What’s a better way to sell? Relationship selling.
In relationship selling, you form a deep relationship with your prospect, benefiting both of you in the long term. Instead of selling the product and never contacting them again, you stay in touch and give them personalized recommendations that help them improve the bottom line at their business.
They get to extract value, while you get to exceed quota.
In his book Relationship Selling, Jim Cathart writes, “Relationship selling is a form of selling, not merely a type of relationship. The purpose of it is to help other people at a profit to you. When you are truly helping, you deserve to be well compensated for your product or service.”
In other words, relationship selling is all about being helpful — with the ultimate goal of providing value and retaining the customer, guaranteeing revenue down the line.
In this post, we’ll cover what relationship selling is, go over a few examples, and share a few top tips for nailing the relationship selling process.
What is relationship selling?
Relationship selling is a technique in which a sales rep prioritizes their connection with the customer over all other aspects of the sale. They develop trust — usually by adding value and spending a lot of time with prospects — before attempting to close.
In relationship selling, rapport-building between the rep and the buyer are emphasized more than the features or price of the offering. To build rapport, sales reps typically practice active listening to successfully uncover prospects’ needs and form a relationship.
HubSpot Research reports that a good portion of sales organizations use pre-written sales enablement materials such as email templates (53%) and call scripts (39%). If yours is one of those organizations, it couldn’t be more important to actively listen and tailor your pitch to develop a relationship.
In fact, 70% of B2B customers expect in-depth personalization, making it a critically important facet of relationship-building.
If they feel like the experience isn’t personalized, prospects are unlikely to purchase an expensive product. They’ll feel like they’re only part of a transaction and not part of a mutually-beneficial relationship.
That’s why you’ll want to steer clear of transactional selling. It’s often quick and un-personalized, which is why it’s fallen out of favor at most B2B organizations.
Transactional Selling vs. Relationship Selling
A transactional sale is a quick exchange of a product or service for money that typically doesn't entail a personalized experience. Relationship selling, on the other hand, is effort- and research-intensive, and often involves personalization and familiarity.
Transactional selling works well for low-cost, commoditized products, where it doesn’t make sense for the rep to invest in getting to know their buyers. For example, the clothing and car industries partake in transactional selling.
Relationship selling is better for businesses where there’s a long sales cycle, and prospects need more touch points before making a purchasing decision. Overall, it’s good for high-cost situations and/or customized solutions, but those aren’t the only scenarios where it applies.
Relationship Selling Examples
You might think of relationship selling as an enterprise B2B strategy, and that’s certainly not wrong. Any rep working a $50,000+ deal is probably using relationship selling techniques — think a salesperson for sales automation software or a customized HR app.
But relationship selling also applies to consumer products. How well do you know your tailor? If they’re smart, they’ll develop a personal relationship with you so your loyalty extends beyond their abilities. What about your favorite hotel? Many nice ones keep meticulous track of their guests’ preferences, enabling them to create personalized experiences for anyone who returns.
Here are a few more examples where businesses use relationship selling.
Enterprise SaaS Companies
Enterprise SaaS providers such as HubSpot use relationship selling to sell their suite of products. In the first outreach email, the sales rep typically asks for a quick call, and as the nurturing process progresses, they send links to helpful materials and provide free demos.
These companies use a CRM to keep their prospects’ information on hand. That way, sales reps don’t need to recall customer details from memory, and the relationship develops seamlessly week-after-week.
Healthcare providers use relationship selling, albeit in a different way than B2B businesses. By keeping your medical information on hand, they can tailor your treatments depending on your needs. Even if you’re serviced by a different staff member, your experience remains consistent during each visit.
In the B2C space, subscription services such as Spotify and Amazon Prime use deep algorithmic personalization to form a relationship with users. Even if you don’t speak to a salesperson, the platform examines your habits and serves you what you need so that you stay subscribed.
Another example would be Google. How many of us use Google for the seamless integration between each of its apps and services? The search engine examines your behavior to deliver personalized content and search results across all of its products.
Local businesses such as hair salons, coffee shops, bakeries, and tailors (as mentioned above) use relationship selling to keep you coming back. For instance, a hairstylist might remember your previous styling preferences and automatically create that style without you needing to tell them. They might also remember your name and details of your life to forge a personal connection.
The relationship selling process may look different depending on the industry, but no matter what, it’s composed of similar steps. Let’s take a look below.
Relationship Selling Process
- Provide value and insight in every email and phone call.
- Learn about your prospect’s challenges, objectives, and professional goals.
- Give advice that’s tailored to their business objectives.
- Solve for and empathize with your prospect’s objections.
- Find a win-win solution to the prospect’s objections.
- Keep providing value after the closed-won deal.
1. Provide value and insight in every email and phone call.
To quickly gain credibility and establish yourself as a trusted advisor, the very first thing you should do is provide value and insight to your prospect. That might mean reaching out with some helpful suggestions, sending them links to relevant content, making a valuable introduction, or anything else that benefits them.
That way, instead wanting to extract a sale from them, you’re simply being helpful, nurturing the relationship right out of the gate.
2. Learn about your prospect’s challenges, objectives, and professional goals.
Once you’ve gotten their attention and proved you’re worth their time, dig into their business challenges, objectives, metrics, and qualifying characteristics, along with their personal and professional goals. This information helps you answer two critical questions:
- Can your product help the prospect?
