Building a Relationship — a Key to Professional Selling

Chris Stock

There are two things I’m asked on a regular basis by budding and even experienced salespeople:

  1.  How do you build a relationship with customers
  2.  What is professional selling?

As you might expect, I’ve got my answers down pat — and they’re actually , somewhat intertwined, since building a relationship is a key element of professional selling.

What differentiates top salespeople from those who aren’t quite as successful is their ability to ask impactful questions and listen carefully to the answers they receive. That’s certainly not rocket science, but it’s astounding to me that typical sales training does not highlight those skills as being absolutely crucial to building relationships, an important building block to making sales.

Despite all the evidence that people really don’t like to be sold to, many salespeople begin conversations with potential customers by pitching them. That’s decidedly unprofessional, and not a great strategy for ending up in the “promised land” — with a sale. Before launching into the features and benefits of a product or service, salespeople need to understand what’s important to the customer. How is that done? With questions.

I suggest starting with big, broad open questions and then moving down the funnel to more specific queries. By doing this — learning customers’ wants and needs with the aim of building a connection to truly be able to serve them — salespeople earn the right to proceed to the pitch. When they do, they’re not starting “cold,” knowing nothing about what the customer’s looking for, so they have an edge; they can pitch specific attributes of the product or service that are most appropriate based on the information learned via questioning.

Here’s a rather simplistic example that makes my point:

Let’s say a couple comes into a store looking for a vacuum cleaner. Instead of asking them any questions, the salesperson starts pitching one of the top-of-the-line models, touting its ability to work on all types of floors, its pet attachment, its strong 1,500-watt motor and its durability to last many years.

The couple could very well be turned off if some of those things aren’t important to them. Maybe the vacuum is for a second home and will only be lightly used, and perhaps they don’t have a pet. By mentioning features that are irrelevant to this couple, the salesperson may have unwittingly made them feel that model is not for them.

Things would have gone a lot smoother if the salesperson had simply started the dialogue by asking questions that would have allowed him to pitch specifically to the couple’s needs.

The ability to pitch certain elements — determined by listening to the answers to impactful questions — is something that works for any product or service. It can be especially important when dealing with something that offers lots of functionality, like software. Instead of focusing on everything it does, smart salespeople will learn what customers want, and then highlight those features. This more personal approach — building a relationship — makes customers feel catered to, rather than pitched at.

That is professional selling, and it works in every situation — business-to-consumer as well as business-to-business. For the latter instances, salespeople may find themselves dealing with multiple decision-makers, but the sales process remains the same; start by asking each person what his requirements are, listen carefully and craft the pitch only after uncovering everyone’s different perspectives.

In the business world, salespeople are often faced with long buying times, so building relationships becomes even more important. When they really get to know prospects, they may be the first to recognize a need — and have the chance to influence the company’s thinking before it even goes to market.

The best professional salespeople focus on asking questions and listening to customers’ needs. They understand they’re really problem solvers, tasked with providing solutions to fix something that isn’t working or make something work more efficiently. And, they’re aware that while customers may aspire to make decisions based on logic, the emotional side of being human never goes away, so building relationships will always be key to professional selling — and sales success.

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