Scene: You are at your friend’s daughter’s wedding, sitting next to someone you’ve never met before. You carry on a conversation over the course of the evening, and during that time he shares much information about his business. It becomes clear to both of you that this person could really use your professional help; he really should be your customer. At one point he says, “So how can you help me? Can we do some work together?”
In essence, he has asked, “let’s talk about us.“
The Relationship Conversation
“Let’s talk about us.”
In dating relationships, this statement is often seen as either a welcome opportunity to move a relationship forward or as a frightening ultimatum for someone who is not ready to commit. When a prospective customer says it to you, it’s definitely a welcome opportunity.
I refer to this as a “relationship conversation,” when a sales conversation evolves to the point where you and the prospect can start discussing how you can work together. Transitioning to a relationship conversation is a necessary part of the sales process. As noted above, it’s most effective when your prospect brings up the idea of working together. But what if a person who “should” be your customer doesn’t bring up the relationship conversation? How can you do it?
Leading your customer to the “brink of the relationship”
Ideally, if you’ve been ditching the pitch and conducting an effective sales conversation with your prospect, in which most of the focus has been on his business and not on what you want to sell, this prospect should be having thoughts about working with you, even if he hasn’t mentioned it. If this is true, your role in bringing up a relationship conversation is to “confirm” something he is already thinking.
What is it he is already thinking? Well, if he is thinking about working with you, you can rest assured that he is not thinking about the depth of your product line or that you’ve “been in business since 1987,” i.e., the kind of things that are (unfortunately) found on company websites or in company brochures. No, he is not thinking about you. He is thinking about how he could benefit by working with you.
Therefore, if you introduce a relationship conversation, you will most likely be successful if you frame the idea of a relationship in terms of how it could benefit him. You want to avoid (like the plague) anything that seems self-serving to you, such as the old sales stand-by, “I will do anything to earn your business.” Why does he care that you really want his business? He cares only about how he will benefit by doing business with you.
Lead into the relationship conversation by focusing his attention on an improved future state that would occur if you worked together:
“Nick, you’ve told me that you would have much stronger sales in your retail stores if your employees did a better job stocking and organizing the shelves, so customers could find the products they want. Imagine walking into one of your stores, six months from now, and the shelves looked great. What would be different about that store’s sales performance?”
I call this technique “bringing the future forward.” By helping Nick envision a time in the future where his problem is fixed, you are helping him feel, in a tangible way, how valuable it would be to him to fix his problem. Most likely, Nick will answer you by saying something to the effect of:
“I’m convinced that this problem is costing us 5-10% in sales, so I think that the store would be doing at least 5% better. That’s enough to make a significant difference at the bottom line, since the last 5% we sell in a store is very profitable.”
Now, you can introduce the idea of a working relationship by showing him how you can help him realize this improved future state:
“Nick, with the right type of training program that includes ongoing reinforcement and reminders, your employees could be doing the things you want them to do, in a much shorter time-frame than six months. I can help you make that happen. Can we discuss how I could do that for you?
Note the use of the “one-paragraph rule,” and that you avoid “loading the slingshot” by bombarding Nick with too many details about your ideas for helping him. This is a delicate part of your sales conversation, and it is critical that you continue to ditch the pitch. Don’t start pitching now!
But what if the customer resists your attempt at a relationship conversation?
Then maybe it’s best to cut your losses and stop trying to pursue this customer.
Not everyone can be your customer. Not everyone should be your customer. Your challenge, if this happens, is to determine if there is still a chance (that is worth pursuing) to create a relationship with this customer or if you should move on to your next opportunity.
Relationship conversations – the critical step between “getting to know you” and “where do I sign?”