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Eight powerful rules for relationship building

by Dave Kahle

Dave Kahle

Distributor sales reps must be good at relationship building. If you are very good, your relationships can provide you with a competitive edge over your competitors.

by Dave Kahle

Imagine this. You walk into an appointment with one of your largest customers. The receptionist greets you by your first name and asks about your family. The main decision-maker calls you in, while one of your competitors sits in the waiting room. You visit together for about an hour, during which time he shares information about new items coming up on the budget, and suggests you see one of the department managers who is having a problem.

You discuss a new product line your company recently acquired, and he indicates that the prospects are good for them to use it. He suggests price levels that would make your new product line attractive to the account.

While you are in his office, he calls and makes two appointments for you, one with the department head, the other with the main decision-maker for the new product line.

You decide to go to lunch together. As you walk out, you see the competitor salesperson is gone. Over lunch, you don't mention business, but just talk about personal things. You genuinely enjoy each other's company.

That's what the fruit of powerful relationship building look like.

Your skillful relationship building has earned your customer's comfortable preference. That's your competitive edge. When everything else is equal, you get the business. In a world where the distinctions between your company and your competitors are growing less clear to your customer, your relationship may be your only real competitive edge.

But what about the Internet? Won't e-commerce eliminate the need for a personal relationship with a salesperson?

No one knows the answer to that one. Certainly the picture will be clearer 10 years from now. The pressures on time will drive a certain percentage of the market to greater reliance on a relationship with a good company and a dedicated salesperson. It is just less hassle and takes less time to deal with a well-trained, professional salesperson than it does to attempt to buy from a vague entity online. As long as you make yourself valuable to the customer by providing good information, application insights and valuable services - and do all this is a fashion that eases his/her time constraints - you will be a valuable part of the purchasing equation.

If, however, you continue to do business the way it was done a few years ago, you'll be viewed as a cost, not a valuable investment of time for your customer. And you'll be replaced by any one of a variety of substitutes, e-commerce being just one.

So, let's dig into this competency of building relationships by following eight rules for relationship building.

No.1: Give first 
Remember the law of reciprocity? It may be one of the single most powerful laws that govern human behavior for salespeople. The law simply states that people will react toward you the way you first act toward them. For example, if you want good information and honesty from them, you first must bring them good information and deal with them honestly.

In every meeting with a customer, try to bring something of value. It can be an idea, like what someone else is doing with a product or service you offer. It can be a story about a new product, or a new program. It can be something you read in an industry journal, or a clipping from a trade journal that has an idea your customer can use. The important thing is to try, at every meeting, to bring something of value.

As you consistently do this, a couple of things happen. First, your customers begin to see you as someone other than just a salesperson. Rather, they see you as a valuable associate who understands their business and has their best interests in mind.

Next, they begin to look forward to your visits. After a while, they'll take your calls graciously, and try to make time to see you. Additionally, when you give first, it creates a subconscious debt on their part. After a while, they feel like they have to return the gift with a piece of business or competitive information from which you can benefit.

No. 2: Avoid failure
My father was a salesperson for a distributor. I remember, as a child, spending the day with him. I clearly remember talking to him after one of his sales calls. He said, "Your enemies don't buy from you." 

What a simple observation. But what profound implications. Making enemies is failure for a distributor salesperson. You make enemies and fail by destroying the relationship. Don't get thrown out of the account. Don't aggravate people to the point where you make them an enemy. Don't be so strong and so pushy that you make an enemy. Enemies won't buy from you. Avoid failure.

I learned about avoiding failure by failing. At one point in my career, I sold surgical staplers. At the time, this was a new concept for surgeons, and it had to be sold in a novel way. Our first task was to sell ourselves into the hospital operating room suite, and then into the surgeons' lounge. There, we changed out of our street clothes and into surgical greens. We hung around the surgeons' lounge, drinking coffee and waiting for the right surgeons to come in. When one would come in to change clothes and get ready for surgery, we would approach him and demonstrate the staplers. Then we'd say "Now doctor, if you would like to try this, I'd be happy to scrub your next case with you."

And we did. We took part on the surgical team, standing right next to the surgeon -- gowned and gloved and scrubbed like the others. At that point, we had an opportunity to sell our equipment.

My lesson came when I was a little too aggressive in one hospital. The chief of surgery said to the OR supervisor, "Get him out of here." I left and was not welcome back there because I made an enemy. I failed.

I learned that I must keep the door open no matter what. The long-term relationship is always more important than the short-term sale. No single deal is worth jeopardizing the relationship.

No. 3: Develop trust
See people only when you have something worthwhile to see them about. Distributor salespeople often get caught up in the activity and regularity of sales calls. For example, you may see a certain customer every Tuesday at 10 a.m., not because it's smart, but because it's habit. The temptation is to mindlessly go through the motions.

To overcome this tendency, have a reason to see each person each time. Make sure you have something worthwhile to talk about. If you don't, then don't see them. Bring something worthwhile every time so you build up trust. After a while, they'll come to know that you will not waste their time. Respect their time, and they'll respect you.

