The Beginner's Guide to Relationship Selling

John Greene

April 9, 2024

12 min

Table of Contents

The desire for human connection is stronger than ever.

Between a global pandemic, increasingly remote work environments, and other social, economic, and political trends, there has been a renewed focus on the importance and value of genuine personal connections.

It's true in life.

And it's true in business as well.

This desire for connection has changed sales - undoubtedly for the better.

Over the years, there have been countless "techniques" salespeople have used to win customers and close deals. But one of the most effective, enduring, and endearing is relationship selling.

Because relationship selling is built on trust, integrity, and solutions, everyone is a winner. Sales reps enjoy and take pride in their process of "solving over selling." Customers make better decisions and get better results.

Integrity is choosing your thoughts and actions based on values rather than personal gain - Chris Karcher quote

This is something we wholly embrace at PhoneBurner. It has come to define our approach, and has yielded only positive results.

So, what exactly is a relationship based selling approach? And how do you use it to to serve customers better and grow in the process? In this post, we’ll define relationship selling and explain how to embrace and practice it to build your business, and enjoy your work more.

Let’s get started.

What is Relationship Selling?

What is Relationship Selling?

Perhaps the easiest way to define relationship selling is to describe what it’s not. It’s not transactional.

The transactional approach is focused exclusively on selling the product. Everything is about the product, not the customer. Transactional usually makes sense for less expensive products, for which minimal education is needed, usually to a one-time only customer.

Price determines value. It’s a short-term experience, and nothing more is needed or valued.

On the other end of the spectrum is the relationship approach to selling. In relationship selling, you’re focused exclusively on making a connection that builds trust with and delivers real value to the prospective customer.

All of your efforts are focused on the customer and solving their issue.

The customer determines value. The product also tends to be more expensive. Because this approach is customer-focused, the sales cycle is longer. It may take weeks or longer to close the sale, and the sale depends on the relationship that you’re able to forge with the prospective customer.

As you can see, relationship selling requires a shift in thinking, especially if you’re accustomed to the transactional approach.

Instead of thinking of making a quick sale, you must develop long-term thinking (and a strategy to match) with the goal of making a connection built on trust and value.

Unlike trying to convince, or worse, outsmart the customer (with a clever sales pitch), you take a collaborative approach where you partner with them, guiding them to the right product that meets their needs—even if that product isn’t yours.

That might sound crazy, but there are so many benefits both short term and long-term. Relationship selling hinges on your ability to successfully target customers who will get the most value out of your product. That's a win right off the bat. You’re not wasting time on prospects (or wasting the time of prospects) who aren’t the right fit for your product. You won't waste support resources on customers who shouldn't have become customers in the first place either. Also, relationship selling creates a connection that you can build on in the future. They may not be ready for your product right now, but they may be in a few months. Or they may refer your name to others.

Why is Relationship Selling Important?

Relationship selling obviously isn’t the right technique for every business. If you’re selling an inexpensive product, if your customer doesn’t need to get to know you or vice versa, or if your sales cycle can be completed with the click of a button, relationship selling may not be the best use of your time.

On the other hand, if the long-term value of your customer is high, it surely is. Perhaps you offer a subscription based service. Or your brand has a wide product line. Or repeat purchases are likely. Or referrals are important. Or reviews help you generate more business. In any of these cases, only good things can come out of strong relationships, and a relationship selling strategy.

There may be instances where you charge more than your competitors  (with stand out features & benefits), or perhaps your solution is essentially the same as another. In these instances, customers choose the company they trust, and thus your relationship with your prospects plays a pivotal role.

Naturally, the higher the cost, the more the customers tend to deliberate on whether a product is worthwhile. Salespeople who focus on finding real solutions to an existing problem leave customers with less to deliberate on, and less to question.

This is why you must find your ideal prospective customers (through careful marketing) and show them how your product solves their problems. You must build trust through valuable interactions that demonstrate your level of care, and your genuine commitment to their success and results.

That’s when the magic happens. When a customer begins to trust you and you have a credible solution to an existing need or problem, they’ll buy from you. And they'll benefit. You'll create a deeper connection.

That makes the entire experience infinitely more rewarding on both a personal and professional level.

How to Use Relationship Selling Techniques With Prospective Customers

Now that we’ve defined what relationship selling is and why it’s important, let’s discuss how to build meaningful relationships with your prospective customers.

Research your customers and build rapport

Research your customers and build rapport

Find out what you and your customers have in common. Because you’re building a long-term relationship, you have an opportunity to research your customers. Today more than ever, people crave genuine human connection. Start by checking out their website bio, then their profile on LinkedIn or other social media platforms. Do you share contacts or similar hobbies? That can be a starting point for building your relationship. You can ask for introductions or casually bring up the connection during your call.

Another great example could be: At the start of a demo, take a few moments to ask them how their week is going so far, how their weekend was, how they enjoyed the holidays, etc. whatever is relevant and contextual.  As simple as it sounds, some friendly, authentic conversation can really foster a relationship.

