How Relationship Selling Works: Strategy and Process

9 minute read

There are many “lone wolves” in B2B sales. But what if we told you that the old ways of making deals happen were out of touch with modern realities? What if we told you that relationship selling – putting your relationship with your customers at the heart of each and everything you do – is what really moves the needle? 

To do this well, it takes more than just merely being “liked” by customers. Sellers must be ready to provide real value. Only through actively delivering value to customers can they hope to stand out from the pack. 

This is relationship selling. It’s forever changed the world of B2B sales and continues to mold and shape it as sellers become more instilled in the buying journey. 

What is Relationship Selling?

 “Great salespeople are relationship builders who provide value and help their customers win.” (“What does it take to be a great salesperson?”) — Jeffrey Gitomer, International Sales Trainer and Speaker.

Relationship selling takes old B2B sales motions and turns them on their head. It does this by taking the end goal, or sale, out of the center of the universe, making the deal instead all about the people, problems, and relationships within an account.  

Many sellers still entrenched in the “lone wolf” mentality will find this approach unsettling, much like how the world found the idea that the sun was the center of our solar system, not the earth, back in the Renaissance. Making a shift in mindset to a customer-centric sales model is equally transformative.


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What a World Without Relationship Selling Looks Like 

It doesn’t take a big imagination to glean what a world without relationship-oriented sales looks like. Any seasoned seller can paint the picture vividly. Many have experienced the endless grind of “the hunt” – the pressure techniques, the art of the sales pitch – applying pressure to get a quick transaction.  

We’re talking about the lone wolf – called ‘the hero rep’ by some. Sadly, the lone wolf is quickly finding that the modern B2B buying world is slipping out from under them. The ability to hunt and tackle deals alone is no longer as profitable as it once was.  

Here are a few reasons why. 

  • Buying groups are made up of multiple stakeholders. A lone wolf approach works best in one-on-one sales situations. However, enterprise-level sales are rarely done one-on-one. In fact, a modern buying group often contains as many as 10 individuals.  
  • Buyers don’t want to be treated transactionally: Buyers are more discerning, meaning they are not likely to trust the “hunter’ who only puts together a proposal based on basic information and fires it over. The same holds true in other areas of business, like in marketing, where buyers prefer to read helpful, informative content, not obvious sales advertising. 
  • Much of the buying process happens outside of the seller’s immediate domain: Only 17% of the buying cycle takes place with the seller. Due to these limited interactions, sellers need to optimize the time they have. This means understanding the challenges and obstacles buyers face to provide maximum value.  

While lone wolf sellers attempt to bag their latest catch, relationship sellers are getting called to the strategy table because they have something better to offer – true value.  

Relationship Selling Strategy – How Do You Create One?

While having impactful conversations and interactions with sellers is important, relationship selling’s full scope is much broader. The meaningful work goes on upfront, before the seller gets on the video call ever meets with the buyer. That hard work continues throughout the deal. Specifically, through uncovering the hidden workings behind the account, and turning the data that resides within the CRM into actionable steps that lead to better relationships and more revenue. 

Speaking of actionability, let’s dive into a few practical steps that relationship sellers can take advantage of to land their next big deal, while growing and retaining revenue in existing accounts.  

Relationship Selling Process in Five Steps 

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: Once you’ve discovered who you need relationships with, it’s time to understand what motivates them, the obstacles they face, who influences them and who they influence. Propensity to change, decision orientation, and previous experiences should serve as the guiding path to how you approach your relationship selling strategy.  
  3. Assess the current relationship: The next vital step in relationship selling is gaining a better understanding of the current relationship you have with these buyers. To gain a better understanding of this, there are several questions you should ask. Checkout this guide on 10 questions to help you understand your current relationship status with key buyers. 
  4. Find the relationship gap: With the current relationship status assessed, you can identify where it needs to be. The key here is to estimate your desired level of influence carefully and realistically. The space between where you are now and where you need to be is called “the relationship gap.” Good relationship selling is all about overcoming that gap. 
  5. Overcome the gap: In this final and vital step, 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.” 

