1. All alignment is about trust.
Customer relationships are really built on one fundamental thing: trust. And it all starts with learning as much as you can about companies and their businesses. My team’s goal is to become trusted advisors for all of our customers and prospective customers. We need to build long-term, sustainable relationships with clients at all levels of a company. As a sales leader, I always want to see where I can help foster those relationships at an executive level, bring value with stories of how other firms leverage our products and solutions, and most importantly, help businesses think about their growth strategies.
Relationships should be complementary. The account executive may develop a relationship with the vice president of sales, the sales manager with the chief operating officer, and the sales executive with the CEO. This allows the full team to create a wider net of deep relationships and trust, and gain the most insight.
It’s also important to create experiences outside of the deal. Last year our team held an event at the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament. The attendees were not necessarily ready to buy the next day; it was an elite experience with executives where we built rapport and alignment. Our return was absolutely phenomenal. Six months later, I could look back and understand the impact of having built those relationships with each company. When the time comes to actually close the deal, customers are more likely to engage with the relationship that has built over time, not just at the finish line.
2. Get executives involved early.
Simply put, creating alignment with executives can’t happen soon enough. Attending events and meeting customers outside of any deals are opportunities to build deep, mutually beneficial relationships. The individuals you meet can call you when they need you, and you can do the same.
In my last role, as a regional vice president, we were working on a large financial services deal, and I was pregnant with my third son at the time. We started the process early, and I met the company’s COO at an event. Over the coming months, given how much time I spent with this individual, we would joke that I would name the baby after her if it was a girl. She’s actually a very good friend now. But it goes to show that the personal relationship can become just as important as the actual sale.
3. Go wide and encourage coaching.
More and more stakeholders (even in small businesses) are involved in purchasing decisions, and this is where alignment is critical to reaching your sales goals. My advice is to always go as wide as possible. It's never enough to have a relationship with one person. By meeting more stakeholders, you significantly increase the opportunity for deeper discovery and understanding of the customer’s business. More discovery means better insights into the business, allowing you to assess who the true decision-makers are and ultimately closing larger transactions.
An added benefit of getting leadership involved in accounts and relationships is coaching and talent development. On my teams, we encourage account executives to own relationships, but also to have managers included in many of these conversations for real-time feedback after a meeting. This provides an opportunity for instant coaching instead of delayed feedback, which can get diluted. By doing this, you can continuously help sellers develop their skills and advance in their careers.
4. Balance monthly numbers and relationship strategy.
While building trusted advisor relationships is a key to success, the fact is that we all still have to hit numbers. That’s why it’s important to use technology extensively (in my case, the Salesforce platform) and really understand what the pipeline looks like. If you have an account executive only focused on long-term strategic deals, achieving monthly targets is challenging, and that person probably will miss his or her annual targets.
An annual account-planning exercise, especially for technology sales, is key. It’s really a combination of understanding where our business is headed, goals for the fiscal year, and the conversations with the customers. With the account plan in hand, you can perform a health check and review with your customers. Understand the answers to the following questions: "Where do they need help from us?” “What technology have they not deployed?” “Where are they struggling?”
From there it’s all about building a roadmap. Customers are not going to buy everything from you on day one. But if you understand where they are on that roadmap, both as a business and from a technology perspective, you can then deploy the resources needed for evaluation, build the business case, and create a joint plan with the customer for each initiative to understand the milestones and ultimately get to closure.
“Customer relationships are really built on one fundamental thing: trust.”