How to best build superior business sales relationships has changed markedly over the last few decades.
What has not changed is the sales theory that superior relationships can overcome a number of other weaknesses. I often enjoy having the conversation with salespeople about what they are counting on to win. While they usually name the solution or company brand as the biggest source of advantage, when you point out recent situations where that was not enough to win, they quickly move to the strength of their relationships!
As our conversation moves to, “Great, where are those people in the actual decision-making process, both formal and informal?”, things tend to become less vibrant. As I ask more about the political environment, less and less is said. Hey, I get it. It is easy for everyone to find comfort in business relationships that are simple and fruitful – they are buying today, so that is good enough for me. But is it? With the number of reorganizations and mergers, you must be pushing yourself to expand relationships both horizontally and vertically.
So, besides more breadth, what else has changed about the way we build superior sales relationships?
In Sales School 101, we learned that great relationships needed to be built over a period of time. For those of you who were selling in the ‘80s (I like to think of myself as a good vintage rather than old) we engaged in long business relationship building activities. These included extended lunches, fancy dinners, and social events—all with the aim of “rubbing shoulders“ with the right people to build a friendship. Relationships were built so we could earn the right to sell to them, when the potential client had voiced a need to buy something.
Today’s relationship building has had to change for the following reasons:
- Executives are being bombarded with information – through emails, LinkedIn messages, social media, meetings, chatter/skype, and now even texting.
- Many business leaders live in nightmarish conditions of back-to-back conference calls that are too often less focused on a specific objective than they should be. Executives do not have time to spend hours developing relationships with essential strangers. They ask their colleagues or business friends for recommendations when they have a purchasing need.
- Business leaders are delegating more and expecting strong recommendations and thought leadership from their internal teams.
- Due to increased expectations for bigger and faster results for shareholders and investors, executives are making decisions, even if just for a trial or pilot, quicker than before.
- Disruptive, new competitors are challenging your clients faster than ever, potentially reframing entire marketplaces.
Unlike the ‘80s, when relationships preceded value, today’s environment means the delivery of value earns the right to establish a strong working relationship. It has flipped 180 degrees!
There are four key principles the salesperson must adopt to be successful in today’s fast changing world.
- Research, research, research. Researching your client, their market trends and implications, and their business goals are critical to getting going at all. It is essential for credibility that you are armed with information, anecdotes, and insights that enables a high-value, interactive business conversation.
- You must give before you can take. Executives rarely will accept meetings to be asked questions about their “pain points” or what their biggest challenges are. Why should they confide in someone they don’t know well? This is lazy selling and they know it! Executives are looking for new thinking, new ideas, and breakthrough innovation to meet their business goals and personal agendas. They want trusted advisors whom give them immediate value, especially when they aren’t on the consultant’s clock. You should have at least two high-gain questions ready to use!
- You must articulate with speed. Executives have so much information coming at them all day long, even on weekends now, that work can simply become a blur. If a salesperson has 30 minutes with an executive, their key responsibility is to cut through the clutter of information with a concise, clear, and deliberate message. The first impactful point must be made within the first 60 seconds. The salesperson must create sufficient momentum inside 30 minutes to create actionable interest in order for the executive to commit resources and engage in next steps.
- Have a point of view. Nothing is gained without taking calculated risk. They aren’t asking you to challenge them, as some sales training firms teach. They are challenged enough! Having a strong point of view is risky, but it is a critical aspect of building credibility and interest. Executives are looking for thought leadership. Even if they disagree with your perspective and offer a contrary viewpoint, you have started a high-energy, collaborative business conversation… which could lead to a potential business opportunity with them or even one of their friends in their network.
I encourage every salesperson to take inventory of their relationship building activities. Take the risk to execute differently and embrace the new world of selling. It is so much fun! Sales can happen faster and you can be even more successful.
List out your top three clients and identify whom you have met with in the past six months to broaden your business relationships, either horizontally or vertically. Identify what insight or point of view you gave them to spur a valuable discussion. If you don’t have at least one or two per client, you need to target and plan them, along with a few high-gain questions to use in a discussion. Execute at least one per client in the next two months to build your muscles in this area. Step it up in the following months by going higher or wider. Set an appointment with yourself to evaluate your progress six months from today. You will be surprised at your success.