What is relationship selling? Everything you need to know
You're here because you want to make more sales, right? I have good news for you: relationship selling might be just what the doctor ordered!
In this article, I'll explain what relationship selling is, how it's different from transactional selling, and how to effectively implement a relationship-based selling approach. Then I'll give you a few examples to illustrate what relationship selling looks like in a real-world scenario.
Let's get started.
What is relationship selling?
Relationship selling is the act of building deep connections with prospects in order to close deals. This technique makes it easier for sales reps to earn their prospects' trust. As a result, reps who implement this strategy often generate longer-term customers.
If you sell big-ticket items, you're a top candidate for the relationship-based selling approach.
Your customers put a lot of thought into their purchases. Why wouldn't they? You're asking them to spend thousands of dollars with your company. By building real relationships with prospects, you'll make them feel comfortable enough to drop that kind of cash.
Relationship selling techniques will help you differentiate your offerings, too. Are your company's products really that different from the others on the market? Probably not, which is why focusing on features and price alone is risky. A real relationship will set you apart.
Transactional selling vs relationship selling
Transactional selling is the opposite of relationship selling.
This sales technique focuses on the product being sold, not the customer purchasing it. Because of this, the transactional selling experience can feel cold and impersonal.
This isn't a problem for low-ticket items—nobody is looking for a personalized experience when they buy toilet paper, for example. But transactional selling makes it extremely difficult (read: nearly impossible) to close big deals with long sales cycles.
How to use a relationship-based selling approach in your process
Relationship selling takes work, but it isn't difficult. Once you implement the 10 tips below, you'll forge real connections with prospects, earn their trust, and close more deals.
1. Learn about your prospects
The best way to get to learn about your prospects is to talk with them. Don't go down a rabbit hole of excessively researching a prospect on social media.
When you do, look for common ground. Did you grow up in the same town? Do you root for the same sports teams? Maybe you each own a dozen cats. (Hey, I don't judge.)
Here's the point: relationships are built on the small stuff. Dig into it—but don't get lost in it, and don't try to force it.
Once you've gotten to know your prospects on a personal level, address their business challenges. What do they struggle with on a day-to-day basis? And how will your company's products and services help solve these problems?
Remember to practice active listening—the act of giving another person your full attention so that you can truly understand them—during your sales conversations.
Why? Because listening produces results. According to research by Gong.io, top-producing B2B sales professionals only speak 43% of the time during sales calls. If you want to succeed with relationship selling, give your prospects the floor.
2. Display your expertise
Your prospects want to do business with someone who understands them and their industry. Display your expertise to win their trust and establish yourself as a credible resource.
There are plenty of ways to do this:
- Know your products like the back of your hand. What's so great about them? And how have other customers used them to solve similar problems?
- Research and compare competing products. How do your company's products compare to the competition? And why is it better suited to your prospect's situation?
- Study the latest trends in your prospects field. What's going on in the industry? And how is your company adapting to the changes to better serve its customers?
Relationship selling techniques help sales reps connect with prospects and earn their trust. But trust can be broken if said rep doesn't present themselves as a knowledgeable expert.
3. Address any objections
It doesn't matter which sales strategy you use, eventually, you'll need to address objections. The way you handle them will determine whether or not you make a sale.
When it comes to relationship selling, you do not want to gloss over your prospect's objections. Instead, take time to listen to their concerns. Do your best to understand where they're coming from and empathize with their current situation. And always be honest.
I'll talk more about honesty in a minute. For now, know that the entire relationship-based selling approach relies on your willingness to tell the truth.
To pinpoint the specific concerns your prospects have, ask them questions like:
- Is there anything keeping you from making a purchase?
- What's making you anxious about buying this product?
- Is there something you wish was different about this product?
When you get answers to these questions, paraphrase them back to the prospect. This will show them that you're actually listening to them and understand their point of view. Then say something like, "I get where you're coming from. Can I ask a few follow-up questions?"
If the prospect gives you the green light, dig deeper into each of their objections. That way you get the full picture and can brainstorm ways to overcome each roadblock.
4. Look for ways to add value
The more value you provide to prospects, the better chance you have at making sales. That's at the core of value-based selling, but it matters in relationship selling too.
