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.