4 Ways to Win at Relationship Selling

Eighty-seven percent of business buyers expect sales reps to act as trusted advisors, according to the 2023 State of Sales report

Build trust; close the deal. That’s how relationship selling works. Trust leads to loyalty, and loyal customers spread the word, keep buying over time, and spend more money when they do.

The problem: During my time at Dale Carnegie, I’ve seen too many reps fumble relationships — or not even think about them — because they’re so focused on making a quick sale. Here are four tips that can help.

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4 tips that support relationship selling

The goal of relationship selling is to create the feelings that build trust. First, customers need to feel you have their best interests at heart. Second, they have to believe you know what you’re talking about. This kind of trust is only possible when you forget about the quick sale, ask powerful questions, establish credibility, and play the long game. Let’s take a closer look.

1. Forget about the quick sale

One in four customers said trusting a sales rep means feeling that “they are looking out for my best interest and providing value,” according to a Dale Carnegie survey of 1,600 customers.

Rather than pushing the customer to buy a solution, we have to listen intently to understand their real needs, and build a relationship that earns us the right to keep talking. Sometimes that means we recommend another vendor who can better help them. Other times, we might not even mention our product at all. 

A few years ago, I connected with a prospect on Zoom for an initial sales meeting. I asked how she was doing. “Good.” Then I paused and leaned in, as if to silently prompt, “No really. How are you doing?”

She confided that she had just dropped off her only child at college, and was struggling. “Welcome to the club,” I said. I was an empty-nester too, having walked through the same heartbreak when my daughter went to college earlier that year.

We opened up to each other and shared the difficult feelings of having children fly the nest. Then — oops! — we began tearing up, and our meeting was over.

Picture a successful client meeting. Now imagine two women shedding tears over Zoom. Did you expect those to be happening in the same setting? I never once mentioned the product during that conversation, but it was one of my best calls ever. We felt an emotional connection and she became my most valuable client. I eventually made my biggest deal with her company.

I’m not saying you should try to make your prospects cry. Rather, shift your focus from the quick sale and let your prospect describe what’s important to them at that moment. What are their pains and challenges, and how can you help? Sometimes, lending an ear is good enough, because nothing builds a bond better than giving someone your full attention.

2. Ask powerful questions

Give your prospect an opportunity to keep talking by asking powerful, open-ended questions that speak to their interest, buying criteria, and motive. This lets you identify opportunities to help. Here’s where to focus your questions: 

What outcome do they want? Customers aren’t interested in what you’re selling, but the result of what you’re selling. Instead of asking about what features they’re interested in, frame questions around impacts like efficiency, safety, flexibility, or return on investment (ROI).

What are their buying criteria? Discover the requirements that need to be met before the sale can advance, such as specific features, available budget, approvals, and buy-in from other decision makers.

What’s their individual motive? If you dig deep enough, you’ll strike the big emotional reason for making a purchase. It might be about strengthening relationships, being recognized, finding self-fulfillment, gaining power, or simply not getting fired.

This is a process, but it won’t work unless you add a secret ingredient: authenticity. As I’ve gotten older, the one thing I know is I’ve become more empathetic. And I’ve seen first-hand that the questions above are successful when I really care about the person who’s answering them. 

Now that you’ve built a relationship from the inside out, you’re almost ready to offer your solution. Turn your focus to building credibility.

3. Establish credibility

Credibility means your customer trusts you to deliver, the same way you trust your doctor to take care of your health. To establish credibility, first appear credible. Then, prove that you’re the person for the job, backed up by experience, knowledge, and resources. Here are important things to consider:

Make a great first impression. We have to instill confidence and play the part of a trusted advisor by appearing polished, communicating clearly, having a positive attitude, and being a pleasure to work with.

Demonstrate how your solution can help. “The person who can bring the most thoughtful insight to the customer, and show them their future, will win,” said Denise Dresser, executive vice president of sales at Salesforce, in an interview about enterprise sales. Know your product well enough to connect features to customer needs. Imagine that your customer is focused on improving the bottom line. How can you tell a story about your ability to deliver a return on investment?

Recommend outside resources. As you research your prospect’s company and industry, be sure to share relevant external resources, such as analyst reports or news articles. You want to show that your knowledge extends beyond the product.

When you uncover new information, you’ll find new ways to help. As you do, continue to forget about the quick sale. I remember a time when a client made a difficult request. He asked for permission to tailor our presentation slides for his own company. I knew it was important for him to look good in his organization, so I put in the time to reconfigure the slides. 

By putting our relationship at the center, I showed him that he could trust me to have his back. That relationship has led to big, multiyear deals. That’s what credibility is about.

4. Play the long game

Remember the ideal outcome of relationship selling: to become a trusted advisor, building loyalty that keeps customers coming back over time. 

On your next call, picture that long-term relationship and take steps to get there: Make it a point to offer solutions only when they’re hyper-relevant to the moment, and invest the time to tailor your approach. Customers can smell cookie-cutter sales pitches from a mile away.

This is an enterprise sales mindset, but it applies to small businesses, too — and I can tell you from experience that it works. One of my colleagues began working with a small startup. He went out of his way to help the business, even when it didn’t directly tie to a sale, because he was focused on the relationship. Today, the company has grown into a global corporation, and he’s still working with them. 

Relationship selling for the win

There’s a lot of talk about efficiency right now, but sellers often get that wrong. They think they have to move through conversations quickly and get the deal done, that the best tactics for closing deals rely on pricing and product positioning.

In fact, the most efficient thing you can do is invest your time on a sales call to make a personal, emotional connection. Build that trust, and the results will come.

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