Now, when I say "value" I'm not talking about discount coupons and freebies—though you can offer those if you like. I'm talking about resources, insights, and connections that you know your prospects will appreciate. Here are a few examples:
- Resources: Once you know about your prospect's pain points, send them blog posts, videos, ebooks, and other online resources that address these issues.
- Insights: Have you helped other customers who overcame similar challenges? Share their solution with prospects and encourage them to take the same approach.
- Connections: If you know someone who your prospect would like to meet, offer to make an introduction—especially if the contact can solve your prospect's problem.
To succeed with relationship selling, you need to make every interaction you have with prospects valuable. That way they actually want to engage with you.
5. Always tell the truth
The used car salesman down the road might disagree with me. But you'll make more sales if you tell your prospects the truth, even when it's inconvenient. I've been preaching authenticity in sales for so many years because I believed it's the right thing to do. But the longer you stay in business, the more it actually pays off financially as well.
Think about it: every good relationship is built on trust. How can you expect prospective customers to trust you if you lie to them and/or withhold important information? You can't, which is why honesty is essential to the relationship-based selling approach.
I'll admit, it's hard to tell the truth when you know it will jeopardize a sale. But it's always the right move. Unhappy customers return products, write bad reviews, inflate support costs, and can ultimately hurt your business.
Happy prospects, on the other hand, will benefit your business, even if they never become paying customers. They'll appreciate your candor, respect your integrity, and, if an opportunity presents itself, won't hesitate to recommend your company's products to others.
Losing one sale now isn't a problem if it nets you three or more sales down the road. We've seen this so many times at Close where a prospect was ready to pay for our CRM, but where a member of our sales team determined that they'd be better off with another CRM—and then actually told them so. There's probably no other sales team in the CRM space that's referred this many new customers to competing CRM vendors.
But here's how this played out in the long term: People remember us as trusted advisors.
At some point, the needs of their sales organization might change, and now Close can be a better fit and they'll become a (successful) customer. Or they might switch companies and end up in a company where Close is the right fit. Or they might know someone that would be a good fit and refer them to Close. It's happened more times than we can count throughout the years.
6. Keep your promises
Did you tell a prospect that you're going to call them at 11 am? Then do it. Did you tell that person that you'll email them after your conversation? Do that, too.
I've said it before, I'll say it again: to win with relationship selling, you have to earn your prospect's trust. One of the easiest ways to do this is to do what you say you will. Every time. Even if it's inconvenient for you. The effort you put in now will pay dividends later.
7. Be authentic at all times
Sales reps often think they have to have every answer to make sales.
Here's the problem: nobody has every answer. Instead of pretending that you do, be genuine. Admit when you don't know something. Doing so will humanize the sales process and make you more likable, which will make it easier to succeed with relationship-based selling.
Just don't get so caught up in relationship building that you forget why you're talking to prospects in the first place. You're trying to sell them something, not become their best friend.
The trick is to find a balance between connecting and closing.
Connect with prospects by being your authentic self and allowing your enthusiasm for your company's products to shine through. Once you've made a connection, close the deal by remembering why you worked to build rapport in the first place—to make sales.
8. Learn to have patience
Relationship selling is a long-term approach to sales, which is fine. Most people who find success with this strategy sell big-ticket items, which typically have long sales cycles.
So don't get discouraged! Implement the tips you've just read about. Try to make genuine connections with your prospects. And stay patient. If you truly have your customers' best interests at heart, you will start to see your relationship selling techniques pay off.
On the flip side, if you're looking for quick and easy wins, you should probably deploy transactional selling techniques—but be aware that the value you create as a salesperson is not in the easy deals that (almost) close themselves. In fact, salespeople who always take the easy route will probably be automated away sooner rather than later. It's those sales reps that are able to navigate more complex sales conversations that will really thrive long-term and have a prosperous career, so the sooner you start building that muscle, the better.
9. Go above and beyond
Relationship selling techniques build trust. Prospects who trust you will stick around for longer periods of time. In other words, connecting with potential customers will earn you their loyalty.
Here's another loyalty tip: exceed customer expectations.
What does that look like in real life? Go above and beyond for your prospects. If you promise to get them into your company's next event, arrange for them to meet the speaker, too. If you say you're going to send them a company t-shirt, send a hoodie as well. If you know they're currently struggling with paid acquisition costs and you know someone that might help—put them in touch.
