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2024 Ultimate Guide: Relationship Building in Sales & Business Development 

It may feel like technology is dominating the world today. But the more we automate, the more people crave genuine human-to-human interaction.

Organizations that focus on developing customer relationships as a growth strategy consistently experience better results than their competitors. But there is more to this critical business driver than friendly small talk and being on a first-name basis. The process itself is simple. In fact, many would consider it common sense, but unfortunately, it’s not common practice in today’s business environment.

Customer-focused engagement may be the most underrated method for growing revenue. It’s about building personal relationships and growing a community of customers that you are uniquely suited to work with and serve. So wouldn’t it be cool if there were call scripts or guidelines to help us navigate the complex world of modern human relationships and communicate with greater impact?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all playbook that will work in every situation. People actively resist engaging with others who know it all and have seen it all without even considering the other’s position or situation.

Your relationship quality determines your organization’s success or failure. But before we delve deeper into this topic, let’s do a quick experiment. Think about how you would react in the following scenarios:

  1. A stranger hits your car in a parking lot. You’re fuming and likely thinking, what an idiot. Now, what if that stranger was your friend? You’re thinking, no big deal, we all make mistakes!
  2. A stranger gives you a slice of peach pie. You might be suspicious at first, or even wonder if it’s tainted in some way. Now, if that stranger was a friend, you’re probably thinking, oh peach pie, how delicious!

Two different scenarios, and in both cases, the stranger is met with hostility, doubt, and skepticism. Yet the friend is treated differently. Why?

Because you have a relationship with your friend, your perception of the event and your reaction to it changes. Humans are social by nature. We live in communities and take the interests, intentions, and needs of other people into account every day.

Think about how different your customer meetings are where you have a relationship versus those where you don’t have one. Successful companies know that trust and good customer relationships or intimacy make it easier to schedule meetings. It makes customers more comfortable sharing intelligence that they might not share with others, and it makes them more responsive to your solution recommendations.

FROM TRANSACTIONAL SELLING TO RELATIONSHIP SELLING

Each time you engage with a customer, you positively or negatively shape their perception of you and your organization. This is why a customer-focused engagement approach, like the Hi-Q Engagement Method, is so important. Simply put, the Hi-Q Method prioritizes building personal, human relationships to improve customer intimacy, improve the quality of intelligence gathered, and position you as a valued customer resource.

Unlike transactional selling — which emphasizes closing a deal over everything else — relationship selling is all about trust and human connection. The result of good customer engagement is a relationship that gets stronger over time.

Here are three of the core principles of a customer-focused approach:

  • Focus on the customer, not the product. In transactional selling, the primary goal is to sell something, get the money, and move on. With a customer-centered approach, the goal is to learn about the customer, their challenges and aspirations, and help them get the best solution possible. The focus is on the customer and their needs. The sale, when it occurs, is because the solution is suitable for the customer and is a good business decision.
  • Have open communication. Communication is often the difference between relationship success and failure. Your communication must foster trust and dialogue. Authentic engagement, transparent intent, and curiosity focused on helping the customer are the basis of this communication approach. To do this, you must have the customer’s best interests in mind and work with them to diagnose the root cause drivers and provide honest information about the best solutions for their needs.

Think about long-term strategies. A salesperson’s role in a long-term relationship is to create value for the customer and the organization. Doing so creates the potential for the customer to stay loyal to your business for years.

It may seem evident that customer relationships are essential. There are many rewards for taking the time and trouble to foster and maintain excellent relationships. Unlike cash, strong business relationships are not diminishing resources. Instead, a high-quality network can only multiply. When you prioritize your customer needs over your need to sell something, you reduce transaction pressure, allowing relationships to develop.

However, a customer-focused approach isn’t about being charismatic or outgoing. Instead, it’s about understanding the buyer’s perspective, figuring out their pain point, and finding a solution.

This approach allows you to:

  • Know and understand your customers. Customer-focused discovery lets you understand what’s important to them, what they’re currently working with, and their goals and aspirations. This helps you know your customer’s real needs, and how you might help them.
  • Improve communication. Good relationships reduce anxiety and provide a trustworthy point of contact. In these relationships, customers feel comfortable and are much more likely to share intelligence with you. In addition, knowing your customers allows you to understand their preferences and challenges, giving you more insight into why they might buy your products or services.
  • Improve retention and reduce customer churn. Retaining current customers is often more important than acquiring new ones. Developing a new customer can cost up to five times more than keeping an existing customer. About 61% of customers stop buying from a company after they have a poor customer experience. Building good customer relationships reduces the chance of the customer looking elsewhere for a solution.
THE POWER OF TRUST

Customer-focused organizations strive to build lasting relationships by focusing on the customer rather than their need to sell products or generate revenues. Trust is the foundation of all relationships. Trust-based relationships are logical and emotional — even when your product or service ticks all the boxes, customers may still choose to work with others they trust.

