‘Relationship Selling’ and ‘Having Charisma’ Are Not the Same Thing

The best relationship sellers don’t charm buyers — they listen to them.
Brian Nordli
March 30, 2021
Updated: March 31, 2021
Brian Nordli
March 30, 2021
Updated: March 31, 2021

If Amy Volas had a catchphrase for the relationship selling process, it would be this: “People want to be seen, heard and understood.”

Volas relationship selling
Amy Volas.

From outreach to discovery to closing a deal, everything she does comes back to satisfying those three needs. It’s a phrase she reiterated no less than 10 times during our conversation, and for good reason: It’s what people want in any relationship, Volas said.

Volas built her career on forming sales relationships. It’s what’s helped her sell more than $100 million in revenue and informs her approach as the CEO and founder of the sales recruiting firm Avenue Talent Partners.

What Is Relationship Selling?

Relationship selling is a process in which the sales rep serves as a partner to the buyer. Rather than emphasizing the product and pricing, the sales rep seeks to understand the buyer’s perspective, figure out their pain point and work with them to determine how the product can help solve it. 

It may seem obvious that relationships are important in sales, but the relationship selling strategy isn’t about being charismatic or outgoing, Volas said. Instead, it’s about understanding the buyer’s perspective, figuring out their pain point and then finding a solution. It stands in direct contrast to transaction sales, which emphasizes closing a deal over everything else.

“Relationship selling doesn’t mean that we’re all a bunch of friends having a good old time.”

To do it well, the rep doesn’t need to become the buyer’s friend, but they do need to earn the buyer’s trust, Volas said. The key lies in taking the time to do a deep discovery, providing value to the buyer and, more than anything else, making sure the buyer feels seen, heard and understood.

“Relationship selling doesn’t mean that we’re all a bunch of friends having a good old time,” Volas said. “It means that you have mutual trust and respect because you’ve earned it, and you’ve shown up.”

Mastering the strategy can lead to more closed deals, more referrals and, ultimately, happier customers.

We spoke with Volas, Groove CEO Chris Rothstein and Aspireship Manager of Employer Partnerships Alexis Scott on the steps that go into a successful relationship selling process.

A Guide To Relationship Selling

  • Do extensive research on the buyer and their industry to serve as an expert on the call. The more well-read you are, the more personalized you can make the conversation.
  • Make the most of your small talk to build a personal connection.
  • Take the time to do a deep discovery. Don’t talk about the product features until you know what the buyer’s pain point is and why they want to solve it. 
  • Create a mutually agreed-upon agenda to set expectations and align the call. The buyer should know what value they can expect out of the call. 
  • Be an active listener. Ask the quietest person in the room for their opinion — sometimes they have the greatest impact on a deal.
  • Don’t force a deal. Looking out for the buyer’s best interest prevents churn and builds a stronger relationship for the future.
  • Follow up every call with an email that same day. Summarize the meeting, set up next steps and add value. 
  • Keep in touch after the deal to maintain the relationship.

         

Step 1: Do Your Research

The secret sauce to building a sales relationship isn’t charisma, it’s the work that happens before the first meeting.

To earn 15 minutes of a CEO’s time, Volas knows she has to spend at least that much time researching their company, listening to their annual reports and scanning their LinkedIn. That prep work paves the way for an engaging, value-based conversation.

“It’s the concept of giving before you think about taking,” Volas said. “Let’s not forget, the buyer holds the keys. They’re the ones writing the checks, and if you’re asking busy executives for their time ... you have to earn that.”

When a rep does their research, they’re able to create more personalized outreach and have deeper conversations. They can break from the script, ask more informed questions and provide insights the buyer is more likely to find useful.

Still, researching every prospect in a market can take time a rep may not have. To save time, Volas suggests analyzing your sales territory and figuring out your target market. Then cross-reference those prospects with similar customers in your user-base and examine why they purchased the product, what compelled them to reach out and why they stay.

“They’re the ones writing the checks, and if you’re asking busy executives for their time ... you have to earn that.”

Those insights provide a high-level snapshot of what your prospects will most likely value.

Then dig deeper. Volas sets up Google alerts for both the company and its industry, listens to earnings calls, tracks Crunchbase for funding news and consumes any content her prospect is producing. LinkedIn can also be helpful to gather information on your buyer. Her goal is to find anything that will help start a business conversation.

