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Smart Sales: A Few Words About Relationship Selling

As my firm continues to dig into the sales-related challenges of our clients' companies, we often see a lack of understanding around the issue of relationships between sellers and buyers—often referred to as "relationship selling."

Here are some points to consider or debate among your own team:

• Beginning in 2000, I heard sales leader after sales leader declare relationship selling dead. Not all of them said that, thankfully, but a lot did. It wasn't dead then, and it isn't dead now.

The ability to leverage relationships between sellers and buyers for the benefit of the individuals' and (more importantly) for their companies' benefit thrives in many selling environments.

If you don't think it does in yours, you might be mistaken. We know that in some sectors, as perceived and real business risk has escalated, relationships with suppliers have become more important now than they were five years ago.

• Sales leaders who believe there is little to no relationship component in their sales approach are often wrong. Conversely, sales leaders who believe relationships are a significant and critical component to their sales approach often sacrifice the value from other critical factors, such as industry and business knowledge, or competitive selling.

It's not easy to get the balance right. In fact, we sometimes find disagreements among regional managers in the same company: "It's a technical sell!" "No, it's a relationship sell!" "No, it's a business sell!" (It's most often all three.)

• Relationship selling isn't just about building and maintaining relationships. It's about knowing whom to build relationships with, what to base the relationships on (trust is at the top of the list, right?), and how to leverage the relationships to both parties' advantage.

For the salesperson, this requires the right personality traits, specific hard and soft skills, and a strategic view. Skills? Getting your hands on the customer's organization chart (or reverse engineering it if one is not available) is just a first step. Figuring out where leveragable influence lies in a customer organization is another.

Discerning and validating both the personal and business wins for that influencer requires even more skill and experience. Envisioning how to accomplish that and then communicating it to the other person comes next. Ultimately having an influencer or decision-maker convince themselves that being your ally is right for their company and for them? That's how most of the biggest deals get won.

• Some sales trainers and sales training companies understand these issues. Many do not. That could be risky for you. Let's say a training company doesn't really believe that recommenders, influencers, and decision-makers can informally impact the strictest, documented vendor evaluation process.

They think, for example, that when you sell in the public sector, you just have to follow the rules and that any policies prohibiting association with vendors overrides any possibility of relationship building. If you yourself don't know how to overcome that challenge (companies do it all the time!) and the vendor can't lead you in the right direction, you're sunk.

• If relationship selling is a critical competency for selling your products and services, then it must be included in the hiring profile for whoever does the selling in your organization. We're amazed at how companies complain that their reps can't build leveragable relationships and continue to hire people with the same deficiencies. (Remember, if they don't have the right traits, training can rarely help.)

So, what's your position and approach with respect to relationships? Need an overhaul? Don't wait.

Dave Stein is the author of "How Winners Sell" and CEO and founder of ES Research Group in West Tisbury, MA. In addition, he delivers keynote speeches and workshops on sales performance.