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Relationship selling process and techniques | A complete guide

Learn how to create meaningful connections and relationships with prospects and clients.

By Donny Kelwig, Contributing Writer

Published February 18, 2022
Last updated March 25, 2022

It may seem like technology is dominating the world of sales today. But no matter how many ways we find to digitize workflows, save time, and cut costs, nothing has been invented yet that can replace genuine human-to-human interaction.

The buyer-seller relationship can be the cornerstone of customer loyalty. Plus, it’s a gold mine of opportunities for cross-selling, SPIN selling, and upselling. But there’s more to it than just making friendly small talk and being on a first-name basis with clients.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll examine exactly what relationship selling is, as well as its benefits and challenges. We’ll also offer six effective tips for elevating your relationship sales techniques. First, let’s start with the basics.

What is relationship selling?

Relationship selling is a relatively new sales technique. Unlike transactional selling— which is all about making the sale—relationship selling is all about trust and human connection. The result of a good relational sales process is a buyer-seller relationship that only gets stronger with time.

Trust is becoming increasingly critical in sales. Even if your product or service ticks all of your leads’ boxes, people will still side with their intuition if they see any red flags. To implement a strong relationship selling process, you must be able to identify and eliminate any red flags that you or your sales team have been accidentally flying. Then, you need to start putting up a bunch of green flags.

Trust-based relationship selling

Most people are more than happy to make smaller purchases using self-check-out kiosks or ecommerce sites. You probably don’t need a trust-based relationship to buy a desk for your home office. But for larger purchases that carry more risk and long-term commitment, such as in B2B sales, trust is an essential factor that can’t be outsourced to software.

Trust-based relationship selling is about showing—not telling—your leads that you’re worthy of their trust. There’s an art to showing-not-telling, which we’ll dive into later with our six most effective relationship selling techniques. For now, let’s look more closely at what relationship selling isn’t.

Need-based vs. relationship-based sales

relationship selling

You may have heard the term need-based sales thrown around. Also called consultative selling, this technique focuses on understanding exactly what the client’s problem is and identifying their goals. Basically, consultative sellers listen to clients’ problems and then point them toward the best solution.

Whether you’re using need- or relationship-based sales, trust will always be important. In need-based sales, however, that trust is built on expertise. The consultative seller is expected to be familiar with all the available solutions, and the buyer trusts their recommendations based on that knowledge. In relationship-based sales, the trust is based more heavily on the personal connection and mutual respect between the buyer and the seller.

Relationship sales has a much stronger focus on the human-to-human connections involved in the buying process. It’s well suited for people who are naturally outgoing, chatty, and memorable. They should be someone people want to talk to and meet with, and they excel at overcoming their clients’ sales objections without seeming pushy or overbearing.

The relationship selling process

The relationship selling process integrates more personal touchpoints into your traditional sales process. That means initiating more contact without seeming too motivated by your own success.

If you want to initiate contact without sounding like you’ve only got sales goals on your mind, there’s an easy solution—don’t make your touchpoints about you. Focus on your prospects and clients, and craft your outreach efforts to be about something that personally involves their goals and interests.

You can add more personal touchpoints into your relationship selling process by keeping a record of information, such as:

  • Birthdays and momentous occasions: Personalized cards to celebrate special dates and milestones go a long way.
  • Family members’ names: Family is a top priority for many people and one of the best conversation starters. Even something as simple as remembering their names, jobs, education, and a few hobbies shows that you care about the person as an individual, not just as an account.
  • Career/business goals: If you know where they plan on improving their business or career, you can strategize how your company can help them meet their goals. Follow their careers and celebrate their advancements—you never know when a previous business contact can open doors for you.
  • Outside hobbies and pursuits: Knowing what makes people tick gives you access to a range of conversational topics and opportunities to connect.
  • Religious observances: If you know their religious affiliation, you can make a note in your calendar to never reach out with business-related items on their holy days.

Obviously, there are certain kinds of information you shouldn’t ask about directly. While you can pick up on personal details based on context, there are boundaries with each individual that you shouldn’t cross if you want to maintain trust.

