As a professional executive and life coach, I am trained in 11 coaching competencies. In working with clients, I have found most of these competencies to be useful metaphors for the relationship selling process.
If you sell solutions to customers with whom you hope to build long-term relationships, consider these "11 Keys to Better Solution-Selling Skills" derived from the International Coach Federation Professional Coaching Core Competencies (PDF, 136kb).
Meet ethical guidelines and professional standards
In any profession I believe it's vital to be true to your own ethical standards and to those of your profession. That means telling the truth (including the truth about your organization's capabilities), avoiding conflicts of interest, treating your customers with respect and dignity, honoring agreements, and maintaining confidentiality.
Establish clear agreements for each interaction you have with a customer
For every meeting, call or other interaction, be sure both you and the customer know what the interaction is about. Seek first to understand and honor the customer's agenda, and then to honor yours. Be clear up front what you hope to get out of the meeting or call.
Establish trust and intimacy with your customer
Build mutual trust and respect with your customer. Demonstrate personal integrity, honesty and sincerity. Show genuine concern for your customer's success, and respect his perceptions and decision style. Keep your promises.
Be fully present for your customer
When talking with your customer, be conscious of where she wants to take the relationship. Come into the meeting with a plan, but be flexible - ready to dance to the customer's tune. Trust your intuition to lead you both to a satisfactory conclusion. When you don't know, be comfortable and honest with that. Keep the tone light but business-like, and don't be afraid to have fun.
Go into each interaction with a customer determined to listen 80 percent of the time and talk only 20 percent of the time. It's about the customer - her concerns, needs and wants - not about you or your organization. She won't care what you know until she knows that you care. Listening actively is a great way to show you care. Focus on what she is saying and on what she is not saying. Pay attention to body language. Summarize, paraphrase and reflect back to the customer, to help her see that you have understood. Allow her to vent when she needs to. And don't be afraid of silence when she is thinking.
Think you can't sell if you don't talk, talk, talk? One of my clients recently made his biggest sale ever when he spent almost the entire meeting carefully listening to his customer. In the end, the customer sold himself! Try it and let me know how it goes.
Ask powerful questions
Approach each customer interaction with wonder and curiosity. Ask open-ended questions that will reveal information, challenge customer assumptions, and help the customer look toward a solution. If you listen 80 percent of the time and talk 20 percent of the time, let questions make up 80 percent of your talking time. Note that in a one-hour meeting, you will be listening for 48 minutes, asking questions for another ten minutes and telling for only a couple of minutes!
When it's appropriate to deliver a message to the customer, be clear and articulate. Don't beat around the bush. Use the customer's language to make your message easier to hear.
Help the customer gain awareness
By pulling together all a customer has said, you can help him gain a new awareness of his situation. Ask the customer to distinguish between vital needs and trivial wants. Communicate a broader perspective. (For example, "Many transportation companies are wrestling with just such an issue, Mr. Jones.") And look for ways to acknowledge what the customer has accomplished on his own.
Help the customer design solutions
Rather than pushing your product or service as a solution to her problems, help your customer develop her own solution. Brainstorm alternative solutions and engage the customer in exploring each one. Offer experiments to test the solution that involves your organization. Help the customer find two or three actions she can take right away to improve her situation.
Sometimes this will mean the customer will go elsewhere. But this approach will often build a stronger relationship that will stand you in good stead in the future. Don't believe it? Think about how much you appreciate the merchant who says, "We don't have any in stock now, but let me call my competitor down the street and see if she has one." I, for one, will rush back to that first merchant the next time I need something he might have, because I trust him to take care of me.
Establish a plan to implement the solution
Assuming the customer chooses a solution that involves you and your organization, work together to devise an implementation plan. Set S.M.A.R.T. goals. Identify early wins and plan to achieve them. Monitor implementation and adjust the plan accordingly.
Manage process and results
Once you have sold a solution, remain involved. For the sake of your reputation and possible future business with this customer, you want each project to succeed. And by staying involved, you will be first to hear of new problems or opportunities that might suit your organization's talents. Keep focused on the customer's concerns, follow-through to ensure your organization is delivering as promised, acknowledge the customer's progress, and continue looking for ways to add value.
Try these ideas on for size. Let me know how it works for you!