We live in an increasingly fast-paced world. Whether in our private lives or our professional environment, everything is accelerating. It is becoming harder and harder to take the time to do things. For example, to take the time to develop a relationship with a lead over the long-term without seeking at all costs to sell them a product or service from the very first contact. Very often, the most interesting deals take time to settle down. Sales people working on big deals with major accounts know this. You have to know how to show patience and tenacity. The majority of sales people favour deals with rapid closing and tend to look unfavourably on long-term relationships. Why? Well, because they are more difficult to construct. Creating a long-lasting relationship can take time and it demands real and sustained effort. Sales people, under the pressure of their targets, have less and less time to create a real personalised relationship with a client, to create an environment in which the client will feel valued and not like just another name on a list of leads.
Todd Lenhart, Principal at the Shapiro Negotiations Institute of Baltimore , an American sales training institute, has written a very interesting article about this relational question on the Sales Hacker blog. In his opinion, whether you’re a simple field sales person or a high-level business manager dealing with major clients all over the world, fostering client relationships over time is an essential lever for sales performance. So here is what he presents as the four pillars of a successful long-term client relationship:
1) Bond with the client
The ability to create a bond between yourself and another person is an essential point for building an enriching long-term relationship for the business. But this bond has to be real if the relationship is to last. It’s pointless to pretend. The majority of sales people have a natural reflex to try to get closer to the people they come across in the office, at trade shows, and in other types of professional environments. But, in the majority of cases, they lack the necessary levers to create a real profitable relationship.
Interests. Interests (professional, cultural, sports, leisure, etc.) allow you to find common ground with anther individual. Talking to a new contact about this type of subject will enable your first appointment to start in a conversational tone rather than coming across as a sales pitch. Starting with your contact’s interests, you will create a bond, a feeling of complicity, which will then let you find out more about their requirements and goals. This is an important stage for evaluating the situation and envisaging different negotiation opportunities for the next sale.
Non-verbal language. A good sales person should know a few basics of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) so as to be able to identify anchoring points, physical manifestations of interest on the part of their contact, to decipher their feelings in a conversation. We should always bear in mind that, in an exchange between two people, 80% of information is communicated via non-verbal language: gestures, eye movements, mimicking, breathing, a posture, etc. So you need to know how to simultaneously spot the signals being sent by the person in front of you but also, in order to convince them, how to exercise some control over your own gestures and your own body language thereby avoiding the communication of bad information to your contact.
Creating a bond means finding a balance between two people. This requires an exchange that is beneficial to both parties and not a one-way communication, as is often the case in a sales appointment.
2) Create a win/win situation
This is an essential point. In order to develop a sustainable and constructive relationship with a client, it needs to be profitable for both parties. It may seem clichéd, but when you successfully create a win/win situation with your client, you are going to be able to meet your goals while enabling the client to achieve theirs. The idea is to find a mutually satisfactory agreement. A win/win situation can create a positive interaction and enable you to construct mutual trust, two essential factors for a successful long-term client relationship.
Generally speaking, sales persons are always seeking to win their deals and to do so as quickly as possible. In doing so, they end up creating a feeling of imbalance with their contact who feels that the situation is win/lose to their detriment. This can very often lead to resentment on the part of the buyer, who may feel that their hand has been forced or that they were not told everything when they signed.
Acting in this way compromises future sales with the same client and makes a long-term relationship hard to imagine. It is therefore essential that the sales persons do not concentrate solely on satisfying their own interests in the negotiation, but that they also ensure that those of their clients are satisfied. We should never jeopardize the future.
For a good sales person, the best way of obtaining what they want from their client consists of also helping them obtain what they are looking to gain from the transaction. The client must thus be considered as a partner to be satisfied and not as an adversary to be defeated.
3) Maintain an ongoing dialogue with the client, even outside the sales phase
A constructive client relationship must be active over time, not just when the sales person has something to sell to the client or a contract to renew. Maintaining contact with your client, calling them up from time to time to ask about their situation lets you show them a real interest and lay the foundations for future contracts. The client will feel valued and not just a client among so many others.
As the proverb says : “small streams make big rivers”. Little gestures will not take much time, but their effects could prove broadly beneficial for the sales person for future contracts. Developing a genuinely friendly relationship with a client contact will enable you to transform them into an ambassador able to sway their management during future negotiations and forthcoming contract renewals. Or at least to ensure that genuine attention is paid during the next sales phase.
4) Manage your time: the 80/20 rule
Long-term client relationships help you to consolidate your client portfolio. But, in this type of relationship, you must prioritise approaches depending on the potential of each of your clients. You need to bear in mind the famous rule according to which 20% of your clients will bring you 80% of your sales.
All clients are not created equal. When we focus on putting constructive relationships in place with clients, we should not forget to select those that actually justify these efforts. Emphasise those that have the potential to generate the most significant sales for you. Trying to satisfy all your clients at the same time does not make sense and will turn out to be exhausting, inefficient and, above all, impossible.
You have to remain realistic. Another proverb is “time is money”. When it comes to managing your time, nothing could be truer. Put your time to good use. Choose your level of effort according to the expected result. Long-term client relationships are indeed important but you should never lose sight of their goal: to maximise sales.