By Jeanne Farley
The notion of “relationship selling” isn’t something new. Successful sellers always strive to build long-term relationships with their buyers. What constitutes this relationship has evolved over the years; however, the goal in all relationship selling is to become a trusted partner. A trusted partner is the one a buyer will turn to not only when they need to buy but also as a valuable and reliable source of information.
Marketing got on board with the notion of the relationship in the 1980s when the concept of relationship marketing emerged. Marketers saw the value in driving relationships at the salesperson level and brought the idea into the development of marketing material. Instead of merely advertising products and services, relationship marketing attempts to develop a relationship with buyers by personalizing marketing efforts.
Early in this new method, getting to know the customer was accomplished using solutions like customer surveys and the introduction of public relations roles. In recent years, we observe much more sophisticated and even intrusive methods for understanding the customer, in particular through use of social media and tracking every move of consumers on the internet and in apps.
Like relationship marketing, relationship selling is also in need of evolution – just not in an intrusive way.
Let’s first examine where many sellers are today in terms of relationship selling. What are the most common ways long-time sellers have engaged in relationship selling?
Check out these top 10 types. Do any sound familiar?
This is how many in sales still operate today. Make no mistake, some of these behaviors can actually help build some type of relationship, but is it the one that will help us become the “trusted partner”?
Old school relationship selling can increase likeability and some believe that if someone likes them, they will trust them. While to some degree this may be accurate, let’s think of this in another way. Is it necessary to like someone in order to trust them? Can you trust someone you don’t like? The answer is yes.
We can all think of people that we don’t necessarily like but we trust – a tough teacher in school but you trusted their knowledge, a medical doctor lacking personality but very in tune with their practice or maybe a surly tax adviser who really knows their business.
What are customers looking for in their relationship with sellers today? Yes, of course, they would prefer to “like” them. They appreciate that The Event Planner remembers things about them. They may like that The Golden Girl tries to go big for them all the time. They may even tolerate The Schmooze because they don’t necessarily like to talk all business all the time.
However, the modern buyer is looking for more than the ability to say, “I like him or her.”
Today’s buyer is looking for deeper value than likeability if someone is to be considered a trusted partner. And while the old tactics may have gotten you in the door and allowed you to become a familiar face, some of these tactics aren’t as welcomed any more.
For example, every industry must do more with less – customers simply do not have the time (or patience) for The Joey Tribbiani or The Drive By. They don’t want The Plaster by Blaster clogging up their email. The Profiler spends too much time desperately trying to make a personal connection and lacks business context, and The Stop, Drop and Roll’s shiny marketing slicks get put on the bottom of a pile the customer will never read.
Please, please, please – if you are The Eat and Greet, bring something of value! Don’t just provide a lunch that no one will remember. And, The Count should never count favors – everyone knows that if someone counts favors then their actions weren’t genuine. Someone counting favors could never be a trusted partner.
There are three types of knowledge that can help a seller meet the modern buyers where they are — know your customer, know their business and know the industry.
Knowing your customer does not simply imply knowing what pictures hang in their office or when their birthday is. Today, knowing your customer must go deeper. What does your customer value? Don’t be afraid to dive in deep with the customer to understand why and how decisions are made, how they are impacted, where they see things going in the future and what they think the blind spots are in future planning?
Whose opinions do they respect and seek? What sources do they consider reliable? What suppliers have proven to be a resource to them in the past and how? What can you provide them with that they would find of value? Don’t guess. Ask.
Sellers should consider asking an honest question of themselves: On a scale of 1 to 10, where am I in my relationship with this customer, with one being we don’t know much about each other at all to 10 being “they share information with me (about the business) that they don’t share with any other sellers.”
Truly knowing your customer takes time and more than dropping off donuts or marketing slicks. The extra effort will pay off dividends in the end, though, when your customer feels you really know them.
Knowing your customers’ business involves doing more research than roaming the halls to determine buying hierarchy, status of current equipment/solutions and what purchases they make with your company. What do you know about their goals as an organization beyond what is stated on their website?
Having conversations with multiple levels of stakeholders to understand organizational goals, achievements, setbacks and overall changes will help a seller gain a deeper understanding of how they can better support that organization.
A business review, for example, should not be a laundry list of what they purchased from you last year or the counting of favors. Instead, it should provide a look back for the purposes of improving what you can bring in the future. The business review should be forward-looking, and a seller should seek to understand what has changed and what is changing in that organization in the upcoming year(s).
As an example, many hospitals are faced with staffing shortages. How has that impacted their business, their strategy and ability to meet the needs of their patients? What, if any, measures have they put in place to overcome any of these challenges? What solutions would they consider? Knowing a customer on this level helps a seller move from a transactional vendor relationship to a strategic trusted partner.
Also, part of understanding their business is knowing how you can help promote their business. Here’s where social media comes in! With their permission, put their decision to partner with you on display! #Smartbusiness! These behaviors create a shift in the relationship, allowing the seller to more readily retain customers and expand their footprint.
Finally, a customer is looking for a seller to know their industry. Having a superficial knowledge of the industry simply does not cut the mustard any longer. Customers have access to a plethora of information right at their fingertips. In their research, CEB Corporate Leadership Council notes that approximately 60% of a buyer’s decision is reached before even speaking with a seller.
If customers are doing their own research, how do we impact this statistic? Be cutting-edge! Sellers must be at the top of their game in learning about what is happening in the industry and what is coming.
Encourage sellers to follow industry leaders and organizations on LinkedIn, subscribe to industry organizations for weekly email updates, follow key opinion leaders or those considered cutting-edge on LinkedIn and Twitter and use tools such as Definitive Healthcare to understand trends occurring in facilities. Taking these extra steps will help avoid being The Joey Tribbiani, The Eat and Greet, The Schmooze, etc.
Sellers will have something valuable to discuss with their customers. Speak insightfully. Ask questions. Gain opinions. Showing that you know and care about what is happening in their industry sets you apart from the herd. When a seller is seen as forward-thinking and industry-savvy, they are allowed in the buying much earlier as they are seen as a resource and not an after-the-fact order-taker.
The relationship seller is not outdated. This model is still a solid foundation for all sellers. The relationship itself, however, needs a bit of modernizing to rise up to the level of the buyers.
In the past, we saw sellers successfully win on their own name, relationship and that of their company. Those days are dwindling. Buyers are faced with very difficult budgetary decisions today – especially as many are still recovering from unexpected expenses, business decline and other unforeseen repercussions due to COVID.
While the buyer may want very much to do business with the seller they have known for many years, there is too much financial pressure not to look at forming new relationships with sellers who truly understand them, their business and the industry.
Jeanne Farley is senior manager, global sales skills and methodology training, for QuidelOrtho. Email Jeanne at firstname.lastname@example.org.