How to build relationships in sales and set boundaries

Maintaining trust in a buyer-seller relationship relies on setting and respecting boundaries, listening for open opportunities, and picking up on nuanced cues.

Relationship selling isn’t any less professional than traditional selling. But it does require a rock-solid understanding of what’s appropriate and what isn’t. Let prospects set their boundaries, then find opportunities for relationship building within those parameters.

Remember that there are legal boundaries, company boundaries, and personal boundaries. A good relational sales process is always respectful of all three.

Benefits of relationship sales

The ultimate goal of using relationship-based sales is to build lasting trust. And that trust can do some seriously heavy lifting when it comes to your bottom line.

Here are the some of benefits you can expect to see with a strong buyer-seller relationship:

  • A cushion in case the ball drops. It’s been said that extraordinary people get exceptions made for them. Everyone knows that accidents happen, and we’re typically more willing to make exceptions for mistakes if there’s already a strong sense of trust and friendship. Sales relationship building is about developing an extraordinary amount of trust with your clients, just in case you need to rely on that trust if something out of your control goes wrong.
  • Greater insight into your customer base. Getting to know your clients on a more personal level gives you more insight into why people buy your product or service from your company. If a client feels they can be honest with you, they might give feedback that they wouldn’t otherwise feel comfortable giving.
  • Ability to handle challenging accounts with grace. Some customers require a special touch when it comes to sales. Even the most personable sales reps can have difficulty with certain customers. If you’re good at relationship sales, that means you have a knack for delivering excellent service even when customers let their emotions or attitudes break down communications. Relationship selling can help you retain valuable accounts that may come with tricky personalities attached.
  • More profitable accounts that last longer. There are some industries where having a strong buyer-seller relationship adds value to the purchase. Good relationships reduce anxiety, provide a trustworthy point of contract in case of an issue, and provide a level of security for the future. If your customer knows that you consider them a priority, they’ll have a harder time leaving you if they end up having to cut costs.
  • More genuine referrals from satisfied customers. In relationship sales, your clients likely consider the relationship part of the perk that comes with their purchase. And people like talking to other people about the smart purchases they’ve made. If you and a client have a great rapport, chances are that they have other contacts you’d also click with. You’re also in a better position to ask for a networking connection without feeling too bold.

Remember: Trust gets stronger the longer it’s maintained. Trust-based relationship selling is a never-ending process that requires a lot of time and attention. And that can be a drawback when there’s already so much to do on any given day.

Improve your sales process

A good sales process is the foundation of any successful sales organization. Learn how to improve your sales process and close more deals.

Challenges of relationship-based sales

Tireless positivity

Some sales reps can find it difficult to always be “on.” Maintaining multiple business relationships can be exhausting—and one moment of letting a bad attitude slip out can do a lot of damage.

In relationship sales, you should either be A) someone who can snap into a positive mood at any moment, or B) someone with a sure-fire routine for bouncing back quickly, like breathing exercises or meditation.

The effects of poor work environments

If your company doesn’t provide a good living and healthy workplace environment, you can hardly expect your relationship sales process to be very effective. That would be like asking an Olympic athlete to perform their best without eating for a week—it’s an unreasonable request that won’t be met no matter how hard they try.

Poor workplace conditions can make any sales work difficult, but it’s especially hard when success depends on your ability to stay positive and personable.

It can get too personal

When you’re building relationships in sales, there’s always a risk that the relationship can go sour. Or, even if everything seems fine, you can still lose an account.

It can be a challenge to put so much work and trust into a relationship only for something as impersonal as money to get in the way. An important aspect of relationship selling is being able to compartmentalize relationships so they can’t negatively impact your professional or personal life.

The 6 most effective relationship selling techniques

You can tell people you’re trustworthy, but they won’t trust you until you earn it. Establishing trust involves following the basics of sales ethics and then finding opportunities to take action and show that you’re a person of your word.

Here are six action-based relationship selling techniques that you can start practicing today to build more trusting relationships with your clients.