Realize that customers are just people with a problem that you may be able to help them solve. Remember, for your customers, it’s always personal, and it usually comes down to two things: trust and value.

Trust gets stronger the longer it’s maintained, but it must continually be demonstrated. It must be reinforced in every transaction, dealing, or contact; it is a never-ending prerequisite to all business relationships.

OK, so we’ve been talking about trust, but what does it really mean? A good definition of trust is assured reliance on the character, ability, or truth of someone or something. Trust can easily be understood using the 3C’s of the trust triangle developed by the Navy Leader Development Framework: character, competence, and connection.

  • Character. Character is who you are and how the customer relates to you. Your character forms the basis of ethical trust: Do they like you as a person, and do they trust you as a person? Therefore, your intent is evaluated every time you engage customers.
  • Competence. Competence is your technical knowledge and how you apply it to solving customer problems. In sales, you need both people skills and technical competence for success. You must demonstrate that you and your team have the technical skills, knowledge, and ability to solve problems. You might be an expert, but if your customer doesn’t need those skills, they will not value the competence you bring.
  • Connection. Customer connection is the relationship between you and the customer. Connection is how you foster trust. It’s how you use empathy, authenticity, transparency, and dialogue skills to improve the relationship and supercharge your success.

Who you are and how the customer perceives you are critical. If they perceive you as anything but trustworthy, you will struggle. Your competence won’t matter because, without character, nobody will trust your insights. Without character or competence, you will struggle with connection. People more readily develop relationships with people they like, but if they can’t trust you, the relationship will be transactional at best.

WHAT CUSTOMERS WANT

In our BD Masterclass, we ask attendees to list traits of salespeople they like and dislike. The list created is eerily similar in each class. Customers want to be seen, heard, and understood first and then be part of the team identifying or developing the solution.

They don’t want to be sold, manipulated, or treated like they are uninformed or uneducated. A big part of that is communication and collaboration. Customers want to work with trusted partners who care about them and their mission, although they may not articulate it this way. The first step to achieving this is to abandon self-focused agendas and adopt a more objective approach that focuses on the customer’s needs.

Customers and humans, in general, are primarily collaborative and feel validated when someone pays attention to them, helps them better understand what they are experiencing, and assists them in getting the best solution.

According to Inc. magazine story on 10 things customers want, communication and collaboration are the biggest underlying themes. The following aspects, they say, are key to sales success: bringing new ideas to the table, having confidence, being willing to listen and collaborate, understanding the customer’s needs, helping them avoid pitfalls, bringing a solution to the table, and above all, connecting personally with the customer.

Here are three additional traits and behaviors necessary:

  • Be authentic.Customers want to deal with the real you. If you’re trying too hard to be the person you think they want to work with, you will likely be perceived as insincere or manipulative. So make it simple and just be yourself!
  • Be honest and transparent.Customers value honesty and transparency above all else. The more consistently you provide honest, direct answers, the more your customer will trust you.
  • Be reliable.It will negatively impact the relationship if you are hard to reach, are unwilling to give advice, or don’t follow through on promises.  
EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE & RELATIONSHIP QUALITY

It’s been proven that emotionally intelligent professionals perform better than their non-emotionally intelligent peers. The business dictionary defines emotional intelligence (EI) as “the ability to identify, assess, and influence one’s feelings and those of others.” Some people are born with higher EI, but it can be developed through training.

EI bridges the gap between knowing and doing. People might know what needs to be done, but they allow their emotions to override this logic. High EI enables a salesperson to sense, understand, and effectively control their feelings so they can steadfastly focus on the customer and their needs.

Often, salespeople lose customer focus when fear, uncertainty, doubt, insecurity, and even excitement pull their attention away for the customer. They become self-absorbed, only able to think about themselves and their feelings. This results in talking too much, not asking the right questions or enough questions, and pushing off-target solutions.

Let’s briefly explore each of the levels of the emotional intelligence pyramid:

  • Self-awareness: Self-awareness is the ability to identify and name your emotions and understand the impact of your actions on others. One of the most significant challenges people have when developing relationships is that they are unaware of how their behaviors, biases, and beliefs impact the customer’s perception of them. Often, these actions reinforce the customer perception that you are just like all the other pushy salespeople they have met, and they will treat you accordingly.

    Many salespeople overestimate their communication abilities. They say they listen well, ask good questions, and have productive customer engagement.

    However, we see something entirely different when observing them during customer roleplay.

    They are self-focused, mostly talking and asking a few superficial questions to “warm” things up. Often their listening is dominated by their inner thoughts rather than what the customer is saying.

    Emotional intelligence helps with self-awareness, which enables you to build relationships based on understanding and trust.