Be sure to log all of the information you find out in your CRM (not on sticky notes) so that you can quickly and easily recall the details of past conversations on your sales follow-up call. If you have a CRM, you can organize all of your contact’s information in one central location. Check out our full-featured CRM here.

Ask Questions and Listen

When on a call or in meeting with a prospective customer, ask questions. But don’t ask questions for the sake of selling your product. Ask questions with the intent of learning more about your lead so that you can ensure that your product is the right fit. 

Some good examples of these types of discovery questions that will help a sales rep understand the prospect's pain points.  

  • Open-ended questions like, “what interested you most about our solution? what were you hoping we could help your business with specifically?”
  • Product specific questions like, “A lot of the folks I talk to struggle with getting through more than 30 calls per day, when they really should be calling 50+ to make quota. Is that something you're running into as well?"

Make note of their pain points as well as their motivations and hesitations to purchase. You can use this information as you continue to nurture the lead. But remember not to be in sales mode. Instead, switch over to listen mode so that you can fully understand what your customer wants. 

This also means that you should allow silence - those awkward, uncomfortable silences that you’re tempted to fill with sales talk. Instead, give the lead a chance to fill that silence themselves. You’d be surprised what the other person says when given the chance.

If you talk too much, your lead is likely to feel like they’re being sold to instead of being listened to. That may work well in a transactional model, but it doesn’t convert when discovery, education, and problem solving is needed. The best way to sell this type of product is to ensure that your customer feels heard and validated.

Personalize Your Sell

Of course, you can’t listen all of the time. There will come a time when you must sell the solution. 

In relationship selling, keep your focus on the individual instead of the product. The way to sell the product is through the lens of the customer: what do they need to know to say yes?

Which features are important to this customer and which aren't?  What is the expected outcome? The answers to these questions are rarely the same for different prospects. So make it personal. Elaborate on the benefits of your solution. Highlight the problems that will be solved. Draw a picture of what business, or life is like with the issues behind them.

All of this requires a deep knowledge and understanding of your prospect.  Start by identifying and marketing to your ideal customer personas. Then, learn from them about their unique situation so you can deliver the solution that meets their needs.

Tell Them the Truth

Your prospective customers don’t want pie in the sky. Always call it as you see it.

Don’t make closing the sale more important than building the relationship. The best way to get your prospective customer to trust you is honesty. 

Be transparent about how you do business. Be clear about the price. And if the customer isn’t a good fit for your product, don’t try to shove it on them anyway. Be upfront if you think they’re better off with a different product or even a different competitor. They’ll appreciate your honesty, and so will you (when you’re not having to deal with a mis-fit customer who will likely take up valuable support resources and churn quickly anyway. Only signing on customers for whom your solution is truly a fit is better for the business overall.).

Complete honesty gains their respect and proves that you're trustworthy. These connections endure.

Keep in mind that situations change. Even if your product is not the best fit now, a relationship-based selling model makes you a desired target for the future.

Customers will literally beat a path to your door when their needs are different, or when they learn that another product didn't live up to the promise.

Use Empathy to Handle Objections

Objections come with the territory, but when you're implementing sales tactics, you need to address their concerns with patience and empathy. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. What would you need to move forward with the purchase? More information? A guarantee? 

Get to the bottom of their concern, because often a customer brings up one problem when they're really concerned about something else. 

When you hear their objection, reiterate their concerns by starting with: “What I hear you saying is…” Pause to give them a moment to clarify if you missed anything.

Continue Nurturing the Customer After the Deal… Think Long Term

In relationship selling, the end of sale doesn’t mean the end of the relationship. Don’t go silent. Always facilitate a personal handoff to whomever the new point person will be if they'll now be working with a different department. Make a personal introduction, but keep the door open should there ever be anything you can help with. Be available and nurture the relationship that you’ve established. Share valuable resources. Ask if they need assistance. Offer congratulations when they meet a milestone. Send out greeting cards to commemorate milestones, birthdays, and holidays. Set up your CRM tool to notify you whenever it’s time to reach out to your customers.

Staying in touch keeps you at the top of your customer’s mind, and inspires their positive sentiment for your business. It can also help sales reps create their own book of business, where the sales funnel doesn't end with the sale but becomes a "cycle," where new customers they sign on refer their friends to the rep directly, bringing in new prospects and business.

Final Thoughts on Relationship Selling

"Integrity is choosing your thoughts and actions based on values rather than personal gain." - Chris Karcher

Rather than seeing every prospect as an opportunity to close a deal, see them as a chance to meet a need or solve a problem.

It's likely to improve both the experience and outcome for everyone involved. In other words, integrity is likely to lead to personal gain anyway. And that's just one more reason for sales managers and companies to teach it.

Use the above relationship-based selling techniques to build trust and deliver value to prospective customers. If you invest in your customers with genuine helpfulness, you'll enjoy selling more... and you'll sell more.

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