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What Is Relationship Selling – How to Be a Good Salesperson


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Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was published in 1936, and is one of the best-selling self-help books of all time with an estimated 15 million copies sold. Some have called the book the bible for building relationships for its insights into human nature.

The principles espoused by Carnegie continue to be valid almost a century later. Why? Because human nature doesn’t change. Each of us wants to feel important and special, and we are naturally drawn to those who make us feel better about ourselves – they are the kind of people we want to be like and be around.

Relationships are especially important in selling products or services and retaining clients. S. Anthony Iannarino, a consultant who works with sales organizations, is blunt about the link between sales and relationships, stating that a salesman is “first and foremost a relationships manager.” The process of using the tools of relationship building to foster sales is generally referred to as “relationship selling.”

In the modern world, people are constantly and continually barraged by other people trying to sell them a product or service. New technology that educates, entertains, and brings us closer means that solicitations – letters, email, Internet ads, catalogs and flyers, phone messages, and television ads – occur around the clock. As a consequence, potential purchasers are wary of product claims and suspicious of the person sponsoring the product. We grow hard shells and practice selective hearing to protect our pocketbooks and our sanity, lowering our guard only to those we trust.

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Relationship Selling and Salesmanship

Relationships begin with acquaintances, some of which progress to friendships and fewer still to trusted partners. Relationships evolve as trust grows, ruled by the sense of value that each party imparts to the other. Conflicts invariably arise between two parties, and the ability to resolve conflicts is the test of a relationship. Many salespeople are conflict-adverse and are unable to handle a buyer’s resistance, perhaps because they doubt the value of the products or services they offer to the potential purchaser.

Dictionaries define selling as “persuading or inducing someone to buy, while Wikipedia defines the act of selling as “to trick, cheat, or manipulate someone.” As a consequence, potential purchasers have learned to be wary of product claims and suspicious of the person sponsoring the product. Carnegie, recognizing the impossibility of trying to convince a stranger to buy something he or she neither wants nor needs, stated, “There is only one way under high heaven to get anybody to do anything. Did you ever stop to think of that? Yes, just one way. And that is by making the other person want to do it. The only way I can get you to do anything is by giving you what you want.”

Creating and delivering value to your prospects, customers, friends, and associates is what relationship selling is about. It requires mutual trust between the parties – the purchaser believing that the salesman is telling the truth and proposing a product of genuine value to the buyer; the salesman believing that the purchaser will ultimately reward him for his honesty, diligence, and work on the purchaser’s behalf.

Dr. Armin Falk, an economist at the university of Bonn, proposed a “theory of reciprocity” in the February 2006 issue of “Games and Economic Behavior” in which he proposed that people invariably reward kind actions and punish unkind ones. He claims that people evaluate the kindness of an action not only by its consequences, but also by its underlying intention. His theory explains why results and outcomes tend to be fair (satisfactory to each party) when both parties are mutually active, and unfair when one party coerces the other. Though some might say that the findings were commonsense, the theory is the foundation for relationship selling.

Trust: the Critical Ingredient of Relationship Selling

Not everyone is born with a personality that allows them to easily meet and captivate people. Some of us are more reserved, even timid, when meeting new people. However, even the shyest among us can build close and long-term relationships – not being what we’re not, but by being who we are. It is not a person’s ability to make people laugh, but their willingness to be honest and share themselves that enables a lasting, trusting relationship. These are the same traits that charismatic people practice.

While relationships can develop quickly, they rarely blossom overnight. Trusting relationships usually require face-to-face meetings since humans generally require visual cues before deciding how we feel about another person. For example, we are generally wary of telephone salespeople or email solicitations because we lack visual feedback to confirm their veracity. We evaluate people through a variety of physical signals – visual and aural signatures – which we then compare to various stereotypes we have developed over our lives. Our appearance, facial expression, verbal tones, and mannerisms generate an initial impression which we either reinforce or replace over time with our actions.

The Importance of Empathy

Empathy is the ability to step into the other person’s shoes and see things from their perspective. Some scientists believe that humans have a natural tendency to empathize, as evidenced by one infant’s distress when another infant cries. However, it is a tendency that must be nurtured, a skill to be learned and improved upon all of one’s life if it is to be fully developed.

Why is empathy important in relationship selling? As a salesperson, it is impossible to solve a problem or create delight in your customer’s mind if you do not understand what he or she is feeling. According to a 1964 study reported in the Harvard Business Review, “A salesperson simply cannot sell well without the invaluable and irreplaceable ability to get a powerful feedback from the client through empathy.”

The importance of empathy has not dissipated or been dislodged in the past 50 years. Jayson M. Bayers, executive director of the Division of Continuing Professional Studies at Champlain College, reported that developing empathy can “break down barriers and open doors” – it is the force that moves things forward.

While empathy is difficult to fake, it can be developed and practiced. Effective listening is an important component of empathy, as well as vulnerability. Revealing our own feelings, sharing stories of common experience, and finding shared interests are vital to creating trust, mutual understanding, and an empathetic bond.

