Relationship Selling: The Path to Sales Success *

U.S. Small Business Administration

Many small business people have great ideas for products or services, but don't want to sell or don't know how.  They've defined their target market and how to reach it, and have mastered the financial aspects of running a company. However, often missing is a clear understanding of the sales process - or the willingness and ability to initiate successful sales conversations, and not get stopped by people saying "no."

What is it about selling that makes so many entrepreneurs shudder, especially those who are the sole salesperson for their firm?  Very often they are affected by preconceived notions as to what selling is (adversarial, difficult, manipulative).  Or they have a strong fear of rejection - when a prospect says "no," they take it personally.

Letting these negative ideas get in the way of selling is one way to ensure your venture will fail.  After all, if you don't make sales, you don't have a business, no matter how good a product you have, or how well you've done your marketing.

There is a way to sell that is positive, rewarding and enjoyable.  And it helps handle that fear of rejection as well.  It's called relationship selling, and is the way effective, professional salespeople have always operated.  In fact, Dale Carnegie started delivering this message 78 years ago.

Relationship selling applies to any kind of business, whether retail or business-to-business, product or service.  While the steps to the sales process may vary slightly for each type, the overall theme of building relationships is consistent throughout.

Traditional vs. Relationship Selling

Most of the existing negative opinions and fears about the sales process are based on a traditional, formula method:  memorize 10 different ways to get an appointment, 40 kinds of closes, 20 ways to handle objections, etc.  While these techniques can be very useful, they may also get in your way if used without first building a relationship with sales prospects.

When many small business people think about selling, they have a stereotypical image of the used-car salesman or the aluminum siding huckster as played by Danny DeVito in "The Tin Man."  Characters such as these operate in a win/lose mode - an exchange where the seller tries to trick, persuade or coerce the customer to buy.  In contrast, relationship selling is a win/win game.  If the product or service being sold truly meets the needs of the buyer, both parties benefit as a result of the sale.

Today's customers have become more sophisticated and demanding of higher levels of customer service than ever before.  They want someone they can trust who understands their needs and wants.  This is particularly important during slow economic times, when most people make buying decisions, even small ones, very carefully.

Also keep in mind that the best sources of new business are existing customers and referrals from these customers.  To help ensure the success of your venture, take the time to build relationships with your customers, rather than just focusing on making the immediate sale.  Although relationship selling may take longer to produce results, it is definitely worth it in the long run.  You will be well rewarded with high levels of repeat business and referrals from happy customers.

Build Trust

People tend to do business with those they like and trust.  Look into your own buying experiences.  Have you ever walked away from a transaction because you did not trust the salesperson to deliver what was being promised, or because you just plain didn't like the man or woman?  And conversely, haven't you found yourself going back again and again to do business with helpful and honest salespeople?

How do you build trust in a business environment?  Let your prospects and customers get to know you.  Make sure they understand why you started your business, and why you believe in your product or service.  You might also get involved in industry or neighborhood organizations where you can meet your prospects and customers in a different environment.  They can experience another side of you, and get to know you as a person, not just as a vendor.  While you are still selling the benefits of your product or service, you are also selling yourself.

Another way to build trust is to keep your word.  From follow-up calls to delivering on time, keeping your word can be one of your most powerful sales tools.  Of course unexpected things do happen, and sometimes you cannot keep your promises.  When this occurs, communicate with your prospect or customer, and inquire whether the change is workable and what you can do to lessen the inconvenience.  That way, you keep your trust level intact, or may even strengthen it as a result.

Focus on Filling Customers' Needs

The better your product or service fits your customers' needs, the more sales you will have.  When customers know you sincerely care about what they want and need, they will feel secure that they are making the right decision in buying from you.

By clearly identifying the needs of your customers, you can also confirm whether or not they are part of your target market.  Even if they really do not require what you have, you can still build trust and improve your relationship by being candid and referring them to a more suitable resource.  You never know when this good deed will return to you in the form of highly qualified referral business.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

One of the best ways to obtain pertinent details about a customer's needs is to ask questions that elicit information, rather than a simple "yes" or "no."  The classic interview questions are:  who, what, when, where, why and how.  For example, "who will be using this product?", or "when will you be ready to make a decision?".  While you are asking, also respond at appropriate times by linking key product or service benefits with the prospect's stated requirements. The result is an interactive conversation where information is exchanged and both parties expand their knowledge.

