sales relationships

In spite of all the talk about the death of relationship selling, I find that in today’s complex B2B sales environment, relationships still matter very much. In fact, the more social our world becomes, the more relationships are key to driving success and real, hard business results.

But the critics do have a point – it’s not just about building relationships anymore.

The Death Of Relationship Selling ?

Around fifteen years ago, I spent a significant amount of time working with two professional services sales reps. Both were top sellers inside their firm. Both were highly respected by their colleagues, and in demand by their clients. And both were generating significant amounts of the firm’s revenue.

But both could not have been more different in their approach.

The first rep, let’s call him Josh, was a real relationship builder. Affable, quick-witted and with a genuine desire to help others, Josh managed to forge strong relationships with key executives at virtually every account he visited. He often simply “walked the hallways” of his clients, secured meetings with no agenda at all, no product to sell, no real purpose for the conversation other than to “touch base” – and, more often than not, walked back out with a sizeable sale in his back pocket.

His colleague, let’s call him Fred, was Josh’s polar opposite. Highly analytical, with a real love for facts-and-figures and deep knowledge of the entire range of products he sold, Josh was like a walking, talking data sheet. Throughout all the time we spent together, I’ve never seen Fred struggle to give an answer to a question – no matter how detailed.

Fred and Josh both sold – but they sold radically differently. But, over the years, as time went by, something interesting started to happen.

Fred and Josh started merging. 

Not literally, of course. But, as time went by, their approaches to selling became more and more convergent. In addition to being a great relationship builder, Josh started educating his clients with new insights and perspectives, and leading with factual knowledge. And Fred started to be more attentive to the emotional – as well as the rational – needs of his clients.

Why ? The world had changed.

The “secret” to building stronger sales relationships

At RAIN Group, we find “what has changed is the way customers form relationships with sellers. Today’s sellers and buyers often determine business value first. They vet each other’s businesses and decide if they want to work together—but they don’t go out for extended cocktail-tipping lunches like in the Mad Men days. Today, the business interaction comes first, with the relationship being the reward customers give sellers who work for it. But that doesn’t mean the personal connection is any less real, or less valuable.”

In 2015, the “secret” to building strong sales relationships with senior executives will (continue to) be this: lead with business value.

Whether that’s by educating prospects with new insights and ideas, helping them think through and avoid major pitfalls, or crafting a solution and value offering that is superior to the other options (in the client’s mind) – lead with value, and you’ll be in a good place. Leading with value doesn’t mean foregoing the relationship building part of the process. Nor does it equate to adopting an overly rigid focus on business cases, ROI metrics and KPIs. It simply means delivering value in a business context first.

A while ago, I had the pleasure of talking to Fred and Josh again. Both have moved on from their old firm, yet both continue to do well as entrepreneurs and sales professionals. When I asked them what was the biggest lesson they’d learned, they answered by completing each other’s phrase.

First, Fred said, “more than ever, I’m convinced that the secret to staying competitive as a sales professional is putting people first. That’s not just another technique or some idealistic pursuit, it’s simply what makes common sense.” And then, unprompted, Josh completed “but the way to build the relationship is through delivering real business value first. It’s no longer about wining and dining, or taking your key clients to some kind of an event. It’s about capturing their interest by showing them something that is of interest to them and their firm”.