I’ve grown weary of how often things are pronounced dead in the sales profession by practitioners and consultants alike.
A Tour of the Selling Cemetery
You know what I mean, right? Here is a partial list of things that I’ve heard pronounced dead.
- Relationship selling
- Cold calling
- Field sales
- Transactional selling
- Traditional selling
- Solution selling
- FAB selling
Some of these have been dead as far back as 2011 or perhaps earlier. More recently, I’ve seen, “Selling is Dead,” apparently to be entirely replaced by AI, ecommerce or robotics You can read this post about a more balanced perspective on the implications for B2B selling in the age of artificial intelligence.
Some of these pronouncements are simply clickbait, designed to lure you to read content where the author often redefines or modernizes the very thing they declared dead. While I’m not a fan of clickbait marketing, I understand and respect the content in many of these articles, once I get to it.
While I don’t think most of these things are anywhere close to dead, many do need to be modernized or used appropriately and put into context for today’s B2B selling environment. Closing, for example, still needs to happen. But today it’s a matter of reviewing accepted information, such as the buying process exit criteria, and gaining commitment for your recommended and logical next step, whether that’s an interim step or a purchase decision. This is in contrast to the manipulative sales closes from days gone by.
Other authors’ pronouncements are dead serious (pun intended). They believe the offending methodology to be completely outdated or rendered useless, and conveniently are often selling an alternative.
SIDEBAR: For fairness and full disclosure, I’m self-aware enough that I do see myself partly in this group. For example, I don’t believe that seller-centric selling is dead not by a long shot, sadly, but I do believe it should end and be replaced with buyer-centric selling.
Relationship Selling’s Demise: Fact or Fiction?
Back to relationship selling.
The first time I saw relationship selling pronounced dead was over ten years ago, to be replaced by insight selling. An article published in the Harvard Business Review titled, “Selling is Not About Relationships,” created quite a stir at the time because for years, sales pundits, gurus and trainers had been touting that relationships were everything, and that people buy from people they know, like and trust. Rapport building was actively taught, and trainers were full of advice about how to win friends and influence people.
When I worked at GE Capital on the commercial excellence team in equipment finance, I remember hearing multiple stories about how 30-year GE account managers (AMs) were so close with their dealership customers, that the AMs had been invited to the weddings of the dealership owners’ children. (Wow, right?)
Relationships were everything in selling across those 30+ years. Yet, by 2014, the leadership team of at least one division of equipment finance was concerned. Those 30-year account managers were nearing retirement, as were their customers, the dealership owners.
GE was already feeling the effects in some cases, where ownership was passed down to family members who did not have the extreme loyalty nor the depth of relationship with GE staff as their predecessors. An attitude of, “Yes, but what have you done for me lately” was emerging from the younger generation. And in several cases, was voiced to shocked account managers.
This occurred just three years after the researchers from the CEB had studied thousands of sellers and recommended new methodologies that superseded relationships. Was relationship selling finally dead? Was the importance of relationships truly fading?
A New Relationship Schema Emerges
As is often the case, either/or and black and white thinking are recognized as logical fallacies and poor critical thinking. The overly enthusiastic pendulum of change often swings too far in the opposite direction. Or, as I’m fond of saying:
- Almost everything in life is a bell curve or a sliding scale.
- Context reigns supreme.
- The concept of “Yes, and” is often more accurate than “either/or.”
Yes, things were changing and it’s problematic to ignore that. Relationships remained important but were no longer sufficient. They didn’t carry the same momentum they once had.
Buyers were feeling economic and budgetary pressures, stakes were higher, companies faced an increasing amount of more complex, adaptive versus technical challenges, without clear, easy resolutions. Solutions were also becoming more complex and expensive, the size of buying committees was increasing, and more senior executives were involved in these complex decisions.
Plus, there was now so much information available on the Internet, that sellers no longer held information that buyers couldn’t find on their own. Buyers wanted insights, perspective, expertise, experience and thoughtful guidance. As a client once said to me, “Mike, you’ve been through this with other clients, and we need you to help us ‘see around corners’ to avoid problems, reduce risk and get the results we want.”
In the wake of these changes, the effectiveness of relationship selling as a primary strategy waned. But at the same time, this did not minimize the importance of purposeful relationship building.
Working in sales effectiveness roles throughout this time and having had the experience of developing and implementing a commercial course on insight selling in the midst of it, I began to form my own opinions, based on experience.
5 Observations of Relationships in Modern Selling
How you define “relationship” matters a great deal. Relationship building may still include activities such as golf, sporting events, dinners and even delivering donuts, but the true bond should be based on a foundation of:
- Earned trust
- Believability and credibility
- Integrity and authenticity
- Acting in your buyers’ best interests
- Demonstrating goodwill
- Consistent behavior
- Responsiveness to needs
- Empathy and concern for others
- Listening to understand
- Doing what you say you will
By the way, if any of this sounds like Servant Leadership to you, you’re right. While neither the above nor this graphic are an inclusive list, these relational elements are what I’ve often referred to as the human differentiators:
The human differentiators are a great foundation. Once that solid foundation is built, there are five other observations to consider.
