effort, so it’s important to focus that effort on those prospects that are most likely to convert.
Rather than chasing prospects that don’t match the target profile, look out for those who are similar to your best customers, then qualify them to confirm that they’re worth pursuing.
3. Use active listening
A key part of the relationship is understanding your prospects and their requirements. Although your reps should have done some research before reaching out, they mustn’t assume they know everything about the prospects and the challenges they’re facing. The easiest way to find out is by actively listening to what they have to say.
LinkedIn’s 2020 survey of sales professionals found that active listening is the skill buyers prize most in salespeople. Rather than being distracted by their phone or preparing what they’re going to say next, encourage your sales team to take the time to listen fully to what the prospect says. If they don’t completely understand what they hear, let them know it’s okay to ask questions and clarify what they’ve just said.
Oscar Trimboli, author and host of the Deep Listening podcast Deep, explains there are five levels of listening—the first of which is listening to yourself. If you’re still replaying your last sales call in your head, you’re not going to be able to effectively listen to what the prospect is saying. Only once you’ve cleared that noise will your reps be able to listen to what the prospect has to say (and, perhaps more importantly, what they’re not saying).
4. Adopt a win-win approach
Sales shouldn’t be a zero-sum game wherein the salesperson is the winner and the buyer is the loser. Part of developing a long-lasting relationship is identifying and delivering a win-win result, for both you and your prospect. This is where the principles of honesty and authenticity come in. If it doesn’t look like the prospect will benefit from your product, it’s not going to be a rewarding relationship.
Spend some time analyzing your customers’ competitors. This may not seem like the best use of resources if you’re trying to secure the ‘win’ for just yourself, but changing your attitude to help your client also win will pay off.
This long-term approach requires patience: if the product isn’t right for them now, that doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future. By keeping in touch with potential prospects, such as with a drip email campaign, you’ll be top-of-mind when the time is right.
5. Add exceptional value
Teach your reps to look for opportunities to exceed expectations and create value, without expecting anything in return. While this might sound like hard work, the good news is that, if you’ve followed the previous steps, this will be a lot easier. Knowing your prospects and their needs makes it easier to provide genuine and relevant value.
By following this consistently, your reps will soon earn the role of trusted advisor and can provide even more value. David Butter, of Andrew Sobel Advisors, explains why filling the role of trusted advisor is so beneficial:
“Clients in this fast-moving world are desperately seeking people they can have insightful conversations with—rather than receive presentations and me-too recommendations from—people who can be a sounding board, people who can sit at the table and listen, ask insightful questions, and offer independent strategic advice.”
In return, salespeople who can provide that extra service are more likely to win a lifetime customer and become a go-to provider without having to constantly compete on price.
6. Provide ongoing support post-sale
Once your rep has made the sale, that shouldn’t mean that the value (and the relationship) should come to an end.
Nordstrom is renowned for its exceptional customer service; on one occasion, they famously allowed a customer to ‘return’ a set of tires that he hadn’t even bought from them. While this may not make any sense on paper, the fact the story has been so widely spread shows the value of outstanding customer service as a differentiator and has led to many more customer relationships.
More companies are now going beyond customer support and have established customer success teams. These teams are dedicated to helping current customers get the most out of the product. For example, to ensure a cohesive experience for their customers, Falcon.io uses the details from their CRM and pipeline management software to outline each customer’s specific success criteria, based on their journey from lead to customer.
This aligns the company’s sales and customer success teams, and enables closer customer relationships, as reps have a better understanding of their customers’ needs and can map out their ongoing relationship.
By prioritizing their relationships with prospects and customers, salespeople can have a better understanding of their needs, offer more value and build trust. This involves adopting a long-term view and putting the customer’s interests ahead of the sale.
With a foundation based on the solid principles that relationship selling refers to and a sales process that supports strong relationships, your team will have a significant advantage over your competitors.