From the September 2001 issue of Entrepreneur

Every entrepreneur knows that the only way to build a business is to build relationships. In fact, many entrepreneurs are relationship masters. They know how to dive into a prospect's world and not only understand where the person is coming from, but also what he or she is trying to accomplish. Because they can see the other person's perspective, they're better able to recommend the right product or service.

Over the past few years, this idea about "relationships" has spawned a variety of sales buzzwords-such as consultative selling, customer-based selling, customer-oriented selling and partnership selling. Whatever you call it, it's all about building rapport, connecting, networking and serving-all worthy, important goals.

The problem is, some entrepreneurs get so caught up in building relationships that they forget to close the sale. It's at the point where some people focus so much on strengthening bonds that they stop asking for the business. They have dinner or play golf with their customers, or they have meeting after meeting-yet they never move forward on the sale.

To determine whether you're in that category, ask yourself some questions: Are you currently working on a large number of accounts? Do you have appointments, meetings, presentations and proposals, but no closings? Is the average sales cycle for your product or service three to six weeks-but you close every three to six months? If so, it may be time to make adjustments in your ratio of relationship-building to closing.

It's a Balancing Act

The solution is, of course, to find a balance. Learn to tell the difference between the sales that won't go forward unless a relationship is nurtured and maintained, and the sales that are better served by getting prospects excited about buying your product or service, then spurring them to reap the benefits immediately.

Often, you have to balance between different types of relationships and sales cycles. You have to attend meetings where your purpose is to find out what the prospect's goals and challenges are and whether you can help. Ask questions like "Where do you see your company five years from now?" and "What do you need to accomplish to reach your goals?" Especially in a large sale, it's important to build the relationship and earn that business.

Have you had meetings where you've already done the needs-analysis and you've already asked those questions? Now your most important task is to close the sale. That's the time to simply ask "Why don't we go ahead with this?"

Granted, there are some accounts that have very long sales cycles, and maintaining a strong relationship over time is crucial. But when everyone's gathered all the pertinent information and the criteria have been evaluated, there's nowhere else to go but toward the closing. That's when you go for it.

Of course, there really isn't a perfect time to ask for the order. Sometimes, you just have to take that leap. Even if the prospect brings up an objection, that just gives you the opportunity to handle it immediately, relieve his or her concerns, and then go for the close again.

Obviously, the better the relationship you have with a customer, the easier it will be to seal the deal. Just don't get so involved in making friends that you forget to make the sale.