Ask yourself, "What can I do to make my prospect's day?" Then figure out ways to do these things. The extra effort you put in will not go unnoticed. In fact, it may be the thing that sets you and your company apart from competitors and convinces a prospect to buy from you. There's a reason why large companies used to wine and dine prospects: it worked. Even if you don't have the budget of a Fortune 500 company, if a prospect could turn into a high-value account, there are always ways you can overdeliver.
10. Follow-up after the sale
Your prospect just signed on the dotted line—congratulations! Most sales reps now forget about them and focus on closing the next deal. Hopefully, you don't.
Relationship selling is an ongoing process. You're not just interested in your prospect's money; you're interested in their success. As such, you need to stay in touch with them. Don't worry, following up after the sale will have major benefits for you, too.
If you stay connected to your prospects, you may be able to upsell and cross-sell them in the future. Or sell them the same products when they switch companies. Or secure referrals.
Following up will turbocharge our sales career. The question is, how do you follow up effectively? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Ask them about the product they bought: Check in with customers a week or so after you sell them something, just to make sure they're happy with the product.
- Follow them on social media: Connect with your customers on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Then engage with their posts from time to time.
- Send them interesting content: If you read a blog post, watch a video, or listen to a podcast that you know one of your customers will enjoy, send them a link.
- Invite them to company get-togethers: Is your company hosting an industry event? Send an invitation to customers who could benefit from the affair.
- Take things a step further: For important, long-standing customers, take things a step further. Invite them to dinner or a fun outing. Or send them tickets to a local performance. Think of ways to really blow their minds.
Remember, the relationship-based selling approach never really ends. Stay in touch with customers and, eventually, those connections will bear more fruit.
Relationship selling examples
So, what does relationship selling look like in real life? I've listed three different examples below, showcasing the versatility of this sales strategy.
1. Enterprise companies
Do you sell expensive products to major corporations? Then you can certainly benefit from the relationship selling techniques we shared in this article.
Selling to enterprise companies is often a lengthy process, which isn't surprising. The size of these deals and the number of stakeholders and decision-makers involved in them almost guarantees it. To make sure your deals don't die halfway through, build connections with your prospects.
This process might look something like this:
- A sales rep emails someone in an enterprise organization.
- The sales rep schedules a discovery call with the prospect via email.
- After the call, the sales rep sends the prospects a few pieces of educational content.
- Two weeks later, the sales rep calls the prospect again to answer their questions.
- During the call, the sales rep invites the prospect and his team to a product demo.
- The sales rep schedules the demo appointment and ensures that all key decision-makers are looped in.
- The sales rep hosts the product demo and answers questions.
- After the demo, the sales rep begins to send educational content to the other decision-makers he just met and keeps moving the sales conversation forward toward a buying decision.
- Once the prospect is ready to buy, the paperwork gets taken care of until the contract is signed and the money transferred.
2. Subscription-based businesses
Relationship selling is important in subscription-based business, too—even if the subscription is relatively inexpensive. This is because subscription-based businesses rely on loyalty. As discussed above, building connections with customers inspires longer-term engagements.
The sales process for a SaaS brand, for example, might look similar to the one I outlined for enterprise companies, though it will likely happen quicker and involve fewer people.
B2C subscription services like Amazon Prime apply relationship selling techniques as well. In these scenarios, companies deploy algorithms to analyze customer behavior, which allows them to deliver personalized experiences that connect consumers to their brand.
3. Local businesses
Local businesses can also use a relationship-based selling approach—and oftentimes it can be their unique competitive advantage.
If you're like most people, you go to the same barbershop or hair salon to tame your mane. You might even go out of your way and pay more money to do so. Why? Because this person remembers your name, asks about your kids, makes you laugh, and knows exactly how to cut your hair.
As you can see, relationship selling techniques can be used in a wide range of industries.
Close more deals with relationship selling
If you can build real relationships with your customers, you'll make more sales today and tomorrow. And the next day after that, too. You'll also differentiate your company from others selling the same kinds of products, which is important in a competitive business environment.
Fortunately, relationship selling isn't complicated. But it will take a significant amount of effort. If you're ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work, implement the 10 tips in this article.
And if you want more practical advice on how exactly to build relationships with prospects and customers, claim your free copy of my book on building customer intimacy!