Finding the Missing Link in Sales

Red-blooded competition is one thing, but there's no beating business relationships that evolve from a human connection

By Michelle Nichols

Corporate sales training has come a long way from a slap on the back and a "Go get 'em , Tiger." I was lucky -- in my first sales class twentysomething years ago, we spent two weeks learning the basic steps: how best to present a product's features, functions, and benefits and the right way to compare your wares with those of competitors. Fortunate as I was to receive such a thorough grounding, I now see that my education fell far short of what true success demands.

Since then, I have come to appreciate that, while knowing the details of my products is essential, the tremendous power of relationships is even more important. Creating and maintaining genuine connections with your customers can be the difference between working in sales and being a sales phenomenon.


  In my previous column (see BW Online, 4/18/03, "The Seven Deadly Myths of Selling"), I promised to share a better way to sell in today's tough economic environment. Here it is: Selling is not a competition, it's a connection. Rather than putting the competitive instinct in overdrive, devote your energies to making connections with customers, their co-workers, the people in your own organization, and beyond. This strategy will not only increase sales and profits, it will speed up the sales cycle. Oh, and here is another important gain: Connections make the business of selling more fun, too.

I hate to sound sexist, but most women are natural connectors, while many men make the mistake of leaning toward the "rugged individualist" style of selling. It's one reason why women so often make great salespeople: We invented networking! But don't despair, guys. If you're not selling by using your connecting skills, read on and learn how. Male or female, there's always room to take your connecting abilities up a notch. Here are five ways to better connect with customers.

First Things First. At the beginning of the sales cycle, unless you plan to compete only on price, you must establish a human tie. The people connection must precede the business link. Too many salespeople, especially those new to the profession, want to rush right into discussing the specifications, financing, or advantages of their wares. Seasoned professionals know better. They establish the connection first -- personal, professional, or both -- before the sales conversation moves on to the details and the close.

Persistence Pays. Recently, I spoke with the owner of a large bakery. For eight years, she built the connections to win a large, local stadium's bread-supply contract. Yes, it was a long haul, but she just hung in there, connecting with the buyer and his associates by sharing meals, playing golf, and generally keeping in touch. Eventually, she got what she had worked for. The key ingredient of her eventual triumph: She didn't wear resistance down, she built connections up!

Spread the Joy. After closing the first sale with a new client, keep connecting, because it's the key to long-term sales profits. With the high cost of attracting and winning new business these days, chances are there will be little profit on the first sale to a new customer The good news is that long-term, repeat business promises plenty of opportunities to boost the bottom line. I call this the "sweet spot" of selling. Let your competitors churn and burn their customers. Invest your time and effort in keeping existing clients happy and, if at all possible, making them even moreso.

When I was addressing this topic recently, a member of the audience chimed in that he had tried Internet banking but was ready to go back to a bricks-and-mortar outfit. He just didn't feel any connection. Obviously, whatever its other advantages, his online bank couldn't offer what he valued most: the human connection.

The Whoops Factor. Sell long enough, and you're going to make a mistake or two -- even with your best and most valuable customers. When this happens, you need to reconnect. No matter whether you pick up the phone, visit in person, or have the president of your company make the connection, do whatever you think is slightly more than necessary. A few minutes of connecting might prevent the loss of a multimillion dollar customer -- and maybe all his or her friends' future business, too.

Making a Daisy Chain. Last but not least, leverage relationships to connect with your customer's connections. This is the path to a referral-based business, the ultimate goal in selling. It won't happen all by itself, mind you. It takes a solid history of connecting with clients. Not only are referred customers easier to close, the mutual friends and contacts you share make them the most enjoyable to work with.

Many years back, I lost a big sale because I didn't have a good connection with my prospective customer. I learned the hard way the truth of this piece of selling wisdom: "When two people want to do business together, the details won't hold them apart. When two people don't want to do business together, the details won't hold the deal together." Learn from my mistake. Look for connections, develop them, expand and leverage them. Most of all, as you close more sales, enjoy them. Happy Selling!

Michelle Nichols is a sales speaker, trainer, and consultant based in Houston, Tex. She welcomes your questions and comments. You can visit her web site at or contact her at