Sometimes it might be appropriate to elicit certain specifics. For example, "how long have you been in business?"  Don't be afraid to ask such closed-ended questions.  They can be quite useful, even though they don't provide the in-depth information acquired from open-ended queries. Open and closed ended questions were often used in the outmoded formula style of selling, but with a more insidious goal of finding out enough information so the sale could be made - whether or not it was beneficial to the customer.  In contrast, as a sales professional focused on building relationships, you are operating in a context of integrity and trust with the goal of having customers for the long-term, not just for the moment.

Listen More Than You Talk

Something magical happens when people give their undivided attention to others, without interrupting or focusing on what they are going to say next.  This is true whether the environment is professional or personal.  However, it is often overlooked in the context of establishing a business relationship, much to the detriment of the seller. After all, if you do all the talking, you will never learn anything about your prospect.

When you listen more than you talk, customers realize you are genuinely interested in them, and that you are trying to understand their specific situation.  They feel more comfortable with you, and will soon realize you are on their side.  Make active listening a regular practice, and you will find it much easier to create excellent relationships with your customers.

Useful Selling Techniques

Although selling by rote formula is no longer appropriate in today's environment, some simple techniques can be very effective when properly applied in the context of creating business relationships.  You can focus on building trust all day,  but if you don't ask for what you want, you still won't make the sale.

For example, you might have made a good connection with a fellow industry organization member, but there will be no possibility of a sale unless you spend some time discussing how the two of you might have a match.  In a retail environment, it could be as simple as introducing yourself to customers, rather than staying behind the counter and ignoring their presence.

Another traditional technique is understanding and using body language.   Knowing how to interpret prospects' folded arms or eye contact could give you much-needed information about how comfortable they are with you, or how ready they are to make a purchase decision.  Also, when you know how to use body language appropriately, you can communicate your interest, concern or enthusiasm without words.  It is well known that communication is 50 percent body language, 40 percent tone of voice, and 10 percent the actual words used.

Dealing with Rejection

One of the main reasons small business owners dislike selling is that they don't like to get rejected.  This is a basic and very understandable human reaction.  However, excluding financial considerations, people generally say "no" for one of three basic reasons:  they don't like you, they don't trust you, or what you are offering is not what they want or need.  Aside from the fact that not everybody will like you, if you have done your job, focused on building trust, and made sure that there is a fit between you and the prospect, you will rarely hear "no."  At worst, the timing will not be quite right, or you may be referred to other people who might respond positively.

Many entrepreneurs have their survival directly linked with the success of their operation, which makes rejection very serious indeed.  When starting out, make sure you have at least a 12-month cushion of money for living expenses while you are building your business.

Then try focusing on the "numbers game" aspect of selling to put things in perspective.  The truth is that you need to be engaged in a number of selling "conversations" at any one time in order to reach your desired goals.  Not all of these conversations lead to immediate sales, and you will normally have to replace approximately 10 percent of your customer base every year, as people move, change jobs or go out of business.  So make a game of it.  While you are busy building relationships, make sure you are building enough of them.  Focusing on the game aspect can help diminish your feelings of rejection every time someone says "no."  You will be better able to move on to the next prospect, knowing you made your best effort.

A Different Framework for Selling

Although a lot has been written recently about relationship selling, the concept itself is not new.  The principles involved have always worked, and are even more important in today's highly service-oriented market environment.

Relationship selling does not consist of a simple set of techniques you have to master.  It is a way of conducting yourself in the business world that is flexible, cooperative and professional.  When selling in a context of building healthy relationships, you are operating as an ethical, considerate and helpful human being.  You are also building your communication and other personal development skills.  This is not only satisfying, but also quite effective in creating a steady stream of sales for your business.

Steps in the Sales Process

Understanding the basics of the actual sales process, and customizing them for your business, are critical in building customer relationships.  Whatever your setting, and whether you sell a product or service, the following steps are the ones you should use.