Relationship selling involves a combination of empathy and problem solving. While empathy allows you to better understand your customer’s problems, the ability to provide credible solutions to those problems is just as important.

Importance Selling Empathy

Keys of Effective Salesmanship

Practicing the following keys of relationship selling can increase your sales and reduce stress. You are also likely enjoy your job more and appreciate your customers to a greater degree.

1. Make a Good First Impression

Before meeting someone for the first time, look at yourself in the mirror. Is that person staring back at you someone you would like to meet or be willing to trust? The cost of your clothes, the style of your haircut, or your height or gender are less important than cleanliness and neatness. A scruffy or disheveled look may be appropriate at a club or on an athletic field, but it rarely conveys the proper impression in an office.

Good habits to develop so that you may create a positive first impression include:

  • Smile. Study after study has consistently proven that people generally respond to a smile with a smile of their own. It stimulates positive feelings and confidence.
  • Maintain Eye Contact. Avoiding another’s eyes gives the impression of furtiveness and fear, as if you have something to hide. At the same time, do not stare as most people find that aggressive and hostile. Some cultures may consider direct eye contact impolite, so consider who you are meeting.
  • Speak Clearly and Loud Enough to Be Comfortably Heard. Mumbling or covering your mouth when speaking is disconcerting and makes understanding difficult. Don’t talk too close to people such that you disrupt their personal space, and avoid talking so loudly that you startle people or draw attention to yourself.
  • Deliver a Firm Handshake. Be neither a “bone-crusher” nor a “limp fish.”

2. Practice Radical Listening

There are few things more frustrating than speaking to someone who is not listening. Sometimes, they are focused on other things – a ringing phone, a television set – and, sometimes, they are thinking about what they want to say next, visibly impatient to open their mouths and begin. Stephen R. Covey, author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change,” expressed the truth when he said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

You can become a better listener by doing the following:

  • Focus on the speaker by giving them your full attention. Remember that you want to convey how important they are to you.
  • Show the speaker that you are listening by giving non-verbal cues, such as nodding your head and leaning forward.
  • Ask questions, especially about the ideas behind the words. However, don’t interrupt or disagree unless it is a matter of business ethics.
  • Pause before speaking yourself. While you want a comfortable, free-flowing conversation, it is not about you. Some sales consultants suggest that the best ratio between speaking and listening is about 1:2, reflecting the physical number of mouth to ears. Remember that when you are talking, you are not listening.
  • Mirror body language and tone. Scientists speculate that this replication creates limbic resonance between two individuals, encouraging trust and empathy.
  • Be comfortable with silence. Nervous people jump into every pause in a conversation. Let things simmer while you think about what is being said. It is the quality of information that is important, not the quantity of the words.

If you’re in a sales situation where the potential buyer’s needs are complex, don’t hesitate to make notes after explaining that you want to be sure you understand his or her position so you can think about the best solution. Remember that active listening is a skill that can be improved with practice – and practice begins with self-awareness of your behavior and habits.

3. Give More Than You Take

In the fast-paced business world, spare time is a rare commodity. As a consequence, everyone manages their time, especially their contacts with others, to best achieve their professional and personal goals. Unless you are someone that can provide value to them, the likelihood of being able to present your products or services is low.

Jill Konrath, sales strategist and author of “Selling to Big Companies,” advises her clients to:

  • Keep It Simple. Buyers don’t have time to deal with complexity, controversy, or complications. Limit their options to a single decision and you are more likely to have a sale.
  • Be Invaluable. Learn as much as possible about your client’s business and his problems. Provide helpful information and ideas on a regular basis, but be sure the information you provide will be considered valuable to the client, not just reinforcing your sales pitch.
  • Always Align. Your clients need to see an immediate and direct connection between what you do and what they are trying to achieve. If it is not pertinent to their goals, it is not relevant.
  • Understand Your Client’s Priorities. Don’t propose solutions to problems the client doesn’t have or lacks the authority to make decisions on. If you cannot make your product or service fill a recognized or immediate need, you are wasting his or her time, as well as your own.

Be willing to offer value even when you are not compensated. For example, telling a client that a competitor’s product might better fit his needs or providing an introduction to a valuable contact is a tangible demonstration of trustworthiness and honesty, and helps build a reservoir of trust. It is similar to putting money in the bank for a future withdrawal. The best clients are the ones who return again and again to purchase your products. The best way to ensure that they return is to ensure they leave with the feeling that they got more in value than they paid.

Give More Than Take

Final Word

If you want to enjoy a long and lucrative career selling a product or service, you should embrace the philosophy and proven techniques of relationship selling. Building relationships and creating value are mutually reinforcing activities that will lead to sales success and personal satisfaction. In short, practicing relationship selling will produce more sales, allow you to work with people whom you like, increase your earnings, and earn greater respect and recognition as a true professional salesperson.

What additional tips can you suggest to building relationships with clients and customers?

Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.