Technique No. 1: Be fascinated, not fascinating

What this means:

Focus on what you find most interesting about the buyer. Keep the friendly conversation going until you can land on details that you genuinely find interesting (key word: genuinely). Then, see if it’s also a subject that they’re passionate about.

If you can tease out a passion of theirs that you also find fascinating, you’ll have an automatic go-to for creating personalized outreach opportunities. You’ll also have an endless source of engaging conversation.

What this doesn’t mean:

  • Find out what they love most and then pretend to love it, too.
  • Pick up new habits or interests just to please a client.
  • Talk only about yourself and your interests, hoping to land on a “match.”

Technique No. 2 : Know the whole truth, and tell nothing but the truth

What this means:

In relationship sales, you can never misrepresent information to a client, even in a vague or subtle way. If you don’t know the truthful answer to a question, know exactly who to go to for the best answer, and then report back honestly.

If you suspect a client has a false understanding of what you can offer, provide as much clarity as soon as you can. The simple act of allowing a client to believe something that isn’t true can seriously damage the relationship.

What this doesn’t mean:

  • Tell clients sensitive company information—even if it’s true.
  • Divulge sensitive details about other accounts.
  • Be overly honest and open about personal emotions.

Technique No. 3: Avoid trash-talking the competition

What this means:

Speak of your competition in concrete terms that can be backed up with facts. Be direct about their shortcomings compared to yours, but don’t resort to ad hominem attacks or rude language.

If you constantly speak negatively about the competition, it will seem like you don’t have enough positive things to say about your own brand. Plus, clients might think you enjoy talking about others behind their backs, and they’ll start wondering what you’re saying about them when they’re not around.

What this doesn’t mean:

  • Pretend the competition doesn’t exist.
  • Lie about the competition. Honesty is important, even when it comes to the people you’re trying to outperform.

Technique No. 4: Don’t make promises you can’t keep

What this means:

Always make realistic predictions about what you can accomplish. Be clear with clients about what you can do for them, and don’t overpromise just to secure the deal. If you say you’re going to do something—like draw up a contract or schedule a sales presentation—have a practiced system for making sure you carry through on your promise.

Keeping tabs on every single task can overwhelm even the most competent salesperson. Relationship sales is easier when you have a good software program that tracks and reminds you of your commitments so nothing falls through the cracks.

What this doesn’t mean:

  • Sell yourself short. Pushing yourself sometimes can reveal what you’re capable of.
  • Give too-long timeframes to provide yourself with more cushion. Time is of the essence for everyone—and if you can’t act fast, your competition will.
  • Give vague promises. If there’s something you don’t know you can commit to, find out as soon as possible.

Technique No. 5: Don’t push—help instead

What this means:

Look for opportunities to help, not to sell. Clients already know that your end goal is closing sales. But in relationship selling, you’re also selling yourself as a helper.

Take any opportunity to show that you don’t just sit back and let problems persist. Even if the problem isn’t directly related to your product or service, the simple act of trying to give help when it’s needed will establish you in your client’s mind as someone who is eager to find solutions.

What this doesn’t mean:

  • Assist with personal problems. Unless you’re directly asked to give assistance on personal matters, assume it’s none of your business.
  • Help them skirt around company policies. This one should be obvious, but it doesn’t mean some clients won’t try to make it happen.
  • Help them work around the law. Friends can do friends favors, but don’t let things shift into questionable territory.

Technique No. 6: Shake off the losses

What this means:

If you lose a promising lead or a good account, don’t take it personally. Beating yourself up only makes it harder to focus on the leads and clients you still have.

One of the hallmarks of relationship selling is being able to jump back into the game after a loss and not letting it sour your attitude toward the next opportunity.

What this doesn’t mean:

  • Pretend the loss didn’t happen. There’s still a lot you can learn about how to improve by examining where you might’ve gone wrong.
  • Give up on them completely. A loss isn’t always permanent, and having an established relationship means you can keep it going even if they’re not a client anymore.
  • Scrap all of your tactics. Just because one account leaves, it doesn’t mean you’re doing everything wrong.

