Relationship Selling: Definition, Best Practices, Examples

Relationship Selling: Definition, Best Practices, Examples

Relationship selling is a sales approach that — no surprises here — prioritizes a trusting, mutually beneficial relationship between buyer and seller. A strong relationship is so foundational to this sales approach that it’s, in fact, a higher priority than the sale itself. 

The truth is, B2B sales have always been somewhat less transactional than B2C. There are more opportunities for natural relationship-building in the B2B sales process, and most B2B buyers are wary of being sold to; most B2B sales reps have to make an effort to personalize the process. 

That being said, the tenuous global landscape (including uncertain economic forecasts) has made relationship selling more relevant than ever. Many organizations are trimming their budgets, and even highly profitable companies are more likely to be risk-averse in times like these; a trusting relationship with a credible seller is crucial for creating the right conditions for prospects to move forward. 

The overarching goals of relationship selling are to ensure the buyer feels seen, heard, and understood, and to offer consistent, personalized value based on their pain points and needs. A closed-won deal is also great, but should never take precedence over a trusting, value-driven relationship. 

In this article, we’ll go over everything today’s B2B sales rep needs to know about this sales approach, including specific relationship selling strategies that will help build trust with and provide value to prospects.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

What Is Relationship Selling?what is relationship selling?

Relationship selling is a sales approach in which sales reps prioritize their relationship with the buyer above everything else. It is completely customer-centric and the opposite of transactional selling. 

This sales technique is all about building trust with prospects. Sales reps who succeed in this approach know how to present themselves as highly and authentically credible and focus on adding value to every sales interaction. 

Relationship selling can work well for many B2B industries but is particularly effective for those with long sales cycles, high-value deals, repeat business providers (e.g., insurance), and others with complex or custom solution requirements. 

This is a sales approach that requires quite a bit of legwork, persistence, and consistent positivity — not to mention a knack for getting along with just about anyone. But with nearly 70% of B2B buyers reporting that they abandon a brand if they don’t feel cared for, it’s more important than ever that sales reps learn the strategies, techniques, and best practices that are most effective for this sales approach. 

why customers stop using your service

Relationship selling is the embodiment of the phrase, “This is a marathon, not a sprint.” But the more time and authentic energy a sales rep puts into making a real human connection with each of their prospects, the more fruitful each relationship will become. 

user-groupDissect prospect concernsUncover what's resonating with prospects

Benefits of Relationship Selling

Effective relationship selling leads to increased customer loyalty, improved customer lifetime value (LTV), more referrals, and lucrative cross-sells and upsells. 

relationship selling benefits

Long-Term Customer Loyalty

The relationship selling approach helps build lasting, meaningful, trusting relationships with buyers. These kinds of relationships lead to strong loyalty among your customer base. 

The drive to be loyal to relationship-focused brands comes from how well relationship sellers can personalize the buying experience. Consumers are much more likely to be loyal to brands that create an individualized experience — and the benefits of that loyalty reach far beyond the effort it takes to generate it. 

relationship selling: customer loyalty

Loyal accounts are long-term accounts, and relationship sellers should take care to ensure the trusting bond is maintained over time (we’ll cover post-sale communication later in this article). 

Increased Customer Lifetime Value

Relationship selling can lead to a significant increase in the customer lifetime value of your organization. Relationship selling: customer lifetime valueAgain — the stronger the relationship between buyer and seller, the more revenue they’ll generate for your organization over the course of their contract with you. 

It’s also worth mentioning that many high-value accounts require rather significant attention to detail and personalization. When those challenging conditions can be met, however, these types of clients can be incredibly lucrative and profitable. Great relationship sellers know how to navigate these clients with tact so that their needs are met and they continue to sign contracts well into the future. 

Positive Word-Of-Mouth

Relationship selling creates lots of natural opportunities for positive word-of-mouth and, even better, referrals from satisfied customers. 

In fact, sales referrals generated from successful relationship-based sales are like gold for B2B sales teams.

Relationship selling: sales referrals 

Even aside from direct referrals, a satisfied customer base can create quite the buzz around your product and improve your overall brand reputation in the industry. 

Repeat Business Opportunities 

Relationship selling also opens up many opportunities for cross-selling and upsellingRelationship selling: cross-selling and upsellingAnd while many sales reps love the thrill of finding new buyers every day, relationship sellers know that existing customers can be just as financially intriguing. 

Relationship selling: retain existing customers

Relationship selling also gives sales teams better insight into the shared characteristics of their customer base, as buyers are much more likely to give honest feedback and insight to sellers that they trust. 

How to Build Relationships in Sales

It’s worth mentioning that mastering relationship selling requires patience, commitment, and a genuine curiosity about people (especially those in your target market). Great relationship sellers are also very skilled at interpreting nuance and “reading the room.” 

