Relationship Management Guide – Definition and Strategy

11 minute read

Relationship management in sales is all about delivering value and understanding the people and problems at play within accounts – both from prospective and current customers – in order to help solve their greatest challenges. It’s about sellers becoming trusted advisors to their customers and being the first one to get called to the strategy table when needs arise.  

In this guide, we’re going to dive into the importance of relationship management, as well as look into a few practical steps to help you get started with it.

What is relationship management?

Relationship management refers to the processes and strategies businesses, sellers and other customer-facing roles use to build effective relationships with customers. As you will see, this goes well beyond the data collected in the CRM system, and often warrants additional, specialized technology, like relationship mapping tools, married to world-class sales methodologies and best practices, ideally integrated and 100% native to your CRM solution. 

A CRM system holds the data sellers need to know about the people and accounts they are targeting, but a cohesive customer relationship strategy focuses on things you will not find in your CRM – things like hidden lines of influence between important stakeholders, their goals, initiatives and obstacles they are trying to overcome beyond the initial problem you are selling them a solution for. 

It’s these things that help sellers and account managers guide buyers through the phases of customer relationship management towards becoming loyal customers.

The importance of relationship management 

At the onset of the pandemic, it seemed that digital selling had been launched forward years. Suddenly, everyone was on the same playing field. Gone were the face to face office meetings and networking at industry events, and in their place were hour-long zoom calls with sellers wearing hoodies.  

Now, however, things have changed. In fact, according to Forrester, in-person, face-to-face sales are back on the rise. At the same time, current trends point to the growing importance of effective relationship management in B2B buying journeys. As buyers become more discerning, and buying groups grow in complexity, sellers are becoming more instilled in the buying process when complex purchases are required. 

As sellers become more indispensable in this new world, their relationships with buyers are equally indispensable. Enter the importance of relationship management. And while what’s going on with your CRM software is undoubtedly important for your relationship management strategy, it’s about so much more than the data you collect – it’s about putting that data to use. This means incorporating the right tools and methodologies into your business to help sellers achieve a lofty goal well beyond what CRM software alone could ever hope to help them achieve. That goal is achieving trusted advisor status with their customers.  

Relationship management is about becoming a trusted advisor 

What do we mean by “a trusted advisor”? Basically, it means gaining an understanding of the people you are selling to, and their unique problems, in order to work with them every step of the way towards finding a solution. This is part of the mindset shift required to become effective at relationship management and is also a key aspect of account planning. It means becoming so much more in the eyes of your customers and prospects than just another vendor.  

Earning a place as a trusted advisor means engaging everyone in the organization with whom you can deliver value. It means building out a robust understanding of roles in the decision-making process, how (and to what extent) they exert influence and what priorities are top-of-their-mind. In mapping a rich understanding of how key players relate to one another, reps can start to uncover how things happen in the organization. Often, these insights are not visible to the untrained eye.  

In modern sales deals, it’s relationships that matter. When a deal comes down to the line, it’s the quality of the relationship that gets the seller the phone call when a buyer is making decisions. Through building a trusted advisor status with your account, sellers can make relationships that matter and drive revenue and opportunities as a byproduct of their effort. 

Relationship selling means putting the relationship ahead of all aspects of the sale 

Deploying sales relationship management as a strategy can be an integral differentiator for businesses attempting to stay competitive in a more challenging, modern B2B sales environment.  

Understanding how the internal workings of an account function and the relationships within is a critical step towards increased, sustained revenue. When you access the right people in the account and deliver personalized value messages, your likelihood of sales success will skyrocket. 

To achieve this, sellers need to ask and answer several questions. They can then build a relationship selling strategy that works. 

Five steps to relationship selling

Here are five vital steps that can take sellers from just another vendor to a trusted advisor. 

  1. Identify the people that matter: Successful relationship management starts with building relationships with the right people. Relationship mapping (which we will get into later) helps with this. 
  2. Learn how they think: Before you can change someone’s mind, you must know how they think. Propensity to change, decision orientation, and previous experiences should serve as the guiding path to how you approach your relationship development strategy. 
  3. Assess the current relationship: To build a coalition within your account that’s on your side, you need to develop honest assessments of your current relationships. Evidence, not opinion, is what you need for your relationship management strategy. 
  4. Determine the relationship gap: Now that you see where your relationship is currently at, you can identify where it needs to be. The space between Is called “the relationship gap.” Relationship management strategies will help you overcome that gap. 
  5. Overcome the gap: Once these questions are answered, sellers are ready to expand business relationships by adhering to one key principle. They must consistently create, measure, and communicate value to the customer. This is what will form the foundation of trust in their new role as a “Trusted Advisor.” 

Relationship management and whitespace

Modern, complex B2B sales motions are anything but transactional. In fact, one of the surest ways to turn off a potential buyer is to make them feel like a name in a database, or a means to filling a quota. This is why a large part of relationship management extends well beyond the point where a prospect becomes a customer. The next biggest task is to continue your role as a trusted advisor to continually deliver value by discovering the next business problem your products and services can solve for your customer. 

These unanswered, additional “problems” make up the bulk of the whitespace in existing accounts. By identifying whitespace opportunities and proactively managing relationships with existing customers, businesses can increase revenue from the relationships they already have. 

