The Friend Zone: Boosting Sales by Focusing on Relationships

Take your sales relationships to a new level by treating customers more like friends.
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A traditional sales approach won't work with today's consumers. Instead, build friendly relationships to keep customers around. (Photo: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock)

The world of sales has changed. Instead of fighting for attention and interjecting themselves into consumers’ lives, brands must learn how to build relationships — even friendships — if they want to win sales.

According to David Meerman Scott, sales and marketing strategist and author of “The New Rules of Marketing & PR,” the best way to facilitate more sales is to interact with your customers the same way you would help a friend solve a problem.

So how can small business owners move from a traditional sales approach and get into the “friend zone” with their customers? Scott shared these four tips for reorienting your sales strategy to focus on behaving like a friend to your customers, rather than a salesperson.

Related: Why Every Business Owner is in Sales Whether They Know it or Not

Don’t try to control the conversation

David Meerman Scott

“Today, buyers are in charge of the relationship — and that’s a really big change from even just five or 10 years ago when the seller was in charge of the relationship.” -David Meerman Scott (Photo: David Meerman Scott)

According to Scott, the information age has brought about a major paradigm shift in the buyer-seller dynamic. “Today, buyers are in charge of the relationship — and that’s a really big change from even just five or 10 years ago when the seller was in charge of the relationship,” he said.

The internet has changed the way people shop. Consumers are doing most of their research before ever interacting with a salesperson. To adapt to this new, consumer-driven reality, businesses must change the way they approach the sales relationship: by being a facilitator, rather than controlling the conversation.

Scott used the example of buying a car. In the past, you might be able to learn a little bit about a car from consumer magazines, but getting information on your own was difficult. “Pretty early in that buying process, you had to put yourself at the mercy of the automobile salesperson at the dealership,” he said.

Because the salesperson was the primary source of information, they had more control over the information the consumer received. But today, consumers can easily do their research ahead of time by exploring the manufacturer’s and dealer’s websites and reading online consumer reviews.

Related: Webrooming vs. Showrooming: How Consumers are Pre-Shopping

“In the old days, the salesperson sort of smugly recognized that the buyer had to eventually go through them,” he said. “Whereas today, a well-educated buyer that’s done the research can walk into a dealership and say, ‘OK, here’s the car I want. Here are the features I want. I know you have one on the lot, and here’s what I’m prepared to pay.’”

Adjust to the buyer’s timeline

Consumers now have real-time, instant access to information on virtually any product or service that they might want to buy. To stay in the game, make sure your brand is providing relevant information that buyers can easily find in their exact moment of need.

Just as you’d expect a human friend to respond quickly when you reach out to them with a question or for help with a problem, companies should take that approach as well, said Scott. “Organizations need to be prepared at the precise moment that someone is looking,” he said. “If somebody reaches out to your business, you need to respond to it extremely quickly — like within minutes.”

“If somebody reaches out to your business, you need to respond to it extremely quickly — like within minutes.” -David Meerman Scott

From a sales perspective, companies should not only be highly responsive to customer questions, but also try to preemptively answer them on your website, where customers can get immediate access to the information that can help solve their problem or make a decision, he said. “The more [web content] you have, the better. You don’t know when somebody might be looking for that information. They might be looking at that on a weekend or in the middle of the night.”

Related: How to Create a Powerful FAQ Page for Your Small Business Website

Be flexible in how you communicate

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Learn to be flexible when you communicate with customers — recognize if they prefer to communicate through email and then respect their wishes. (Photo: SFIO CRACHO/Shutterstock)

In addition to providing resources that allow customers to shop on their own schedule, small businesses should also be flexible in the ways they communicate with different buyers, said Scott.

While a salesperson could get away with relying exclusively on the telephone to communicate in the past, that’s no longer the case, he said. “Organizations need to recognize that if their customer prefers to communicate through email, that doesn’t mean that you randomly call them on the phone. It means you respect their wishes and communicate with them through email.”

Related: What Small Businesses Need to Know About Permission Marketing

Scott said he believes the advent of social media is the reason more consumers look for a friendship rather than a traditional sales relationship. “Because social networks really started around the idea of friendship and human engagement, consumers now have the ability to interact with organizations in ways that we never had before. I think that’s really driven this whole concept of selling like a friend.”

Participate, don’t push

Because consumers are doing research and making buying decisions on their own, finding ways to get involved in the buying process is key. By approaching the sales relationship more like a personal friendship, salespeople can have more opportunities to participate in the customer journey, rather than being seen as a nuisance by consumers.

“Today, I think you can be much more participative and friendly if you’re focused around helping the people who might want to buy your product or service,” said Scott. Helping customers solve a problem or better understand the value of products and services like yours is very different than simply hyping up your own brand and pushing only the features that you offer, he said.

To be more participative in the sales process, he suggested creating YouTube videos, having lots of interesting and valuable information on your small business website or keeping a blog with tips that help customers solve their problems — as it relates to your business, of course.

“Ultimately, people want to do business with people that they like and trust,” said Scott. “The more that you can approach people in a way that it’s a pleasure to do business with you and that the [sales] relationship can be something that people look forward to, the better off your organization is going to be.”

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