The relationship myth

Most who know me would not call me a cold, heartless, task-driven S.O.B. In fact, I always end up solidly in the “amiable” quadrant on those personality tests. So what I’m about to say goes against my very constitution.

It’s time to kill the notion that, “Sales is all about relationships.”

In a survey that my company conducts with sales organizations, we ask salespeople to complete the following sentence with the first three things that come to their minds: “In order for me to succeed in sales I have to ____________.” Over 90 percent of the answers include “build relationships.”

Relationship hunger: “Do you like me?”

It’s an idea as old as selling itself, and “relationship selling” is probably the single most widespread philosophy in sales.

There’s a huge problem with that thinking. Too often, “building relationships” has evolved to mean “building rapport,” “creating friendships” or, worst of all, “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.

It’s good to be liked. If you’re not likeable, you’ll struggle in almost any profession, especially sales.

Yet, because the vast majority of salespeople have it in their minds that, “sales is all about relationships,” they will conduct their interactions accordingly—usually with negative consequences. Here are six.

  • It’s a cold-call killer. Salespeople feel the need to “establish rapport” on cold phone calls. Does, “How are you” ring a bell? It’s the worst possible way to open a cold call – yet it’s also the most common. Why? Salespeople are trying to make nice with the prospect.
  • It pegs you as “a salesperson.” And – regrettably but undeniably – the world doesn’t trust salespeople. “Hey, that’s a great fish on the wall; are you a fisherman?” Yes, this is still a regular occurrence. Why? Gotta make a personal connection with this guy!
  • It stretches out the sales cycle while the salesperson “cultivates his relationship” with the contact.
  • It leads to over-commitment of resources – big time. I say this a lot: The sales profession’s dirtiest little secret is the staggering amounts of time and resources spent pursuing and supporting business with virtually no chance of return. Why? Salespeople live in fear of appearing unresponsive to customers because doing so will hurt the relationship.
  • It blocks information flow. Too many salespeople are remarkably willing to work in an information vacuum – starting with, they have almost no information on their likelihood of winning and making money! That’s one big reason so many salespeople spend so much time and energy on dead-end prospects. If the customer is someone they have a relationship with, they’re afraid to ask too many questions about the viability of the opportunity because they’re afraid the contact will think they don’t trust the contact’s intentions. And if the contact is someone the salesperson doesn’t know, they’re afraid of alienating the person by asking such questions.
  • It hinders our movement within an account. Salespeople can get real comfortable real fast with one contact. This makes it hard to pursue other contacts inside the account – again, for fear of sending the wrong message to the contact you’ve built your relationship with.

You build trust and confidence with customers by developing a personal track record of doing a good job over and over again for that customer: demonstrated credibility, proven performance; earned trust. These are relationships that translate into profitable revenue.

Relationship? Or master and servant?

Dave learned the relationship lesson early in his career. While meeting with a contact with whom Dave was sure he had a good, business peer relationship, the contact took a phone call. Listening to the man, Dave could tell the caller was the contact’s college-age daughter.

“No, I’m just meeting with a sales guy,” the man said into his telephone. Dave knew then what the daughter’s question was: “Hi dad, are you busy?”

That was Dave’s personal “sales-isn’t-all-about-relationships” epiphany. “I realized that I didn’t have relationships,” he told me. “I had master/servant business friendships.”

From that day forward, he changed his approach. His very first step? Dropping the age-old ritual that only reinforces the master/servant relationship. Dave stopped thanking customers for their time and gushing on about how busy they must be.

Today, Dave is VP of sales for a large Milwaukee-based company. He says that, painful as it was, listening in on that phone call was the most important lesson in his career.

He learned it well.

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