Sales: Rethinking sales relationships

From time to time, my perspective on an issue is viewed as sales heresy. This is one of those times: I cringe every time I hear someone say, “Selling is all about building relationships.”

 Ask any salesperson what selling is about and you’ll get the same answer over 90 percent of the time: relationships!

As a result, my message about the subject is usually misinterpreted as suggesting that relationships are somehow a bad thing. (Actually, in some cases, the wrong kind of relationship can get in the way of advancing a sales campaign. See below.)

Relationships usually equated with being liked

There’s a question my company asks salespeople in an online assessment we’ve been conducting for years. It goes something like this: “How important is it to build personal rapport with contacts?”  The most common selection (of four offered) is, “as go my relationships so goes my success.”  We believe the correct selection is: “I think the value ascribed to building personal rapport in sales is often overestimated.”

This survey question seems to suggest that building relationships is viewed by most salespeople as being synonymous with developing personal rapport … dare I say – being liked. The question also reinforces my own observations from the trenches in that regard: most salespeople seem to equate relationships with basic personal rapport… friendships.

The idea of building relationships is as old as selling itself. “Relationship selling” has evolved as perhaps the most common notion in the world of sales. But evolution has not been kind to the notion. Too often, “building relationships” has evolved to mean “building rapport,”  “creating friendships” or “being liked.”

But having rapport is not the same as having respect. Being a friend is not the same as being a peer. Being liked is not the same as being valued.

Let’s calibrate for a second. I’m not saying that there’s somehow something wrong with being liked. But there is a problem when being liked becomes the end-game of relationship building in sales. And based on almost 20 years of working very closely with thousands of salespeople, that – unfortunately – seems to be the end-game. 

What’s wrong with this limited view of sales relationships? Plenty! 

When salespeople are steered by this personal rapport perception of relationship it can, indeed, have a negative impact on results. Here are a few:

Objectivity in communication and motivations can be lost – in both directions.

The salesperson gets too comfortable with “my contact.” This makes it really hard to pursue other contacts inside the account for fear of sending the wrong message to your contact. To say nothing of what happens when your contact leaves the company or the position.

Our contact with whom we have the great relationship may have too little real political muscle inside his or her company.

We depend too heavily on our relationship as our key differentiator in a buying decision.

Sales campaigns can be protracted as the salesperson works on “cultivating his relationship.”

Too often, the end result of such relationships is getting “last look.” In other words, the opportunity to drop our price to win the business.

Consider also how often salespeople leave Company A to join Company B, assuring Company B’s management that he or she will be bringing countless relationships along.  Alas, it rarely plays out this way in the real world.

Real sales relationships are made of two things

If relationships aren’t just about rapport and friendship what are they about? Value and trust.

First, value. Customers form judgments about the value of the selling company and its solutions based on perceptions they form from their interactions with the selling company’s salespeople. If we come across as being too focused on building rapport we will unwittingly cause the customer to perceive our value – and that of our company – on the low end of the scale.

Second, trust. Many salespeople have cultivated high value relationships by consistently delivering over a long period of time. I know countless who have such relationships. And make no mistake about it, these relationships are valuable…in the quantitative sense of the term…dollars and cents. But remember, these relationships, by definition, take time.

How to build higher value sales relationships

Unfortunately, about the time I get to the point of offering up ways to retool your relationships I run out of space. Even more unfortunate, I often leave people with the misimpression that I place no value on a salesperson’s ability to build rapport with people. 

I believe the subject of the real meaning of this thing called “relationships” is among the most important in the business of selling. It’s a subject that takes time to develop. As a starting point, though, I invite you all to step back and ask yourselves if you might need to work a bit more on causing the customer to value you instead of liking you. 

Here are three tactical starting points to accomplishing that:

  • Don’t thank customers for their time.
  • Try replacing the word “needs” with “business” in your discussions.
  • Avoid words that the customer might associate with “the transaction” (“decision” would be one such word).

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