Is Relationship Selling Dead?

Despite all the hype that face-to-face selling is dying, building strong relationships is more important then ever. But maybe it’s just done differently…

There has been a lot of discussion recently, dare I say argument, about the continued relevance of relationship selling in B2B sales. Many pundits will have you believe that in today’s ‘connected world’ relationship selling is dead.

Respected business commentators and authorities are divided on this question. But when the Harvard Business Review comes out and states – “selling is not about relationships1”, maybe it’s time to stop and look at why this tried and proven sales approach is coming under so much scrutiny.

So, is relationship selling dead? Let me put my point forwards early and clearly. To those that claim relationship selling is dead, I say “RUBBISH!” It is particularly not true in B2B sales. If you believe that relationship selling is dead you risk doing significant damage to your business.

What Type of Salesperson Are You?

In the world of sales, your style can be defined in many ways. Personally I believe there are four key types of sales person:

  1. The Order Taker – this sales person waits for the client to ask if they can buy or worse, expects them to buy and wonders why the sales don’t come.
  2. The Techo – These sales persons try to impress with technical knowledge and more often than not confuse the prospect and wonder why the sales don’t come.
  3. The ‘I Can Do It All’ sales person who promises the world just to get the sale. They might get the first sale, but then they wonder why the sales don’t come.
  4. The Solution Provider who qualifies and listens to the prospect to identify their problems and needs. They don’t focus on their product or service; they focus on the benefits they can deliver the client. They solve the problem, create the opportunity or deliver business improvement, and they close the deal.

Solution Providers are successful because they take the time to know the client. They look at the sale in the best interest of their client and they take time to build a relationship based on trust.

So why are the critics so damning in their criticism of relationship selling? From my experience I see there are three key reasons. And to some extent they are justified.

Firstly, they believe that ‘old school’ sales people rely too heavily on getting close to their prospects and clients – building up ‘cosy’ relationships. Sure, in many cases these salespeople thought that all they needed to do was stay close, to ‘wine and dine’ and the orders would come. But this is just as flawed as thinking relationship selling is dead. Having the relationship is one thing; it is what you do with it that is critical.

Secondly, many believe that with buyers being better informed of their options and competitive offerings, they are as far as 70% into the buying cycle before they engage with a sales person. The argument being that at this stage in their buying process, relationships are of little relevance. Again, there is some truth to this argument, but it does not negate the need for a strong relationship – in fact that premise is counter-intuitive. Having a strong and trusted relationship will better position you at the money end of the sales process.

And lastly, they see that the Internet has ‘commoditised’ products and services to a point where your clients and prospects buy on price alone. Price is only relevant if what you are delivering is seen as relevant to the prospect. And people don’t buy on price; they buy value (I can see this comment will raise a few eyebrows – perhaps it’s a good topic for another article). Value is the relationship between the costs you charge and the benefit expected from what you deliver. Is what you are selling of value to your client?

None of these reasons are mutually exclusive with building a strong client relationship. In fact, each would be strongly enhanced by having a strong relationship.

Sure, you will find your clients and prospects may no longer be able to meet and chat as they have in the past, but this is because of the pressure of work and the ‘instant response’ environment we have created for ourselves. Their days are full with meetings. Their phones are full of voicemails. Their desktops are full of emails. And they are more than likely ‘up to their butt in alligators’.   They don’t have time to build relationships, or do they?

The fact is people are now looking for relationships that add value and ‘cut to the chase’. They have no time for idle pleasantries. This will be bad news for the old school order takers, but great news for those in sales who know how to bring real value to a relationship.

In B2B sales, a relationship is both personal and professional and ultimately it is built on trust. Trust takes time to build so relationship selling is ideally suited in an environment where ongoing sales are the aim. For your prospect or client to take time to let you build a relationship there must be a level of personal connection. They must see that you can add value to their role and their business. They need to know you can help them solve problems, improve profits or create opportunities. They want to see you deliver solutions, not products; benefits, not features. Relationship selling is about doing more listening than ‘selling’.

If you want to build a relationship with a prospect or client, they need to see you as a valuable resource. Ask yourself:

  • Will the prospect/client see me and my product or service as relevant?
  • Will they see me as someone who can provide value?
  • Do they see the problem I can address as urgent?
  • How much effort will their ‘solution’ require to implement?

If you can’t answer these questions you will struggle to build a relationship. You need to do your homework. Research the prospect. Learn more about your client’s business and become a true ‘consultant’ in your area of expertise (your products and services). So to build a relationship, you need to:

  • Know the prospect or client’s business needs
  • Offer solutions to these needs – solve a problem, help them increase sales, reduce costs etc.
  • Keep it simple – communicate at the client’s level and don’t try to impress by making things more complicated than they need be. This will help make it easy to make a decision
  • Become an invaluable source of relevant information, trends, market information etc.
  • Be accessible. I don’t mean for you to be at the ‘beck and call’ of your clients, but show them you want to be part of their team. Show them you are keen to help and share their pain.
  • Maintain communication – but keep it relevant. Today we are bombarded with more information than we can possibly process. When working with a client, subscribe to newsletters and blogs that are relevant to their business. Look for articles that would be of interest to them and share. Each morning I spend the first 30 minutes of my day reviewing my subscriptions and forwarding items of interest to my clients.
  • Share contacts. If you are able to pass on contacts to your clients that will help them build their own networks in a positive way, you are adding value. Who is in your LinkedIn network or contact list who mutually benefit from an introduction to your prospect or client? Make it relevant and make it purposeful.
  • Know when to say ‘no’. If you cannot deliver the best solution to a problem, say so. Nothing builds trust better than walking away when you can’t be the best.

Throughout my sales career I have enjoyed strong relationships with the clients who made me most successful. I was not always the most technically adept in the fields in which I was selling, but I always took the time to understand what I could deliver to the clients business – where I could truly add value. To this end I became a trusted advisor.

In consulting I have worked with businesses to develop similar sales cultures. One client, a specialist communications company built a strong relationship with the General Manager of a major local insurance company. This was both a personal and business relationship. While buying decisions were always based on the value that was delivered, my client was able to develop a level of trust whereby their account manager was ‘consulted’ when competitive bids were received. Did they see these offerings as relevant to their business? Could they offer competitive alternatives? Without a strong personal and business relationship, this would just not be possible.

The benefits of a strong relationship in B2B sales are clear. If you are the first point of contact for a client with a business problem you build a strong understanding of the issues from their perspective. You’re then in the best position to help share and influence that problem. Becoming a trusted advisor to your client gives you insight into their business you just cannot achieve if you are not.

People still buy from people they like – and more importantly people they trust, who can delver solutions to problems, increase profits or provide opportunities.

Relationship selling isn’t dead – it is just different.   Your challenge is to earn the trust – the relationship will follow.


1 HBR Blog Network, 30 September 2011


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