No. 4: Reduce the risk of every decision
The biggest issue in the minds of your customers and prospects is risk. Whenever you present them with a decision to make, the biggest thing they're thinking about, subconsciously, is risk. It's not just the money; it's the social, psychological and emotional cost that is also at risk.

In order to see this issue from your customers' perspective, you need to calculate the amount of risk that you expect your customers to accept when you offer them an opportunity to say yes to you. You can then work to reduce that risk. The lower the risk of the decision, the more likely your customer will say yes.

Here's a simple exercise to help you understand this concept. Draw a short vertical line. At the top of the line write the number 25. At the bottom, write the number zero. Now on a scale of 0 to 25, where would you put the risk of buying a package of disposable cups? Most people would respond it's close to zero. So, place an X on the line close to zero, to represent the amount of risk that decision carries.

Here's a situation at the other end of the scale. I have an adoption agency as a client. When a young lady is in a crisis pregnancy, and she's making a decision to keep or place her child up for adoption, how big a risk is that for her?

Most people say it's a 25. It's a lifetime of consequences for at least four people. That's a very high risk. The X would be at the top of the line.

Every decision carries some risk. When you ask your prospects to say yes to you, they accept a certain degree of risk. Each decision carries a different degree of risk.

Imagine a typical prospect. Then think of the typical offer or decision you ask of that person. Now, put yourself in his shoes, and see the situation through his eyes. On the 0 to 25 scale, how much risk does he accept when he says yes to you? 

Here's an easy way of calculating it. Just ask yourself what happens to that individual if you, or your company, mess up.

If the risk to that person is high, then you need to work to reduce that risk. If you want to build relationships in the 21st century economy, look at every time you offer something to your customer and ask, "How do I reduce the risk?"

The winners in the competitive game are people who provide the same product or service at less risk.

No. 5: Be remembered favorably
Try to end every interaction with a customer on a positive note. That generally means with some kind of an agreement. For example, a customer may call with a back-order problem. You say you'll check it out and call back tomorrow. You ask, "Will that be OK?"

When he says "OK," you have reached an agreement and ended the interaction favorably. This constant positive ending is an important factor in building positive relationships.

Here's an example from my personal experience. I recently changed car insurance after 15 years with the same company. I made the decision on the basis of price. Although I was delighted with the service my previous supplier provided, the difference in price finally became more than I could justify.

So I switched my business. Then I called my former agent and told her. In that conversation, she said she appreciated the reason I was switching and could certainly understand. She appreciated me as a customer and asked if there is ever anything she could ever do for me to please call. She then said if there was any way she could facilitate the transfer, please tell her how she could help. Finally, she said that if I ever had a question about insurance to feel free to call her.

You can imagine how I felt. I wish she had reacted angrily, so I wouldn't have felt so bad. But, instead, she ended the interaction favorably. Now I look for my new company to mess up, so I can give my business back to her. That's a great example of ending every exchange favorably.

No. 6: Keep the relationship process moving forward
Your job, and your objective for every meeting, is to move people ever closer in a relationship with you. Once you set your mind on this objective of continually moving people closer and closer to you, you'll find countless ways to do it.

However, if you never crystallize that as an objective, your relationship building will be happenstance rather than directed.

No. 7: Broaden the relationship to include your company
A good relationship with a customer is larger than just you. It's a relationship between companies as well as between people. It's important to have a personal relationship, but it's also important that the other people within your company have a relationship with your customer also. 

Facilitate that broader relationship at every opportunity. Whenever you can arrange it, bring your managers in to see your customers. And do the opposite also. Bring your customers to see your facilities and meet other people within your company. The broader the relationship between your company and your customer, the stronger it is. The more your customers know you, your company, and the other employees within your company, the more comfortable they are with you, and the more likely they are to do business with you.

No. 8: Operate with 100 percent integrity
In my first professional sales position, I learned a powerful lesson: complete honesty is not only morally right, it is also good business. People deal with people they trust. Complete honesty gives people reason to trust you. Lie to a customer, and they'll likely never forget it. But integrity means more than just honesty. Integrity for a salesperson means that you do what you say you're going to do. You don't make promises quickly, you never promise something you're not sure of, you never over-promise, and you continually under-promise.

If you under-promise, you're in the position of always being able to deliver more than what your customer expected. That's a powerful long-term relationship-building strategy.

Integrity means that you never knowingly recommend something to a customer that you know isn't right for him. Remember, the long-term relationship is always more important than the short-term gain from an individual deal. 

Finally, integrity means that you never speak badly about anyone, including your lowliest competitor. It's a funny thing about judging someone; it always tells the person you're speaking to more about you than it does about the person who is the subject of your scrutiny.

Excepted from the book, How to Excel at Distributor Sales-In the New Millennium, by Dave Kahle. For more information, contact The DaCo Corporation, (800) 331-1287, e-mail, or visit

Posted from: Jeff, 9/21/14 at 1:11 PM CDT
I really enjoyed the article presented.

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