Studies have shown that 65% of a company’s revenue comes from existing customers. Keeping those customers happy, and maintaining strong relationships with them, is integral for continued success. While there are many tactics you can use to ensure you are building those strategies well, one way to improve relationships with customers and target whitespace is through relationship mapping.  

Targeting whitespace with relationship mapping  

With your bases covered, it’s time to get into what is the most actionable aspect of relationship management – the relationship map. Through relationship mapping, sellers can work with the greater revenue team to collaborate on key aspects of their accounts. After visually mapping out the various individuals and departments within an organization and identifying the relationships between them, this information can be used to develop a comprehensive understanding of the customer’s decision-making processes, power dynamics, and potential areas of influence or conflict. 

Benefits of mapping relationships in a CRM strategy

Here are a few ways that relationship mapping can be an important part of your customer relationship management strategy: 

  1. Identifying key stakeholders: Relationship mapping helps identify the key decision-makers and influencers within an account. This information is crucial for developing a comprehensive account plan that targets the right individuals and departments. 
  2. Building relationships: The part we are most concerned with currently- relationship mapping helps sellers build relationships with the people that matter within an account. Sales professionals can build stronger relationships with key stakeholders by assessing their relationships and relationship gaps. 
  3. Anticipating needs: Relationship mapping allows sales professionals to anticipate the needs of their customers by understanding their decision-making process. This can help identify potential areas of influence and anticipate potential roadblocks to closing deals. 
  4. Maximizing opportunities: By identifying areas of influence and potential allies within a customer organization, sales professionals can maximize opportunities for upselling and cross-selling. They can leverage their relationships with key stakeholders to drive additional revenue and build long-term partnerships. 
  5. Enhancing communication: Relationship mapping can also improve communication within a customer organization. By understanding the roles and responsibilities of different individuals and departments, sales professionals can tailor their messaging to each stakeholder, improving the effectiveness of their communication and reducing the likelihood of misunderstandings. 
  6. Keeping all this information in one place: One of the biggest challenges of managing relationships in these complex deals is just how much detailed information sellers must keep track of. An effective relationship mapping tool can ease this cognitive burden, collecting all the small stuff that adds up to big wins.


Promotional graphic for a Self-Guided Relationship Map Demo


Relationship management takes a revenue team

One additional aspect to consider when building out a relationship management strategy that works is the team behind it. It takes a cohesive team-based approach to enable sound relationship management. After all, you don’t want to be in a situation where sellers and other customer-facing professionals are all interacting with a given account or contact disjointedly and sporadically.  

This can rub prospects and customers the wrong way.  

To ensure that your team is working together towards building positive relationships, it’s helpful to adopt a change in mindset towards seeing customer facing roles across departments as one cohesive dream team. 

A revenue team approach drives harmony in relationship management 

This approach to selling as a team can be summed up in the term “revenue team.” The revenue team is composed of professionals across distinct functions, all banded together toward the common goal of driving revenue.  

This includes people in marketing, sales, and customer success teams. As they work together to cover the relationship gap, they begin to function cohesively as a team, consistently and reliably arming sellers with everything they need to make the most out of their time with potential buyers and existing customers.  

Here are a few core pillars revenue teams need to cover to ensure they are moving in the right direction: 

  • Effective coaching for sellers: Staying committed to ongoing mentorship and coaching is a key element of the revenue team.  
  • Regular deal and account reviews: Done collaboratively between stakeholders across the revenue team, this process allows everyone to ask questions, dig into strategy, determine next steps, and helps sellers keep deals moving forward.  
  • Collaboration: Whether it’s working through key aspects of the relationship map together as a team, or collaborating on an account plan, revenue teams are most effective when they are collaborating. 
  • Sales enablement: As teams work together, they can begin to strategize on ways to effectively support sellers through content, sales enablement, customer success stories and added training. 

Benefits of a customer relationship management (CRM) strategy

No one ever said creating a strong customer relationship management strategy was easy. But the time and resources put into building and executing on one is well worth it. Building strong relationships with customers reaps several benefits for business. These include three major areas of advantages like: 

  • Better relationships: Buyers don’t want to be treated transactionally. They want and need the human touch to make complex purchasing decisions. Relationship management helps with that, focusing on the deal as a relationship first.  
  • Achieve trusted advisor status: Through effective customer relationship management, sellers can establish themselves as trusted advisors to their accounts, enabling them to be seen not just as another vendor. This way, when the big calls come in, they are invited into the inner circle to help. 
  • More revenue: As you can see, putting the relationship first and ahead of everything else in the sale leads to more revenue as a byproduct. As sellers seek to understand their accounts, and the people with them, and earn that place at the strategy table, more revenue follows through better targeted whitespace and bigger, better deals.  

Despite the growing popularity of automation and AI, people-to-people relationships remain the currency through which the best deals are made. By focusing on relationship management and putting a customer-centric mindset at the core of their sales efforts, sellers can stand out from the crowd, transcend their “just another vendor” status, and grow and retain revenue in existing accounts as well as through landing deals with their ideal customers. 

Reliable products. Real results.

Every day, thousands of companies rely on Upland to get their jobs done simply and effectively. See how brands are putting Upland to work.

View Success Stories