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Selling is about healthy relationships! (RE: Harvard Business Review blog on “Selling is not about relationships”)

September 30, 2011


This blog post was inspired by reading a blog post on Harvard Business Review.

Go there and read it if you’d like, first.  I’ll wait 😉

For starters… I want to frame this post with the following items of understanding:

  • Little editing was done to this before draft-to-publish.  I hope it stands up to my regular concept of a quality blog post 😉
  • I was in sales for the early part of my adult life.  Much of it was “retail”, and a lot of the measurements and thoughts in the referenced blog are for “b2b”.  That these are different selling environments is accepted as true, although, I posit that in both cases, people can be selling to other people, if they are doing it right.  In both cases (retail and b2b) it is p2p that matters, or so I have always thought.
  • I don’t regularly read Harvard Business Review.  The link I followed was courtesy of LinkedIn.
  • I have always felt that there is a sales component to every job that people do.  Many people do not like salespeople.  I argue that they haven’t met the right salespeople.  In the best of worlds, salespeople are highly trained professionals, adept at understanding what you need, and matching those things, of the products and services that they provide, which match your need.  A true sales professional, in my opinion, is one who is categorized by a quote I share from one of my sales directors (when I was managing as cellular retail phone store back in the days of analog cellular.  Her name is Wendy, and as I am quoting from memory, I have paraphrased a bit, most likely.)

I define a great sales person as:  ‘One who is capable of turning shoppers into buyers with sales that wear well’

In the article, the authors categorize all b2b sales people as one of 5 types (the descriptions are in the HBR blog post.)

  • Relationship Builders
  • Hard Workers
  • Lone Wolves
  • Reactive Problem Solvers
  • Challengers

Typically, it is thought that the first group would outperform all others, and sales as relationship building has gotten a great deal of effort, training, recruiting, etc… associated with it.  The authors posit that it is not relationship builders, but rather, the last group, Challengers that truly perform the best (There is a study to back it up.  The study also suggests that those in the Relationship Builders class perform the lowest.)   I will paste the descriptions of the two below, for making the rest of my blog post clear:

  • Relationship Builders focus on developing strong personal and professional relationships and advocates across the customer organization. They are generous with their time, strive to meet customers’ every need, and work hard to resolve tensions in the commercial relationship.
  • 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 and are assertive — with both their customers and bosses.

I think this is a very positive thing for both types if, indeed, customers respond better to the Challengers.  It is good for the people who keep trained, keep knowledgeable about all approaches, and understand their customer deeply enough to know where proposed solutions might not match desired outcomes.   This involves identifying with the problems that their customers are facing, listening both to what they are saying, and what they are not saying, and suggesting alternatives that should provide better solutions.  As these people are strong of mind and will, they stand up to organizational pressures from both sides of the “aisle”.

So, maybe you are asking the question: Why is it good for Relationship Builders as well?

My theory is simple:

  • Challengers are not actually a distinct type of sales person.  Challengers are a special type of the “Relationship Builders” category.  The in-common skills and behaviors they possess are that they (are trying to) form relationships with their customers.
  • Challengers are a special non-“co-dependant” subset of the Relationship Builders type.  Simply put, they are  not “yesmen”.  They help the customer buy what they need, even if it is not precisely what they came to the table wanting.
  • It is highly possible that the original models for the “relationship based selling” hubbub were actually Challengers.  Not only did they understand the environment.  Not only were they responsive and available to their customers, but they had such a healthy relationship with the people at these organizations, that they could effectively say “no, I don’t think we should do it that way–and I’ll tell you why.”  They had a healthy enough relationship with their co-workers that they could say “I think we can do this better.”
  • In the rush to hire relationship based sales people, or to refactor their existing sales organizations into being relationship based, sales organizations may have wound up with a significant number of pseudo-relationship based practices and salespeople.

Not sure if I am right, but I think I am.

And I can’t help but think that this type of pseudo-personality based selling is what has brought us to the “customer loyalty card” fiasco at local shopping stores.  (How many do you have in your wallet/on your keychain?)   The various keyword based ads we see online.   The impersonal attempts of a computer system to sound personal while harvesting your data and delivering your eyeballs to the highest bidding purveyor of crap.   Every business now wants you to “Like” them on Facebook.

There is a project that I have been aware of for awhile called Project VRM.   It looks to address the issues that the world of “Client Relationship Management” (CRM) has exacerbated.    Doc Searls is involved (an understatement) — It looks like its where he focuses most of his effort these days.   If these things aren’t related, I’m sure Doc would tell me why 😉  I am pretty sure that they are.

If I have to “be sold”, you probably haven’t done your job right.  If you suggest something, and I want to buy it, because I get the distinct feeling that you’ve paid attention to the information I’ve shared, and done some thinking on top of it,  chances are you did your job right.

I posit that you can’t just talk to people.  It is about the conversation.  Every time you encounter a potential customer, it is about relating.   It is about understanding.  It is about creating a healthy relationship with other people, where something you are selling may indeed be what they are buying.

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