Building Loyal Relationships in a Disloyal World

by Richard Farrell, president
Tangent Knowledge Systems

Relationship selling is the bedrock for successful selling in the new millennium. However, most salespeople conduct themselves as if they were in a quaint Norman Rockwell painting, building relationships on a smile and a firm handshake. Not enough sales organizations are questioning if this style of relationship selling works anymore. Prospects simply don’t have the time, the inclination, the patience or the freedom from accountability to create surface-level relationships.

Did you ever meet a great glad-handing salesperson from the ’70s and ’80s? They had a winning and magnetic personality, they were always upbeat and optimistic, and they built friendly relationships instead of sincere business relationships. A psychologist would more than likely define their sales approach as self-absorbed, egocentric, narcissistic and center of the universe. The irony is that salespeople increasingly complain that their prospects are the same way.

A personality seller can survive in certain sales situations and certainly in commodity sales, where being likeable will carry the day. Unfortunately, these positions are becoming scarce in the global information economy, where that type of salesperson brings little value to prospects. Sales managers are constantly reminded of this sales strategy when they are doing a pipeline review of their salesperson’s prospects and the #1 criteria for a positive forecast is “they like me.”

Personality sellers too often get caught in the vanity trap. They put too much emphasis on their own charm and persuasiveness. The focus is on them, not their prospect. And, what do we know about prospects and who they rightfully only care about? You guessed it…… themselves. Salespeople need to leave their magnetic charm in the reception room.

Sellers who rely solely on their own personality are limited to sell to others with similar personality traits and interests. Too often, they end up building meaningless long-term relationships with prospects who are at the wrong level, don’t have authority and can’t make “yes” decisions. True relationship sellers can connect to anyone because of the universal appeal of always putting the emphasis and focus on the other person.

Don’t fall in love with your prospect; fall in love with the process of learning their business and helping them understand their priorities and initiatives. You know you are too relationship-oriented to a fault when you are unwilling to let go of unqualified prospects with whom you have a great relationship. One question you should always be asking yourself is – if I invest in this relationship, what will be my potential return? Your prospects are constantly asking themselves the same question.

Companies are now waking up to the fact that there is a deficit of true relationship sellers to recruit and hire. They are slowly coming to the realization that “the natural” they sought out and hired in the past can no longer bring the necessary prerequisite skills to successful selling in this demanding and challenging new marketplace. Too many sellers in the marketplace today are simply empty suits.

Relationship selling is a manner of building a business relationship on thought-provoking and incisive questions that allow the prospect to formulate a belief and an understanding that you have the best solution without your even telling them what that solution is. Relationship selling is all about trust, confidence and understanding. Since so many products have reached quality parity, you can no longer create trust like you could in the past with your product or service offering. You aren’t selling features and benefits, your value or your superior product or service. You are really selling the advantage of doing business with you. Prospects are buying your advice, counsel and expertise in their industry, along with understanding of their business and their problems. Prospects don’t have the time, patience or inclination to be an expert in every purchase they make. They rely on salespeople to demonstrate their expertise through their understanding of the prospect’s business.

Because of a universal parity in products and services, the only remaining differentiation companies can rely on is their ability to engage their prospects in a unique fashion. Thus, trust is the #1 relationship skill in business. The first step in building a successful business relationship is through curiosity and rapt attention, which, by the way, is the highest and most sustainable form of flattery.

It’s the journey that builds the relationship, not the end result. What you do from discovery to the close is what will determine the quality of your relationship. The sale is only the means to an end. The end is really the relationship you build and the opportunities it affords you in the future. Unfortunately, most salespeople, even with the best of intentions, are perceived as putting the sale first because of their egocentric approach.

Building a relationship on trust is easier said than done. For a lot of salespeople, it doesn’t come naturally. They may be likeable and friendly and knowledgeable, but they might not have the innate ability to build trust and confidence with prospects who don’t know them or who are guarded and defensive.

Learning your prospect’s business allows you to create value. However, you don’t create value with your product or services. Creating value and building a strong relationship requires you to be neutral and take a nonselling posture. Actual information is lost when we lose objectivity by emotionally responding (positively or negatively) about what we are hearing. By being in the moment, we honor and empower our prospects. As difficult as it may sound, we need to be empty of expectations. Building long-term relationships comes from first serving and then selling. Most salespeople mistakenly first sell and then try to serve and build trust through their deliverables. So often, they never get to the trust-and-serve part because the trust wasn’t established initially.

Business relationship sellers are more concerned that people respect them and view them as a business resource as opposed to having someone like them. They ask tough questions, they are willing to walk away from relationships that no longer are mutually profitable. They take time to build relationships within an organization so they are never left high and dry when the inevitable day comes when their “inside guy” leaves. When it comes time to upsell existing relationships, they treat their customers as first-time prospects. They don’t have preconceived assumptions, they don’t take their relationships for granted, and they patiently and methodically reestablish understanding of their prospects’ new needs and objectives.

Effective relationship sellers seek to build relationships to get annuity business instead of short-term transactional business. Transactional selling is very expensive and raises your cost of sales. Relationship sellers always have their focus on long-term customer retention and development. Sustainable relationships happen when both parties view one another as equals. It is always more fulfilling and fruitful to establish relationships with prospects you trust and respect than with someone you don’t respect.

Relationship selling, unlike personality selling, will ultimately be more fulfilling, will be more profitable long-term and will minimize sales burnout. By creating enriching experiences and connections through knowledge-based questions, you will learn which relationships to pursue and which relationships to de-emphasize.

Richard Farrell is president of Tangent Knowledge Systems, a national sales development and training firm based in Chicago. He is the author of the book “Selling has Nothing to do with Selling.” He trains and speaks around the world and has authored many articles on his unique nonselling sales posture. For more information, visit