There are four main areas for sales reps to keep in mind as they learn how to build relationships in sales: active listening, understanding customer needs, building trust, and providing value. 

how to build relationships in sales

1. Active Listening

Listening is the cornerstone of relationship selling; studies show that top-performing sales reps talk the least and listen the most relative to their peers. 

Relationship selling: listen more than talk

Active listening, though, is the way highly skilled relationship sellers listen to truly understand their prospects’ deepest needs, pain points, challenges, motivations, and goals.

Take a look at the best active listening skills for sales conversations: Relationship selling: active listeningAs you listen, tune into what they’re speaking about when they’re most animated or passionate. Show genuine interest and curiosity in what they really want you to understand. 

It’s also important that everyone in the room has an opportunity to share their opinion. With the average B2B sales deal involving 6 – 10 decision-makers, sales reps can show interest and thoroughness by encouraging everyone’s opinions to be presented as they learn about one another. 

2. Understanding Customer Needs

Relationship selling is based on sellers having a thorough and personal understanding of each of their prospects. 

One of the reasons behind building such a strong relationship with each prospect is that this bond encourages prospects to open up about their most pressing needs. 

Through the course of building rapport and establishing a baseline relationship, you can begin to qualify the customer and learn more about their unique needs. What’s their ultimate goal? What does their ideal outcome look like? What are their buying criteria? What’s motivating the prospect, as an individual, to pursue this relationship with the sales rep? 

Of course, relationship selling requires that the sales rep doesn’t just read these questions off of a list. A framework like BANT can help guide your qualification process, but these insights should come via authentic, naturally flowing conversation. Don’t force the sale if you realize their needs don’t align with your solution.

Sales and marketing teams can collaborate to create an ideal customer profile (sales ICP) based on the shared characteristics of your most successful customers.  Relationship selling: ideal customer profile (ICP)While the conversation with each prospect is where sales reps will ultimately learn the most about the prospects’ individual requirements, the ICP can help reps have a preliminary idea of what a buyer may want or need. 

The benefit of understanding customer needs on such a deep and personal level is that it allows sales reps to personalize the solutions they offer. 

3. Building Trust

It’s important to note that relationship selling is about much more than small talk and building rapport. Sales reps need to also establish true credibility and trustworthiness through the course of conversation. 

In order for prospects to trust you, they need to believe that you have their best interests in mind and that you have the expertise to help them. This requires patience, careful listening, and a willingness to be honest about how to best meet the customer’s needs. Never mislead the prospect or withhold details for the sake of moving the deal along. 

In fact, a relationship seller would be considered more successful for pointing a prospect in another direction than for closing a poor-fit deal. 

Another way to bolster trust is to be exceptionally mindful of boundaries. This can become a bit muddled in relationship selling, as the entire premise is based on building strong personal bonds with professional peers. That can get quite nuanced, as sales reps need to be careful about legal boundaries, company boundaries, and personal boundaries. 

That being said, keep in mind that a majority of communication is non-verbalRelationship selling: 7-38-55 rule of communicationPay attention to your prospect’s body language to get a sense of how trusting they feel toward you throughout sales conversations. 

4. Providing Value

In relationship selling, every sales interaction should include the sales rep providing value to the prospect. 

In fact, great relationship sellers actually look for opportunities to add value beyond the product or service at hand. You can send links to relevant articles, share a helpful tip you recently learned, or introduce them to a valuable connection. The less product-focused these valuable insights are, the more credible you’ll seem in the eyes of the prospect, as they will perceive you as someone who actually cares about finding solutions that will uniquely benefit them. 

When thinking about how to add value, sales reps should consider their extensive product knowledge against their extensive prospect knowledge. This will help share insight that’s personalized to their business needs and goals. 

Competition in sales is higher than ever. Relationship selling can give sellers the extra edge by encouraging them to go above and beyond for their prospects.

Tip: Improve your sales conversations with proven psychology strategies to persuade and connect with buyers.

Psychology Principles + 13 Power Words for Winning SalesData-backed psychological principles, nonverbal cues, and persuasive phrases to win more deals.

Relationship Selling Best Practices

Mastering relationship selling requires practice, patience, and reflection. The more time you spend with prospects (even just people in general), the more attuned you can become to how to read relationships in a productive way. 

Keep in mind the following best practices as you explore relationship selling in the field. 

1. Regular Communication

Building a sales relationship in relationship selling is not all that different from building a personal one. It requires staying in touch, checking in, and showing that you’re thinking of the other person. 

Sales reps who want to be successful in relationship selling should practice the cadence with which they contact prospects. Regular check-ins can help strengthen the relationship and keep your brand top of mind. 

Still, some prospects may not prefer constant communication. It’s a sales rep’s job to understand how much contact each unique prospect prefers. 