How to build relationships in sales

Sales skills can be innate, and they can be learned. But knowing how to build relationships in sales is about more than just being good at conversation or being outgoing.

Before committing to a relational sales process, you should have comprehensive answers to these questions:

  • Who is your ideal buyer? What are their likes and dislikes? Do you have any interests that align with your ideal buyer? What is the attitude they tend to trust most in a salesperson?

    Trust-based relationship selling needs a jump starter to establish that this isn’t going to be a touch-and-go affair. Finding common ground from the beginning can get the ball rolling sooner rather than later.
  • What is the competition doing? You don’t have to copy what they’re doing, but it doesn’t hurt to see if your competition has pinned down a tactic that resonates with your customer base. Your competition’s tactics can be a great way to figure out which angle can attract the same customers.
  • What extra value can you bring to the relationship? What other ways can you help your clients with their business? Do you have any other resources to offer that will reinforce your image as someone who’s always looking for a way to make life easier for them?
  • How much time do you have for relationship building? Salespeople have a lot of tasks to handle. While a friendly conversation might be a nice break from the routine, it can also put a big dent in administrative work.

Be honest about whether or not you have time to build strong relationships. If you don’t, consider how you can shave hours off your workload and make room for more relationship selling techniques in your day-to-day operations.

How does sales relationship building work in the age of virtual meetings?

relationship selling

Meeting in person is always best for building trust. But when all you have is the next best thing, you’ve still got to make it work. Here are some basic tips for sales relationship building when meeting virtually is your only option:

  • Present yourself as you would in person. Being at home or presenting yourself over a screen doesn’t mean you should let your professionalism slip.
  • Keep your camera on. Your body language and facial expressions alone can do wonders in showing interest and establishing trust. It’s a small gesture of vulnerability that establishes a lot more trust than a blank screen or an animated avatar.
  • Stay focused. Distractions abound when you’re meeting online. Stay as connected with your clients virtually as you would in person, and remove any distractions that tempt your focus away from the job at hand.
  • Look at your camera—not yourself. Eye contact is absolutely vital for building trust. It may feel awkward, but if your eyes are focused on the small black dot of your camera, it will appear to clients like you’re looking them in the eyes. This small gesture helps build trust and keeps you from wondering if that’s how you really look in real life.
  • Take the tech issues in stride. Technical issues can be frustrating but don’t let them fluster you. Part of building trust is showing that you can deal with annoyances without getting agitated. Put in the work to know and understand every aspect of how your virtual meeting program works, so you can offer assistance if clients have a hard time navigating it. Also, be willing to meet them where they’re most comfortable if they happen to use a different platform than you do.

Make more time to cultivate relationship sales

One of the best things you can do to get started with sales relationship building is to give yourself time for it. As you’ve probably guessed, relationship selling can be time-intensive. How are you supposed to remember all those birthdays and make space for friendly chit-chat when you’ve got a million administrative tasks to deal with?

Here are a few time-saving tools offered by all-inclusive CRMs like Zendesk Sell. Even the simplest sales tech platforms can boost efficiency, giving you more time to devote to relationship building in sales.

  • Sales force automation software: Automate repetitive tasks like scheduling meetings, sales activity tracking, reporting and analytics, and assigning leads.
  • Customer relationship management tools: Keep all client details organized, accurate, and easily accessible to everyone in your organization.
  • Email automation: Reduce time spent writing and sending emails to leads and clients.
  • Field sales management software: Maximize productivity when you’re out on the road, and save time getting from one sales call to another.
  • Internal knowledge database: Break down information silos between marketing, sales, and customer service reps so you can get the right information to your clients fast.

Request a demo of Zendesk Sell today so you can seamlessly organize your information and build profitable relationships with incoming leads.

Improve your sales process

A good sales process is the foundation of any successful sales organization. Learn how to improve your sales process and close more deals.

Improve your sales process

A good sales process is the foundation of any successful sales organization. Learn how to improve your sales process and close more deals.

Read now