“Its such a great way to see their point of view,” Volas said.

If she sees that a prospect spoke about the importance of candidate experience in the hiring process, she’ll ask about how they’re approaching that. If a buyer raised two rounds of funding, she’ll ask to learn more about their impressive growth. Those questions are immediately more relatable to the buyer than any BANT questionnaire, and it signals that she’s put time in to understand their needs.

Ultimately, those questions and insights are what form the foundation for a relationship.

“The best conversations flow, so your talk track gets chucked really fast, and it’s like, can you show up and be present in the moment to have a collaborative discussion?” Volas said. “It starts with that research.”

 

Step 2: Make the Most of Your Small Talk

Scott Relationship Selling
Alexis Scott.

Don’t underestimate the power of small talk.

The chit-chat at the start of a call about the weather or a person’s week may seem like fluff, but it often leads to deeper personal connections. At Aspireship, Scott uses those conversations to learn where her buyers vacation, what they like to eat and what they do for fun.

Those interactions won’t be the reason she closes a deal, but they help her build trust — a crucial ingredient in any sale.

“Yes, we’re both here for business, but if I can connect with you as a human, then that relationship is that much tighter,” Scott said.

The key to effective small talk is to be genuinely interested in the buyer and lean into what sparks their attention. Scott recommends sharing stories the buyer can relate to and asking follow-up questions. If she sees a surfboard on a person’s wall, she’ll ask about it and share a story of her failed surfing experience. Those moments forge stronger personal connections, she said.

Rothstein relationship selling
Chris Rothstein.

At Groove, Rothstein suggests finding one relatable conversation subject to open a conversation with before a call. One of the best ways to get to know a person is to look at their LinkedIn page for mutual connections or for a skill they’ve mastered and then ask about it.

Not all customers enjoy small talk, however. Some buyers have packed schedules or just prefer to get straight to the facts. If that’s the case, don’t force the chit-chat, Scott said.

“Yes, we’re both here for business, but if I can connect with you as a human, then that relationship is that much tighter.”

To gauge how interested a buyer will be in small talk, Scott takes note of her correspondences with them. If the emails are peppered with personal flourishes like, “Have a great day!” the buyer is more apt to have personal conversations. If they’re direct in email, they may not want to chat. Likewise, if their responses are short to questions like, “How are you?” then she’ll pivot to the main conversation.

Still, taking time for a brief personal check-in is a valuable strategy to make the call seem more like a conversation and less like a transaction, Rothstein said.

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Step 3: Be a Consultant on the Call

Once small talk is finished, it’s time to dig into the grit of the sales conversation. This is where Rothstein often sees sales reps make their biggest mistake — jumping straight into the solution.

Since buyers already do most of their product research online, they don’t need a list of features and solutions. They often have a specific problem they need help solving, and it’s up to the rep to prove the product can solve it.

But first, the rep needs to ask enough questions to understand what that problem is. Some questions that help a rep get to the root of the problem include, “What are some reasons you decided to take this call?” and, “What are you most concerned about?” Rothstein said.

“There is so much information online, and to provide true value, you have to be able to summarize things that you only get through experience and expertise.”

Doing background research will also help make those questions more specific. If you see the company wants to expand its new logos and your solution can help solve that, ask about it. This leads to a more productive call, and it builds your credibility as an expert.

From there, it’s about digging past the surface level and understanding why they need that problem solved. This is where customer proofs can help. When a rep introduces a relevant customer story to relate to the buyer, they build trust.

“There is so much information online, and to provide true value, you have to be able to summarize things that you only get through experience and expertise,” Rothstein said. “Helping them get confidence in a decision, you have to build that level of rapport, and you do that through expertise.”

 

Set Expectations With an Agenda

Volas also recommends setting up a mutually agreed-upon agenda before every meeting. The agenda should highlight the key points the buyer and rep want to discuss. She sends it ahead of the call to set expectations and reduce the potential for no-shows.

Once the meeting starts, she has everyone introduce themselves and then asks each participant if there’s anything in the agenda they’d like to change. Little steps like those ensure everyone is aligned for the conversation.

