Relationship Selling: The Path to Sales Success

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. How-
ever, often missing is a clear understanding of
the sales process – or the willingness and abil-
ity 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, manipu-
lative). Or they have a strong fear of rejection
– when a prospect says “no,” they take it person-

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 pro-
duct you have, or how well you’ve done your mar-

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 re-
lationship selling, and is the way effective, pro-
fessional salespeople have always operated. In
fact, Dale Carnegie started delivering this mes-
sage 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 over-
all theme of building relationships is consistent

Traditional vs. Relationship Selling

Most of the existing negative opinions and fears
about the sales process are based on a tradition-
al, formula method: memorize 10 different ways
to get an appointment, 40 kinds of closes, 20 ways
to handle objections, etc. While these tech-
niques can be very useful, they may also get in
your way if used without first building a rela-
tionship 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 bene-
fit as a result of the sale.

Today’s customers have become more sophis-
ticated and demanding of higher levels of cus-
tomer service than ever before. They want some-
one they can trust who understands their needs
and wants. This is particularly important dur-
ing slow economic times, when most people make
buying decisions, even small ones, very care-

Also keep in mind that the best sources of
new business are existing customers and refer-
rals 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 refer-
rals from happy customers.

Build Trust

People tend to do business with those they like
and trust. Look into your own buying experi-
ences. Have you ever walked away from a trans-
action 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 envi-
ronment? 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 in-
volved 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 buy-
ing 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 rela-
tionship 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 appro-
priate times by linking key product or service
benefits with the prospect’s stated require-
ments. The result is an interactive conversa-
tion where information is exchanged and both
parties expand their knowledge.

Sometimes it might be appropriate to eli-
cit 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 pro-
vide the in-depth information acquired from
open-ended queries. Open and closed ended ques-
tions 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 bene-
ficial 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 interrupt-
ing 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 busi-
ness 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, custo-
mers 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 excel-
lent relationships with your customers.

Useful Selling Techniques

Although selling by rote formula is no longer ap
propriate 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 con-
nection with a fellow industry organization mem-
ber, 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 environ-
ment, it could be as simple as introducing your-
self to customers, rather than staying behind the
counter and ignoring their presence.

Another traditional technique is understand-
ing and using body language. Knowing how to in-
terpret 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 enthu-
siasm without words. It is well known that com-
munication is 50 percent body language, 40 per-
cent 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 understand-
able human reaction. However, excluding finan-
cial 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 di-
rectly linked with the success of their opera-
tion, 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 ap-
proximately 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 pro-
spect, 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 busi-
ness world that is flexible, cooperative and
professional. When selling in a context of
building healthy relationships, you are operat-
ing as an ethical, considerate and helpful
human being. You are also building your com-
munication and other personal development skills.
This is not only satisfying, but also quite ef-
fective in creating a steady stream of sales for
your business.


Understanding the basics of the actual sales pro-
cess, and customizing them for your business, are
critical in building customer relationships.
Whatever your setting, and whether you sell a pro-
duct 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 conver-
sations 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 ques-
tions, uncovering their needs, giving them in-
formation 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 sin-
cerity comes through in a positive way.

4. Propose a solution. Once you have ascer-
tained 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 understand-
ing 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

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 ex-
cellent 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 pro-
spects. And if there is a problem, you have
an opportunity to correct it.


“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 un-
derstand the steps involved. Now, we have cre-
ated a real system for building relationships
with clients.” Sambol also strongly emphasizes
the importance of prospects seeing you as an ex-
pert, someone who can help solve their problems.
“Bringing all of the elements together is criti-
cal: relationship, sales process and expertise.
You could even say that a proper sales relation-
ship strikes a balance between friendship and
caring on one hand, and professionalism and knowl-
edge on the other. We try to always operate from
these premises, and it’s working!”


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 partic-
ularly valuable if you also ask the prospect for
feedback. What factors contributed to the deci-
sion? What did your product or service lack?
What did you do – or not do – that lost the sale?

* Determine whether to pursue the business fur-
ther. Research shows that successful salespeople
have more failed calls – calls that end with a
“no” from the prospect – than mediocre sales-
people. Successful salespeople know when to
walk away. They’ve thoroughly explored the pro-
spect’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 rel-
evant. But avoid routine follow-up calls.
Phone only when you have information that meets
a specific need the prospect is trying to ad-


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 profession-
als isn’t determined by the business they are in,
but by the way they are in business. Sales pro-

* 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 al-
ways open to learning how to improve their sales
* 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 ac-
curate 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.

About author

SMB Reviews
SMB Reviews 473 posts

SMBReviews is committed to providing small and mid-sized business owners with the information and resources they need to select the best service or product for their company.

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