Relationship Selling: The Foundational Skills Most Sales Reps Haven’t Mastered

A veteran sales professional was in the middle of a pitch with a prospect that he had been trying to get a meeting with for the past several months.

“And that's how we drive alignment, from end to end.”  The rep finished this last sentence with hands spread apart, a visual demonstration of his company’s range of capabilities, and also his signature move.

He smiled.

“I see,” replied the prospect. “That’s interesting.” She glanced quickly at her phone, scanned the screen, then focused back on her guest.

“How much would this cost?” she asked.

The rep felt his stomach drop. This was not the response that he had hoped for. The money question was inevitable, but not this early in the conversation.

I went too fast, he thought. I should've warmed things up a little more before sharing the alignment story. 

Fortunately for the sales rep, this was just a role play – a contrived scenario geared to test his relationship selling skills, and a safe environment where he could step back, reload, and try again.

But what about real life? What selling strategy should we coach to, especially when we don't have the benefit of a do-over? In an age of information and intermediaries, do we look for big ideas that help us stand out, or do more traditional approaches like relationship selling still hold sway?

Relationship SellingTrust will always be essential

You invest a considerable amount of time coaching your sales reps on how to deliver a unique message, but have you instilled the foundational skills required to build solid relationships that allow those messages to resonate?

Relationship selling is the creation of sustainable relationships through the process of building trust. This process seems simple. Yet, common sense isn’t always common practice.

Seasoned or new, all sales reps can benefit from using relationship selling concepts. Trust not only sets the foundation for a sale, it also encourages repeat purchases and word-of-mouth marketing.

Business writer and thinker Daniel Pink, in his book To Sell is Human, argues that there is no more powerful influencing strategy than to seek and convey your understanding of the other person’s perspective, or point of view, before presenting your own. That makes sense, if you think about it. Why would you trust someone who doesn't try to understand you first?

Invest in relationship selling skills

Here are the 3 skills that your reps must master to build trust and influence buyers more effectively:

1. Demonstrate humility

One key to perspective-taking, according to the book, is adopting an attitude of humility - setting aside your own knowledge and experience, and putting yourself in a position of inferiority, or ignorance. Thinking more about what you don't know, and less about what you do.

2. Ask curiously

This requires different habits than most people are accustomed to practicing in their sales conversations. We're good at “telling”, but perspective-taking requires that we focus more on asking questions, and listening. To do this, we need to think less about what we want to say, and direct more attentional resources to pulling out the other person’s story.

3. Listen generously

Journalism, when done well, can provide an excellent demonstration of these skills. Take award-winning radio and podcast host Krista Tippett, for example. In her book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, the journalist and author talks about the need to bring “generous listening” into our conversations, letting curiosity and a “willingness to be surprised” guide us in our questioning, instead of allowing our assumptions, or our agendas, to direct the conversation.

So, if we want someone to pay attention to our ideas, then it's helpful that we learn about theirs first. To do this, we need to think about what we don't know, and be open to the unexpected. Sounds simple, but how to put into practice, especially if our default habit is to do the opposite?

Embed these skills in your coaching conversations

Can you confidently say that your salespeople have mastered these foundational skills?

To bring relationship selling skills into your coaching conversations, ask your sales reps to think about the following questions as they prepare for their next meeting:

  • Do I fully understand what's important to this client?
  • What am I curious to know more about?
  • Where can we provide unique value?
  • What is my goal for this meeting?

As they think about these points, instruct them to use their answers to create questions that will engage the client in meaningful conversation, targeting areas that are anticipated to be of interest them.

Here are 3 practical tips you can share with your team:

1. Write their questions down

This step will “prime” their mind for the meeting ahead, and spark their curiosity.

2. Focus on the present moment

During their meetings, have them focus on what the clients are saying and the meaning behind the words, instead of thinking about what to ask or say next. They need to have faith that their prep work and natural curiosity will lead to that next great question, right when they need it.

3. Confirm what they hear

Finally, have them look for opportunities to play back, in their own words, what they've been hearing. That way the client will know that they've been listening, and the client will be able to correct them if they're not 100% accurate in their data capture. There are two major benefits here: they're now aligned on the facts, and a relationship has started to form, based on the trust that perspective-taking creates.

There are many challenges to selling today, and we do need to think differently about how we get the attention of our busy, distracted, and barricaded clients. That said, any idea, no matter how inventive or valuable it may seem, will land flat unless we've taken the time to lay the relational groundwork. This is true in both role plays and real life.

When it comes to influencing in sales, asking and listening trump telling, and relationship-building allows profitable ideas to take hold.

To embed these important skills in your sales organization, ask about our consultative selling training solution.