By Gary Moore
When I entered industrial sales from an engineering background, I assumed if I just showed the customer the features, advantages and benefits of my product, they would get the point and buy from me with maybe just a little price negotiation. Even before Excel, I thought it was all about the spread sheet.
When I heard veteran salespeople talk about relationships with customers, I assumed this was some sort of exceptional golf course buddy-buddy friendship that could be overcome with, well, a better spread sheet, more features and a good price!
As a sales veteran, I now understand the critical importance of what I call “personal professional” relationships with customer decision influencers. “Personal,” because, by their very nature, all relationships between individuals are personal. “Professional” because relationships with most customers are different from friendships. They are personal relationships on a professional level. These relationships are based on mutual respect; respect for the responsibilities of both salesperson and customer; respect for each other’s time; respect for ethics; respect for the interests and style of each (particularly the customer); and respect for the importance of clear benefits of these relationships for both persons and their companies.
In this article I’ll explore the benefits of these relationships to both seller and customer; how a salesperson can build and maintain these relationships with customer decision influencers; some key factors in these relationships including how they often trump business advantages, and how they differ from friendships.
Benefits to Salespeople Building personal professional relationships with customer decision influencers takes time and energy. Why bother? Strong personal professional relationships give salespeople:
- Access to opportunities, facilities, other decision influencers, information (“Gary, here’s our next project. Let me show you our storage area. I’ll introduce you to my boss. Here’s our list of key parameters, etc.”)
- Second chances (“Bill, your proposal is out of line with what we’re looking for and with what others have submitted. Can you resubmit with…?”)
- Coaching (“Amy, your presentation did not address our Safety Manager’s concerns. I recommend you go see him and…”)
- Personal satisfaction. The knowledge you’ve really helped your customer accomplish their objectives
The stronger the personal professional relationship, the more these benefits naturally evidence themselves. Of course, an ultimate benefit of personal, professional relationships is more sales at higher gross margins. Benefits to customers Strong personal professional relationships with salespeople give customers:
- Pressure on salespeople and suppliers to perform. No one wants to let down a customer with whom they have a strong personal, professional relationship. This leads to…
- Extra effort by the salesperson and their company
- Salesperson as a strong advocate for the customer within his company and with suppliers
- Information on new things (“Jim, you are the first to see this exciting new…”)
- Insider information (“Lisa, we’ve got two techs available on weekends for our best customers.”)
- Access (“Here’s my personal cell number and that of our Service Manager. We’re available for you 24/7”)
- Satisfaction of doing business with people they like, believe, understand and trust
How Salespeople Can Build These Relationships The first step in building strong personal professional relationships with customers and prospects is the realization that it’s important and the will to “intentionalize” this process. “Intentionalize” (a word I may have made up, spell check doesn’t like it) means working intentionally to make it happen. For successful material handling salespeople, this is a priority. Top salespeople understand they have 100% of the responsibility to initiate these relationships and maintain them. And top salespeople understand this process should be strategic. You don’t have time to build these relationships with everyone. Focus on building personal professional relationships with key decision influencers in target accounts with the most potential. The next step is to focus on the customer, not on the product and definitely not on yourself. This is best done initially with open ended questions, carefully and intentionally listening, responding appropriately, and asking follow-up questions. Start with questions like:
- “What are your biggest challenges in this position? This project? Your company?”
- “What are your biggest business issues?”
- “How long have you been with this company?”
- “What do you like about your job? Your company?”
- “What are your biggest frustrations? Challenges?”
- “What do you do for fun?”
- “What did you do before being in this position? With this company?”
- “Where are you from?”