1. How your buyers and customers define relationship and the type they want is what matters most.
Understanding your buyers’ COIN-OP (Challenges, Opportunities, Impacts, Needs, Outcomes and Priorities) is a great start, as is ensuring need and solution alignment. Even more powerful is the management of individual buying process exit criteria for the decision makers. All of these items support building a trusting relationship. But even these won’t tell you what your buyer wants in a supplier/partner. Ask! Acknowledge. Clarify. Confirm. Not all sellers will do this. This alone can differentiate you. Then execute on what you learn.
2. When all else is equal, the best relationship wins.
The above behaviors and the relationships you build, while no longer sufficient by themselves, still can be a key differentiator. Whether or not this can overcompensate for a less competitive solution depends on the wiring and personality of the decision makers and other situational factors. Some buyers will still choose to work with someone they know, like, and trust even if they don’t have the very best solution, but this is not a guarantee.
3. People make decisions emotionally and justify them with logic.
People look for trustworthy, credible, believable sources of information. Aristotle’s rhetoric of Ethos (earn credibility), Pathos (make an emotional appeal), and Logos (justify it with logic) still works. In fact, while it’s not always called out as such, it’s included in many versions of insight selling, including Challenger. Remember that technology and science advance rapidly, but the human brain and behavior evolve far slower.
4. Relationships between people include both professional and personal aspects.
This applies to you and the others at your company or partners with whom your buyers will work. Knowing your buyers’ and customers’ value drivers is important. These include business needs, such as financial and operational key performance indicators (KPIs) and critical success factors, experiential goals, aspirational plans and personal needs and motivators. Remember, customer experience extends beyond the relationship just with sellers. A horrible customer experience with delivery, implementation or service can spoil everything that a seller worked so hard to build. Being buyer- and customer-centric must be a company-wide endeavor.
5. Buyers and customers can have a relationship with your company too.
Your company is your brand. This is why branding is still important, and possibly even with your solutions, about which they may have strong positive or negative feelings, based on experience. Yes, the true relationships are with people, but don’t discount the ability of branding to evoke emotions and feelings or the power of brand and product loyalty. I know it’s not a B2B example, but I always think of my dad’s intense loyalty to Craftsman® tools. “It doesn’t matter whether you used the screwdriver as a crowbar,” he’d say to me, “If you break it, they’ll replace it.” Branding matters. Don’t forget this.
Consultative Relationships Are Not Always Frictionless
Those are some strong concepts and foundations, aren’t they? While the concept of relationships compared to selling has evolved, relationship building still is important. And whether or not you’re invited to weddings, or spend time on a golf course, or watch the game from a luxury skybox, it’s impossible to be a trusted advisor without trust.
In addition to honing interpersonal skills, sellers must be able to bring insights, data, experience and expertise to the table to solve problems or enable outcomes better than the competition. And they must possess the business acumen to be able to co-create and communicate value in relevant ways for the key decision makers.
These relationships will not always be frictionless, though.
One of our partners at SPARXiQ, the Objective Management Group, has been assessing salespeople for over 30 years and researching what separates the elite performers from the rest. In an interesting twist, they consider “the desire to be liked” to be a self-limiting belief. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but think of it this way: If you need to be liked, versus respected, what’s the chance you will:
- Challenge a buyer or customer’s point of view?
- Deliver bad news about their current state, their current thinking, or their well-liked future plans?
- Nudge them to do something that is in their best interest, when they hem and haw, indecisively, afraid to take decisive action?
Balance is the Key
To truly be consultative, you occasionally may need to do these things. Now, hopefully it’s obvious that how you say things is often as important as what you say. In these moments, the advice from above especially the human differentiators is golden. But you must say them with integrity, authenticity and transparency. Handled well, these moments should build your trusting relationship, not destroy it.
Is this more complex than the enthusiastic back-patting, rapport building, and relationship selling of the past? Yes. It is equally (or more) powerful, when done well? Yes, again.
Demonstrate that you care. Listen deeply and respond accordingly. Strive to understand better than others. Do what you say you will when you said you would. Speak the truth, with helpful intentions. Operate in your buyers’ and customers’ best interests. Deliver value, in their eyes. This is the balance your sellers must find. And this is how relationships still fit in modern selling, in 2023 and beyond.
Relationship selling may be dead, but relationships in selling are alive and well.
Well, that’s it for this post. If it helps you in any way on your journey toward improved sales effectiveness, please feel free to let me know. I’d enjoy hearing about your successes.
1 thought on “Relationship Selling May Be Dead, But Relationships in Selling Are Not”
Thank you for this wonderful reminder of what’s important in the business of selling.
I think that too many people who purport to be sales people never realize that relationship building is the most important factor in the game.