  • Self-control: Self-control is another critical aspect of high emotional intelligence. To develop and maintain good relationships, you must be in control of your emotions. For example, self-control makes a salesperson less likely to let their feeling of fear, anxiety, irritation, and even excitement distract their customers.
  • Relationship management: Developing high-quality relationships can take months or even years. People with higher EI are more adept at investing time and focus on doing this. However, many of their peers jump straight into trying to understand and manage the customer before taking the time to be self-aware or master self-control. The strong and healthy bond between you and your customer depends on how well you understand their needs and feelings, and that can take time.
  • Social awareness: Social awareness is knowing how to “read a room,” objectively assess a situation, and put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Empathy and compassion are governed by emotional intelligence. Social awareness is needed to make meaningful connections, build rapport, and maintain relationships over an extended period.
COMMUNICATION SKILLS THAT CREATE WINNING RELATIONSHIPS™

Communication skills are your tools to develop all your relationships. A good customer relationship extends beyond the initial purchase. Some customers are more interested in how you engage with them than in your products or services.

The Human Intelligence Quotient Assessment measures the skills and consistency needed to create, nurture, and maintain customer relationships.

Below are some of the skills elite professionals use to improve their effectiveness and efficiency when dealing with customers.

  • Demonstrate your intent. Customer-focused intent does not mean an intention to sell more and boost your profits but rather the desire to help the prospect with their needs. Any salesperson can ask a few questions and provide a solution, but if they fail to show their willingness to care and listen, the relationship will not be able to move forward.You can demonstrate your intent in several ways. First, it’s about having the right mindset. Approach each engagement with the desire to focus on understanding the customer’s needs and help them determine the right solution.

    Many salespeople impose their own agenda focused on getting their needs met. Success comes by focusing on the customer and their needs rather than yours.

  • Next is communication. Stating your intent to the customer early in the conversation puts them at ease that you aren’t there to sell them. Often your intent is the first thing a customer evaluates to establish a positive or negative early impression of you.
  • Build a connection. Whether you’re building relationships with customers, vendors, or other business leaders, you should aim to connect with them.Taking a few minutes at the beginning of a call or meeting to do this may seem like fluff or a waste of time to many salespeople, but it is often this time that lays the groundwork for a relationship.

    It’s about taking the time to allow them to segue into the meeting, for you to chat about common points of interest, and to begin shaping their perception of you as somebody who listens and is attentive to them.

    The key to connecting is to be genuinely interested in the customer, so it’s essential that you focus on them and don’t overshadow them with your stories.

    As your relationship deepens, you will move beyond small talk and learn about their interests or aspects of their life unrelated to their role or current opportunities. In addition, connecting requires researching the customer, so you can talk about more than what you see in their office or the background of a virtual meeting.

    Cautions:

    Always be professional and refrain from becoming over-familiar with them. If you strive to get too personal too quickly, your efforts might be perceived as creepy or inappropriate.

    Not all customers enjoy small talk, and some prefer to get straight to the facts. If that’s the case, don’t force it and move on to discovery.

  • Ask a discovery question. Once you have personally connected, it’s time to start your discovery. Here you must ask enough questions to understand the customer’s needs and how it’s impacting their organization and them personally. Unfortunately, this is also where many salespeople make two big mistakes.

    First, they ask the same questions everyone else is asking. Secondly, they aren’t patient and jump to solve the first problem they hear rather than continuing their discovery questions until they fully understand the customer’s needs.

  • Understand the root cause. Customers typically have two sets of needs.

    The primary group refers to the customer’s organizational wants, desires, and problems.

    The second is the customer’s personal needs.

    Some needs are active and perched right on the prospect’s tongue. Others are latent or dormant, but once aroused during the discovery process, they are immediately converted into “now” needs.

    Some prospects may not know their needs and requirements, so it may be necessary for the salesperson to elicit information beyond what is volunteered during discovery.

    This is done by asking short follow-up questions like “why” to help you and the customer better understand their needs at a deeper level. However, many salespeople are never comfortable doing this “deeper level of discovery,” preferring to “tell or sell” the customer what they think the customer needs.

  • Be a great listener. One of the primary roles of customer engagement is to build and maintain an elevated level of customer trust, and listening builds trust.

    In a sales meeting, it’s usually easier for us to do an excellent presentation about why they should work with your company or buy your product because of its impressive features or benefits. But you are more likely to make a positive impact if you connect with the customer by talking less and listening more. 

    Here’s how:

    • Make a concerted effort to let the customer do most of the talking.
    • Pay attention to what your customer is saying and dig deeper into areas they show an interest in; doing this will instantly forge a connection between you.
    • Paraphrase what the customer is saying, using their words to show you hear and understand what they are sharing with you.
    • Use positive non-verbal cues, such as nodding your head, smiling, and maintaining eye contact.

To actively listen, you must move beyond listening to your inner voice and focus on the customer. When you engage with a customer, you must stop thinking about what you will say or ask next or how you can get them to discuss your solution. So learning to actively listen takes practice, but the next skill, pausing, will elevate your ability to listen well.

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