She then lets the meeting flow using the agenda as a framework. If there’s something she knows they won’t get to, she’ll offer a five-minute warning and ask if they’d like to revisit it in another meeting.

 

Be an Active Listener

But expectation setting and asking questions only get a rep so far. The final step is to be an active listener. Take the time to summarize the buyer’s main points and clarify that you heard correctly, Volas said. If you do a lot of talking, make sure to check in with the buyer for their thoughts.

“Everyone in that room has a reason for being in the room, so let’s not discount anybody and assume that one person is more important than another.”

She also always asks the quietest person in the room to weigh in. In her experience, that person is often either a woman or someone without a big title next to their name. This prevents anyone from being sidelined.

“Everyone in that room has a reason for being in the room, so let’s not discount anybody and assume that one person is more important than another,” Volas said.

The more time a rep takes to ask questions, understand a person and provide actionable takeaways, the more likely the buyer will trust them in a sales relationship.

 

Know When to Walk Away

No conversation is perfect, however. Disagreements and misunderstandings are bound to happen, but when that familiar pang in the gut appears, don’t give in to the emotions that follow, Volas says.

Instead, take it as a sign to dig deeper and ask questions to understand. Doing so uncovers additional pain points or roadblocks that were missed during the initial discovery. Getting to the root of those issues can reinforce the relationship as the deal progresses, Volas added.

“I say no more than I say yes in my business, and the doors are left wide open, with the foundation being set for a great relationship.”

Sales reps should also look for potential misalignments early in the relationship, Scott said.

Forcing a deal can often lead to higher rates of churn and impact your relationship with future buyers, who may hear stories from past customers or see negative reviews.

“It’s just being genuine and authentic,” Scott said. “There are certain parameters that I work with when I’m qualifying a prospect, and if they don’t fit, I will say I don’t think it’s a right fit. Because you don’t want to start a partnership and then not be able to deliver on it.”

Even though walking away from a deal may signal the end of the conversation, saying no can preserve the relationship for a future deal, Volas added.

“I say no more than I say yes in my business, and the doors are left wide open, with the foundation being set for a great relationship,” Volas said.

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Step 4: Timely Follow Up

The follow-up email is a great opportunity to build momentum. An effective follow-up starts with summarizing the key points discussed during the meeting and next steps.

“You have to know you can count on somebody.”

But that information can feel redundant at times. To make the message more relevant to the buyer, the rep needs to add value to the exchange. This can be a snippet from a relevant podcast, a link to a story or a relatable customer proof.

When a rep shares those insights with an explanation about how that connects to the previous conversation, they’ll be seen more as a consultant than someone who is trying to get updates on a deal.

“It helps to build trust,” Rothstein said. “You have to know you can count on somebody.”

 

Step 5: Keep in Touch

Whenever Scott closes a deal, she always makes sure to check up on her client.

Aspireship trains sales reps and places them at partnering tech companies. So, she’ll often send hiring managers and sales leaders she works with LinkedIn messages or texts after the first week, the first month and periodically after that to see how the sales rep is doing.

The messages are a short and simple way to keep in touch without having to set up a meeting. While the deal may be completed, maintaining that relationship helps keep her top of mind for future deals. It also increases the likelihood that the client will send her referrals, which are as good as gold in sales.

“You always want to be top of mind for two reasons: The first is you want them to come to you, and the second is you want referrals,” Scott said. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, go talk to them.’ It’s, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re amazing.’ You want that buy-in.”

The post-sales exchange is a valuable part of the relationship-building process. Beyond staying top of mind, the conversations can set the foundation for an upsell — or just make sure the buyer is happy, Rothstein said.

“Your whole goal is to be honest. You’re trying to make it so that it’s not transactional.”

Some other ways he’s seen reps keep in touch include touching base after a company reaches a positive milestone and during holidays. Sending a quick note with some updates on things you’ve learned that they might find useful can also be a great way to keep adding value to the relationship.

But it’s also to let the buyer know they’re more than just a transaction. They’ve been seen, heard and understood.

“It’s beneficial for everyone,” Rothstein said. “Your whole goal is to be honest. You’re trying to make it so that it’s not transactional. This is not a traditional vendor relationship — we are trying to be a real partner, we are listening and we understand what you’re trying to do.”

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