Yes, Successful Selling IS About Relationships

As the sales leader of a company that empowers both organizations and professionals to enhance their relational capital, my jaw dropped recently when I read the title of very interesting HBR Blog post: Selling Is Not About Relationships. Judging by how quickly the blog approached 200 comments, authors Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson clearly struck not just my nerve by challenging the role of relationship-building in successful selling.

However, upon review of the article we are a lot closer to agreement than the provocative headline would ever suggest.

Each week I speak with a handful of Sales VPs, as well as multiple C-Level executives across the Fortune 500.  A common denominator of those discussions is the importance of establishing meaningful connections both within an organization itself, and of course externally with influential professionals across an entire value chain – clients, prospects, suppliers. Whether analyzing a new-hire’s speed to efficacy during the onboarding process, long-term employee retention, or the quantifiable impact on a sales person’s job performance, one’s ability to establish meaningful relationships translates into success.

So what to make of this study? Having examined 100 companies and 6,000 reps, Dixon and Adamson conclude that every sales professional falls into one of five distinct profiles and is characterized by a specific set of skills and behaviors that highlights the rep’s primary mode of interacting with customers. Those falling into the Challenger category dominated the list of high performers while Relationship Builders came in last.

And it is right at this point that my position actually aligns with theirs. Relationship Builders as defined are those who “focus on developing strong personal and professional relationships and advocates across the customer organization.” While Challengers “use their deep understanding of their customers’ business to push their thinking and take control of the sales conversation. They’re not afraid to share even potentially controversial views…”

What is there to disagree with? Well, nothing at all.  The stakes are far too high today to buy from someone simply because they behave as an unyielding customer advocate. Selling as well as purchasing has never been more complicated. Most sales-focused organizations I interact with are placing a large emphasis on implementing organic growth strategies. That is, nurturing and expanding existing customer accounts. While no intelligent company abandons or minimizes the importance of new business development, the majority of large scale engagements take time, perhaps even years to cultivate. I fully agree with Dixon and Adamson, the Challenger is the person I would want to buy from.

But don’t forget that their definition refers to one’s primary mode of customer interaction. And here is where things get more interesting. I suggest that one cannot truly become a Challenger (that is a consultative advisor), until genuine trust has been established between all parties.  Therefore, one’s ability to become a Challenger is predicated upon the ability to connect with your clients and prospects in the first place.  Relationship building is as critical to consultative selling as a left-hook is to boxing. It is a crucial subset of the entire function and therefore not mutually exclusive.

I don’t think anyone can walk into a first sales call and be an effective Challenger. That assumes everything you’ll ever need to know about a prospect can be found in an analyst report or on the company’s web site. It’s like a doctor determining prescriptive action without actually visiting with the patient. It is only after you establish trust and respect that a prospect will open the door to their true world and shed light on their direct as well as indirect challenges.

Customer Advocate might have been a better label for Dixon and Adamson’s Relationship Builder category. However, I’m certain that wouldn’t have generated the same buzz.

How important is true relationship building to your sales organization? Can you become a true Challenger prior to establishing a relationship that fosters trust?

Until next month, good selling.

Will Petruski is myGreenlight’s VP of Sales.

Comments (13)

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  4. Will, what an incredible response to what is, yes, a slightly misleading headline. Although, I commend the authors for their ability to fascinate. It worked according to our numbers at HBR. In an ever more technically connected world, which amounts to an absence of meaningful human interaction, clients need to feel a sense of trust from their partners. Ultimately, they are still putting their professional brand and their personal livelihood at stake by supporting a project/investment. A relationship, however you might define it, needs to be established and then nurtured. Whether you define it as establishing trust, or conveying ability, or operating with emotional intelligence across a diverse client stakeholder group, it all comes back to a meaningful connection with another human being. As risk management strategies become the new norm for organizations, a sales person’s ability to establish these connections is critical to advancing any mutually beneficial project beyond the first round of golf.

  5. Will, where do these people come from. If you have not taken the time to establish a relationship, how do you know what the best solution is for your customer or client. Challengers often time don’t get to first base; however, there good at bragging and telling stories that sound convincing but don’t neccessarily make the sale. From an outsiders perspective, I get the impression the authors have never sold a thing, but have done a lot of research and presented (skewed) the results to try and sell a book. Thus they have the solutions and are Challengers.
    Your on the right track, stick with it. Keep a tight line you’ll know when to set it.

  6. Great blog Will. I agree with your comment that you may be in more agreement with the HBR headline. Customers don’t need buddies they need results. Customers buy from people they trust not from people they like. I see the Challenger role as an person who is an expert in their field and can drive results for that customer. In a sense that is building a relationship with the customer but as a trusted adviser not a golf buddy.

    • Hi Kat. Thanks for contributing. While results are clearly the definitive measuring stick, don’t underestimate likability in the overall sales process. In fact, a likable, trustworthy challenger is probably the most effective combination of all. Good luck with the new role. Looking forward to charting your success!

  7. Great article! What is off base in the original HBR piece: the author’s definition of a relationship builder. He is describing a doormat. People who are not candid, not accountable. People who take no risks because they’re afraid of losing the relationship. So they agree with the customer and go along to get along. This is not how I’d define a relationship builder. I agree with Will and would guess that the best “challengers” are folks you’d think of as having relationship mastery. People that can build relationships and take risks to tell it like it is because it’s in the best interests of the client personally, their team or their company. People whose message is heard because they’re credible and the listener feels they have their best interests in mind.

  8. Right on Will! I’d add that building relationships isn’t just about getting chummy with someone – it’s about providing real value with your product or solution. One of the major three “currency” types that we teach people to be aware of at FG and myG when building relationships is professional currency – that means your ability to show your customer (first in the sales process, and then via results) that your product is truly of service, meeting corporate goals, and making their life generally better. In other words, a major part of the relationship’s strength lies in the value of your offering, and whatever else you can wrap around it to help move the client’s business forward. Therefore being a “challenger” is a part of what we would consider the true Relationship Builder’s toolkit.

    • Thanks Sara. To reinforce your point, I don’t care if you are selling consulting services or commoditized MRO supplies, an accomplished sales person understands the impact on the prospect’s business and can quantify the prospect’s cost of no agreement. In order to be allowed into that conversation, relationships matter.

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