- Do they have the ability to buy it (authority, budget, appropriate timeline, etc.)?
These two questions cover the basics of sales qualification. Aside from ensuring the prospect is a good fit, it also helps you understand whether you can actually create a mutually beneficial relationship with them.
Don’t force the sale with anyone who’s not a good fit. You might be able to convince them to buy, but remember: Relationship selling is about the long term. Your customers will be unhappy once they learn they’ve been misled, and you’ll face cancellations and/or returns rather than glowing reviews, referrals, and upgrades and cross-sales.
3. Give advice that’s tailored to their business objectives.
Combine your new knowledge of the buyer with your subject-matter expertise to deliver your suggestions. For example, you might prescribe a strategy that’ll address one of their core pain points (and happens to align with your product).
Back up your recommendations with examples of customers who have been in similar situations. To give you an idea, you might say,
"Customer Y, another company with around [number] of employees in [X space], was facing a similar problem. I advised them to do [such and such]. In [period of time], they saw [quantified results]."
4. Solve for and empathize with your prospect’s objections.
Surfacing and solving your prospect’s blocking points is a necessary part of any sales process. But relationship selling calls for a careful approach. You never want to steamroll your client — that’s guaranteed to turn them against you. Instead, give them ample time to explain themselves. Be patient. And above all, answer honestly.
If they have a genuine reason to be concerned, don’t ignore that. Your truthfulness will be more reassuring than a glib response (and will hold up after they get their hands on the product).
To identify the buyer’s worries, ask questions like:
- "Is there anything stopping you from buying?"
- "What are you anxious about?"
- "What do you wish was different about the product?"
Once they’ve answered, say:
"To make sure we’re on the same page, here’s what I got from that: [Paraphrase their objection]. Is that right? Did I miss anything?"
This proves you’re paying attention and truly care. Then show empathy with something along the lines of, "I hear what you’re saying, and that completely makes sense. Can I ask a few follow-up questions?"
Dig into the prospect’s objection to make sure you fully understand.
Finally, it’s time to respond. Don’t be combative — you and your prospect are on the same team.
5. Find a win-win solution to the prospect’s objections.
Many salespeople treat the negotiation like a zero-sum game. In other words, if the buyer wins, they lose, and vice versa. This mentality erodes trust and forces your negotiation partner to act selfishly. Plus, if they walk away feeling like you’ve taken advantage of them, your long-term relationship is doomed.
The solution? Act like a win for your prospect is a win for you. Together, you’re trying to find the best possible outcome.
To successfully respond to the prospect’s objections, come prepared with several concessions you’re willing to make (like extra implementation help, better payment terms, the option to call you at any time for help, and so on). Proactively extending these compromises will show your prospect you’re on their side and make them likelier to extend concessions of their own.
6. Keep providing value after the closed-won deal.
Don’t disappear from the customer’s life as soon as they sign the contract — unless you want them to assume you’re only interested in their checkbook and not their success.
Look for reasons to reach out every few months or every quarter, such as:
- An ebook, article, podcast, or other resource they’d be interested in
- A company event you’d like to invite them to
- A LinkedIn Pulse or blog post you’d like to feature them in
- A follow up to see how they like the product and if they have any questions or concerns
- A "Congrats!" on a recent company or personal accomplishment
- A "Happy Holidays" note
Staying on their radar deepens the relationship and increases the likelihood they’ll stay a customer. And if they’re a big account, you may want to go even further:
- Take them out to dinner or a fun outing
- Schedule a yearly, biannual, or quarterly account review
- Send them tickets to a local performance
- Invite them to tour your office
- Coordinate a meeting between one of their executives and yours
So, how do you build a relationship in sales?
The main principle underpinning relationship selling is simple: Always think about the long-term impact of your actions. Here are several ways you can incorporate relationship selling techniques into your sales process.
1. Be honest with your customers at all times.
Dishonesty is kryptonite to business relationships. Make sure you’re never misleading your customers, either by giving them false information or withholding crucial details. You’ll earn their respect by telling them something isn’t right before they find out for themselves.
2. Consistently check-in with your contacts and customers.
Be a continued presence for your clients. Interact with them on social media, send them value-added emails, and pay attention to the details of their personal lives so you can ask about their kids, past-times, goals, etc.
3. Exceed your contact's expectations.
If you want to secure someone’s loyalty, blow past their expectations. To give you an idea, perhaps you told your contact you’d get them tickets to your annual industry event. And you do — but in addition to the tickets, you also arrange a private meet-and-greet with a speaker you know they look up to.
4. Follow-through on your commitments.
Do your best to meet every due date and commitment. Maybe you said you’d send an email connecting them to your contact by Friday. It’s 6 p.m. and you know they’re not checking their inbox until Sunday morning — but that doesn’t mean you can wait. Every time you keep your word, you bolster your trustworthiness.
5. Provide exclusive perks.
Make your customers feel good. Tell them you’re grateful for their business, ask what you can do to make them happy, give them discounts, and if possible, send them swag. Everyone loves being treated like they’re special.
Relationship Selling is the Better Way to Sell
A sale is a one-time event, but a relationship lasts long after the prospect signs on the dotted line. With these techniques, you’ll build relationships with your customers that’ll allow you to cross-sell and upsell later without sacrificing the relationship. As a result, you’ll bring in more revenue, exceed quota, and shine as a top performer in your sales team.
Editor's note: This post was originally published on December 2017 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.