That being said, it’s still important to keep lines of communication open so that even less talkative prospects know that they can come to you with questions, concerns, or simply to get your insight. 

2. Personalization

Most successful relationship sellers would agree that one of the major benefits of the approach is the ability it gives them to personalize each interaction, insight, and solution. 

In today’s sales world, this is essentially non-negotiable. B2B buyers today have no tolerance for brands that don’t take the time to personalize their approach. 

Relationship selling: personalization

Again, the ICP and buyer personas can give reps a leg up when it comes to preliminary research, but the real personalization will come from what they learn through individual conversations with each prospect. 

3. Problem-Solving

Relationship sellers need to be active problem-solvers. 

Again, this is quickly becoming a non-negotiable, even in non-relationship approaches — according to Salesforce, 87% of customers rely on their sales reps to act as trusted advisors to them. 

Relationship sellers should be the people prospects go to when they face challenges. The more the rep can turn those challenges into opportunities to strengthen the relationship (through adding personalized value), the more the prospect will trust them. 

4. Post-Sale Support

Great relationship sellers know that their job doesn’t end after a closed-won deal. After all, it wouldn’t seem very authentic or trustworthy for sales reps to spend all that time and effort getting to know prospects on a personal level, only to abandon them once it’s in the bag. 

Sales reps should be proactive about following up with their prospects. Some sales reps follow a set schedule for following up (i.e., after one week, after one month, after each quarter, and after a year), while others look for more organic opportunities (i.e., holidays, birthdays, recent company news, etc.). 

Of course, personal preference matters here — not every customer will appreciate a weekly check-in. The key is to follow up in a way that strengthens the relationship. Keep delivering value, even after the deal closes. 

Not only does this care and attention help the buyer feel valued and like they are more than just a transaction, but it also helps promote referrals. 

Example of Relationship Selling

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of relationship selling tactics. 

One thing that relationship sellers do very effectively is use background research (like the ICP and buyer personas) to help get conversations started in a personal way. 

Let’s imagine Sales Rep John is preparing to meet CEO Charlie, as outlined below. He reads that CEO Charlie is protective of his company. This is a big insight into his personality. Relationship selling example: ICP and buyer personaSales Rep John can also use LinkedIn and other social media to learn more about CEO Charlie’s current needs and challenges. 

On his LinkedIn, Sales Rep John learns that CEO Charlie founded his company in the same city where John went to college. 

When John and Charlie meet, John can open the conversation by sharing their mutual city connection. This breaks the ice, builds camaraderie, and can help alleviate some of Charlie’s nerves and skepticism.

It’s also important to note that sales conversations need to flow naturally. While sales scripts can be helpful for framework purposes, they can become defunct pretty quickly, depending on which direction the conversation goes. 

Imagine Sales Rep John, for example, plans to open his conversation with a connection about their shared love for the city. He then scripts a segue into talking about other personal interests. 

In real-time conversation, though, CEO Charlie cuts right to the chase and starts talking about budget. Sales Rep John needs to be able to think quickly on his feet in order to respond to Charlie’s conversation thoughtfully and with preparation. 

Relationship sellers need to be relatable, whether they’re discussing personal topics or professional concerns. 

Challenges in Relationship Selling

For as productive and beneficial as relationship selling is, there are challenges involved in this sales technique. Relationship selling is, in many ways, a never-ending sales approach and requires a realistic mindset about what challenges exist. 

Many relationship-focused sales reps have to walk a fine line between building relationships and keeping the best interest of their own organization in mind. 

Ideally, most great sales relationships will lead to closed-won deals. However, some relationships require more time, effort, and energy than others. Sales reps need to be mindful of balancing the relationship’s needs with their organization’s time-bound sales goals

Another area of concern for relationship sellers is navigating relationship challenges. These can be difficult enough in personal lives, but the stakes can feel extremely high when there’s a sale on the line. 

Relationship sellers need to be relentlessly positive and helpful, even when their client is anything but. This is a skill that’s learned over time, and mistakes will be made as you learn to handle complaints with grace — reflection is an important component of this practice.

Sales reps who adopt a relationship-based approach also need to be extremely personable — even beyond a penchant for small talk. Being personable in relationship selling means having a gift for talking with, listening to, and “reading” people with different personalities and communication styles. Again, this is a skill that requires time, experience, and reflection. 

Conclusion

Relationship selling is one of the most effective sales strategies available for sales teams today. In a sales landscape where personalization is worth nearly everything, relationship selling gives sellers the opportunity to get to know their prospects on the kind of personal level they need to feel heard, cared for, and valued. 

When sales teams implement a reliable relationship selling approach, they generate more revenue, meet and exceed quotas, and set themselves up for long-term success. 

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