Let’s dig into that last point a bit more, as it is the quintessential aspect of relationship selling, and one that you cannot afford to go without.  

Deliver Value to Bridge the Relationship Gap

One aspect we haven’t touched on about the sale is this – it’s a long-term relationship. Indeed, the reason for such thoroughness on the part of the buyer is because they are looking for a long-term fit, not a short-term fix.  

And this is what sellers should be looking for, as well. Their business will benefit from the repeated revenue they will gain from a longstanding customer. There is also likely plenty of whitespace to target in accounts that are committed to long-term solutions, giving it ample opportunity to land and expand.  

But that value cannot be shown simply after the deal is made. It must be demonstrable through every aspect of the interaction between buyer and seller throughout the lifecycle of the relationship.  A united revenue team can go a long way in helping the seller have what he or she needs to properly build a relationship that lasts. 

The Revenue Team Plays a Key Role in Demonstrating Value 

 While the structure of a revenue operations team and the complexity of its collaboration across multiple departments is anything but simple, one thing is clear – when buying teams are present, sellers need a “selling team” behind them. That’s the revenue team.  

The revenue team is a critical component of enabling sellers to build the best relationships. After all, revenue teams help ensure sellers have the right content, resources, and even access to new features they need to have the most impact with their buyers.  

Taking a revenue team approach is one of the best ways relationship sellers can grow revenue.

Behaviors That Demonstrate Value in Relationship Selling

All the strategies in the world, however, are not enough to replace the core behaviors that sellers need to show buyers that they are not just a revenue number.  

The seller’s job is to shine a light, provide valuable insights into the business and into the market and guide buyers to see what is possible. Then – and only then – can sellers connect their business priorities to potential solutions. This is the sure way to elevate the relationship. 

Here are the behaviors sellers need to model always with the buyer: 

  • Always give more than you get to demonstrate that you want to add value. 
  • Don’t wait until you need something from your customer or prospect before you deliver value. 
  • Always do what you say. 
  • Be respectful. 
  • Show up on time. 
  • Consider their interests first. 
  • And if they are selecting the wrong product from you, even if it means a bigger deal for you, advise them against it.  

Relationship and Insight Mapping to Deliver Value 

As sellers move through the deal, collecting vital data on the people at play within accounts, they can leverage that data through relationship and insight mapping. It is through relationship and insight mapping that the relationship selling strategy really begins to take a visual shape, and it is in the mapping software that revenue teams can collaborate on how best to approach the hidden lines of influence, obstacles, and political dimensions that could help or hinder the relationship from crossing the gap. 

Through relationship and insight mapping, sellers can uncover: 

  • Who truly matters in an account 
  • The problems those people face and how they think 
  • Levels of support (the current relationship) 
  • Actionable steps to get the relationship where it needs to be (relationship gap) 
  • Additional obstacles, goals, and peripheral initiatives where sellers can deliver value 

Once this information is ascertained, sellers can connect the buyer’s priorities to specific, actionable solutions that solve the business problems they uncovered.  

Relationship Selling Doesn’t Stop at the Close 

One last note on relationship selling has to do with the relationship passed closing the deal. With 65% of a business’s revenue coming from existing customers, sellers can’t afford to overlook their relationships with customers. Taking advantage of relationship management best practices and relationship/insight mapping are vital to creating a strategy that targets whitespace, or the future opportunity for revenue growth, in customer accounts.

The world where lone wolves roamed the halls of B2B sales organizations may be over, but the new world of relationship selling is just beginning. As innovative technologies surface and buying journeys continue to evolve, sellers will find that returning to the heart of sales and putting the relationship ahead of all other aspects of the sale will be the single most important thing to differentiate themselves from the competition. It’s what relationship selling is all about. 

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