  1. Know your product or service. Before you even have a preliminary conversation with a prospect, it is essential that you clearly understand what attributes make your product or service unique or desirable, and why people should want what you have to offer.
  2. Make initial contact. The actual sales conversations with people in your target market begin when you start letting them get to know you, and vice versa.
  3. Exchange information. This step consists of meeting with your prospects, asking them questions, uncovering their needs, giving them information about your product or service, and determining how it might fill those stated needs.  Don't be afraid to acknowledge gaps in your knowledge or understanding; such sincerity comes through in a positive way.
  4. Propose a solution. Once you have ascertained that there is a good fit between you and the prospect, you can propose how your product or service would specifically solve a problem or handle a need.  By understanding the features and benefits of competing products or services, you can also prove at this point how what you offer is better.
  5. Confirm the sale. Rather than focusing on "closing the sale," a term that indicates the end of the process, confirming the sale means you are reviewing the customer's willingness and ability to make a commitment.  It is a natural extension of a sales relationship built on a foundation of trust, respect and rapport.
  6. Deliver. Although actually delivering your product or service is not technically part of the sales process, it is a very critical step.  If you don't deliver, you don't have a sale.  In addition, during this step you have an excellent opportunity to continue to build trust and cement your relationship with your client. 
  7. Follow up.  This is the time to find out how your client likes your product or service.  This stage provides an ideal chance to create repeat business or get referrals to new prospects.  And if there is a problem, you have an opportunity to correct it.

Building Relationships with Clients is Key at ENCOMPASS

"From its inception, the crux of ENCOMPASS was forming special relationships with clients and becoming a committed partner on their journey toward career fulfillment," says Howard Sambol, executive director and owner of this 11-year-old consulting company specializing in career and business development.  "It's also critical to have a structured sales process," he continues.  "When we first started out, we didn't fully understand the steps involved.  Now, we have created a real system for building relationships with clients."  Sambol also strongly emphasizes the importance of prospects seeing you as an expert, someone who can help solve their problems.  "Bringing all of the elements together is critical:  relationship, sales process and expertise.  You could even say that a proper sales relationship strikes a balance between friendship and caring on one hand, and professionalism and knowledge on the other.  We try to always operate from these premises, and it's working!"

When the Answer is No

Even after doing and saying all the right things, you may still get "no" for an answer.  Sometimes this can provide an opportunity to redirect the sales situation or develop a new proposal.  At other times, it just signals that it's best to move on to the next prospect.

Here's what top salespeople suggest doing when the answer is absolutely, positively "no":

  • Thank the prospect for the opportunity to bid for the business.  This basic precept is particularly valuable if you also ask the prospect for feedback.  What factors contributed to the decision?  What did your product or service lack?  What did you do - or not do - that lost the sale?
  • Determine whether to pursue the business further.  Research shows that successful salespeople have more failed calls - calls that end with a "no" from the prospect - than mediocre salespeople.  Successful salespeople know when to walk away.  They've thoroughly explored the prospect's needs, and recognize that the product or service being offered does not meet them.
  • Stay in touch.  If your analysis convinces you to pursue the business, stay in touch with the prospect.  Send articles of interest, or invite the prospect to events that are particularly relevant.  But avoid routine follow-up calls.  Phone only when you have information that meets a specific need the prospect is trying to address.

Qualities of a Sales Professional

Studies have shown that outstanding salespeople share certain traits, whether they run their own business or work for someone else. According to Jim Cathcart, well-known speaker and author of Relationship Selling: The Key to Getting and Keeping Customers, whether people are professionals isn't determined by the business they are in, but by the way they are in business.

Sales professionals:

  • Are committed to the success of their clients' businesses, as well as their own.
  • Have clearly stated business and life goals.
  • Take time to educate themselves, and are always open to learning how to improve their sales skills.
  • Spend spare time in sales-related activities, whether within their industry or contributing to other entrepreneurs.
  • Take personal responsibility for both their successes and failures, rather than blaming others for any setbacks.
  • Keep track of their progress, including accurate records of conversations with clients and appropriate follow-up times, as well as their level of activity during each step of the sales process.
  • Are determined and persistent, and don't let anything discourage or slow them down.


*Excerpted with permission from "Small Business Success" magazine, Volume 5, produced by Pacific Bell Directory in partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Partners for Small Business Excellence.