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  • Writer's pictureMiriam Grobman

Building relationships is key to selling your expertise. Here's how you do it.

Rhonda ran a big IT sales team, selling software licenses and computer equipment until one day she received a new mandate: to start selling IT consulting services. Although both business lines were related to technology, the shift from selling units (products) to selling expertise (services) required a change in mindset.

A product is something tangible. It is easier for clients to understand its benefits relative to other products in the market.

Clients don't need much convincing because they know more or less what they need and are searching for the best deal (often, based on price or list of features).

The role of the salesperson, in this case, is transactional in nature: presenting the product and helping negotiate a deal that is beneficial for both sides.

Services, on the other hand, are not palpable. A client can't see them and has to rely on his or her own imagination to evaluate the offering.

It's hard to compare one service to another without actually experiencing both.

In addition, services promise an outcome in the end but the actual process to get there is nebulous for the client. This creates uncertainty and misunderstanding that the salesperson has to know how to navigate very well.

The role of the salesperson in this type of situation is relational: becoming a trusted guide and educator.

The sales process is twofold. First, the salesperson and client need to reach a mutual understanding about what is actually needed. Then, the salesperson will need to convince the client that the relationship will produce beneficial outcomes.

If you are trying to sell your expertise to internal or external clients, you may be facing a similar challenge of convincing them to buy (in).

Here are three strategies that can help you do this better.

1. Gain trust: Present yourself as a credible professional

2. Get them interested: Create a strong appeal through storytelling

3. Keep them engaged: Build a long-term relationship

Gain Trust: Present yourself as a credible professional

Unless your client or stakeholder has worked with you before, it is impossible for them to differentiate you from the competition or know how good of a job you are going to do.

It is, therefore, important to show them that they can trust you.

Trust is built on emotional and intellectual cues.

Psychology professor, Amy Cuddy, says that 80-90% of first impressions are built upon answering two questions: “What are this person's intentions toward me?” and “How strong and competent is this person?”

On the emotional side, potential clients want to feel like you are someone who cares about them and their problems, rather than a cold-blooded salesperson who wants to take advantage of them.

Actively listening, asking good questions, being responsive and available to discuss, showing empathy, and overall being personable help build this sort of rapport.

On the intellectual side, they want to feel like you are someone who has the know-how and information that they don't have and can quickly help them find a better solution.

It is, therefore, important to prepare in advance by doing research about their business' specifics and preparing relevant insights and examples for whenever technical-nature questions come up.

This also requires actively listening and demonstrating that not only you understand their issues but also you have the most relevant solution for them.

Show them a glimpse of the experience of what it will be like working with you.

While you can’t really sell the outcome (even if you try), you can sell the process to help mitigate some of the emotional and intellectual concerns.

Highlight your unique approach and work style and give examples of previous projects and how they turned out - what worked well and what did not. You can also offer a mini-working session where you spend time together creating a plan of what working together would look like.

Get them interested: Create an emotional appeal through storytelling

People love stories. This is ingrained in us since childhood. We want to root for the hero and fight against the villain. We want to know what happens next and we (generally) expect a happily-ever-after ending. Stories also spark our imagination, allowing us to visualize what an alternative reality may feel like. Stories create an emotional connection and are memorable.

Stories keep people engaged and motivated to listen. Long presentations of large chunks of information not so much.

Why am I telling you this?

Because selling an abstract idea or service requires keeping people engaged long enough for them to pay attention, understand and overcome their emotional resistance to something new and unknown.

Stories are therefore an important tool for you to use whenever you are building a closer relationship with clients and showcasing your expertise. You should look for opportunities to incorporate them into your conversations (whether in person or in writing).

The stories you will share may focus on:

  • What would the client's reality feel like if you solved their problem (a day in the life of a happy and carefree client)?

  • What happens when similar problems are not solved (a day in the life of an unhappy client)?

  • What happened in the past when you solved a similar problem for someone else (problem, challenge, solution, outcomes)?

  • Why are we talking about this? (Once upon a time - an origin story about what causes a problem or what makes a solution relevant)?

For more inspiration about storytelling and how to structure stories, I personally love Dan Pink’s example of Pixar’s pitch from the book To Sell is Human.

Keep them engaged: Build a Long-Term Relationship

Often you won't have time to build credibility in just one meeting.

More importantly, when the service or idea at stake is quite technical or novel, it will take a while for your audience to understand why they need it, what they can do with it, or find the window of opportunity to use it.

The good news is that you can continue feeding the relationship over time.

Sharing more information in small bites can help build a common language with the client (or stakeholder) and create opportunities for discussion whenever they are ready to deepen the relationship.

You should therefore keep in touch through whatever channels that make sense for your client. E-mail, written materials, social media, catch-up calls (phone or virtual), visits, conferences and industry events, are just some examples of interactions where you can continue these conversations over time.

For example (a very meta one!), I keep in touch with many of my past and potential clients through a newsletter. From time to time I also send them articles or reports that I believe will be useful for the leadership challenges that they may be facing. It is a non-invasive way to build a stronger connection, better understand their needs and show them what's on my mind these days.

Finally, remember that repetition helps the message sink in because it allows people to process information more effectively but beware that too much repetition can backfire and negatively affect your credibility.

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