The goal initially is to get the customer talking about themselves, their company and their situation. And to really listen. A seminal text on the skill of focusing on the other person and making them feel important is, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. This was written more than 70 years ago, but has since been updated. Its concepts are never out of date. Get it. Read it. Next, quickly figure out where your customer contact is on the “personal – professional” continuum. Some are personal first, then professional. They want to get to know you personally and develop trust before dealing with you professionally (i.e. give you an important order). Others (me for example) are professional first, then personal. They want you to prove yourself professionally before committing to a more personal relationship. The salesperson’s task is to quickly discern where the customer is on this scale by listening and observing, and then deal with the customer in that manner. If you perceive the customer is professional personal, don’t start talking about the local NFL team. Focus on the business issues at hand. One approach is to make small commitments (“I’ll get back to you with that information no later than Friday,”) and keep the commitments. If you perceive the customer is personal professional, maybe they have golf paraphernalia all over the office, try starting there. Customer contacts have essentially three personal objectives/needs:
- Organizational. They want to look good in their organization, and advance their business and career progress. How can the salesperson make the customer look good in his/her organization?
- Ego. How do they perceive themselves and what can you do to make them feel better about themselves?
- Social. People like to do business with people they like and respect. People with somewhat similar interests. Focus on developing an appropriate social relationship based on what the customer is interested in.
These are needs salespeople must pay attention to and work to help the customer meet. Building and Maintaining the Relationships Some personal professional relationships happen quickly. Things just seem to “click”. Some take longer and require more nurturing. Whatever the pattern, it is the salesperson’s responsibility to intentionalize the relationships that are important to him/her and their company. Once the relationships exist, they can often be enhanced and maintained with surprisingly less effort than required initially. In addition to what is mentioned above, techniques for building and maintaining personal professional relationships with customers include:
- Appropriate use of social media.
- Handwriting and mailing (with a stamped, not metered envelope) a personal note.
- Appropriate humor.
- Sending the customer information on things they are interested in such as links to articles, magazine subscriptions, etc.
- Send or give them a book on a topic of their interest.
- Sharing off line time; coffee shop visits, golf, athletic events.
- Communicating the way the customer likes to communicate whether by email, in person, texting, or by phone.
- Matching the customer’s pace of conversation, communication, project development and body language.
- Quick email or phone call to say “Hi.”
- Give them a customer lead for their business, or for a service their business needs.
- Visit their business for an event when invited.
- Invite them to a special event hosted by your company.
- Handle problems promptly.
The possibilities are many and must be matched to the specific relationship being developed and maintained. Personalization, that’s what makes it a relationship!
Trumping Business Advantages
Personal professional relationships between salesperson and customer are so powerful they often trump business advantages. If you have the best price, the best features and the best delivery, but the customer doesn’t like, believe, understand or trust you, in other words if there is no personal professional relationship, the customer will find a reason and a way to buy from a salesperson with whom he has that relationship. He’ll give them a second chance to beat your proposal; he’ll introduce the other salesperson to key people you can’t meet; he’ll find some other way to buy from that other salesperson. It happens. Often. And without the relationship, you may never know it happened.
Not Necessarily a Friendship
A mistake sometimes made by salespeople, a mistake I made when I first entered sales, is to assume these customer relationships should be friendships. True friendships are few and far between. They involve even more energy, time and maintenance than the personal professional relationships I am describing here. Occasionally, a personal professional relationship with a customer will develop into a true friendship, involving lots of personal time together, extended family relationships, exchange of very personal thoughts, etc. In my 40-plus-year sales career this has happened twice. But that is not the salesperson’s goal. The goal is a personal professional relationship with strategic customer contacts to help them meet their business and personal objectives while achieving yours. Salespeople have the responsibility to intentionalize these relationships and make them happen. The benefits, including selling more at higher gross margins, are many. For you and the customer. As I have learned following my engineering days: spread sheets, brochures, lists of benefits, sales presentations, while needed and important, don’t sell. Relationships sell. A college professor once told me to “slow down and smell the roses.” My message to salespeople is “slow down and build strategic personal professional relationships.”
Gary Moore is a 40-plus year veteran of the material handling industry. In 1997-1998 Gary served as President of MHEDA. For more than 25 years, Gary has been a frequent author, consultant and speaker serving the material handling industry. He is the author of Objective Based Selling, a material handling industry specific sales book, also available on the MHEDA website.