Relationship starvation: is there a cure?

David Freedman reminds us of the importance of relationship building in modern sales roles

Two of my senior colleagues were at the People Development Summit in Copenhagen in March. The summit is a speed-dating event for pre-qualified buyers and sellers of training and development-related services. More than one potential buyer told them: “It’s so nice to come to events where we can actually meet sellers face-to-face these days. We’ve been suffering from a bad case of relationship starvation.” In other words, selling has become so bound by processes, CRM systems, 10-stage gateways, bid-management protocols, tendering compliance, internet pre-selection and the bias against incurring expenses, that buyers are beginning to wonder why nobody actually talks to them anymore.


While they were in Copenhagen, I was in Berlin, speaking at the annual conference of the Strategic Account Management Association, about how leaders of major or global account sales teams should manage the difficult – but increasingly unavoidable – relationship with those awkward people from the customer’s procurement department. It was generally agreed, both by my audience and in other sessions I attended, that if there is one single common antidote to the poison of arm’s length coolness from procurement, it is to establish an early and regular relationship with them. One that helps them to understand the value you can bring to their organisation and aids them in conquering the biggest single difficulty they have in their everyday working lives – that of being devalued and disrespected by colleagues in their own organisations. Everyone agreed that [pullquote]salespeople don’t build relationships with procurement because, by and large, salespeople don’t build relationships with anyone they can realistically avoid[/pullquote]. Unanimously, this was seen as self-defeating.

Couple this unwelcome trend with some best-selling books, ‘new models’, and widely-touted Harvard Business Review articles that started to appear around 2012 proclaiming that relationship selling is dead (and solution selling too, for good measure), and you could be forgiven for believing that sellers should now accept that there is nothing to be gained from sitting down with potential customers and actually finding out what they want, why they want it, and whether you can sell it to them.

The claim that relationship selling is dead is, of course, complete nonsense, as a brilliantly written critique, bolstered by the considerable weight of quantitative and qualitative research, pointed out last year.1 The authors (Rapp et al) argue that much of this so-called ‘new’ thinking about selling models is based on, “a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of relationship building within the modern sales role and represents a view that is diametrically antithetical to current realities of both sales practice and academic research…… Co-creation,” they go on to say “is fundamentally embedded within relational processes and dialogue between salespeople and buyers. By definition, value is co-created with customers through a series of encounters during which buyers and sellers jointly learn and act on opportunities.”

In other words, good salespeople depend on good relationships and good understanding of customers. They skilfully offer solutions that represent a valuable response to
well-understood needs.

As Qvidian’s 2015 State of Sales Execution report finds: “As buyers are presented with more choices in an increasingly complicated and ever-changing landscape, the rise from 2014 in both sales unable to effectively communicate value (+11%) and selling content not personalised to buyer (27%, +10% since 2014) as reasons organisations are not reaching quota is of little surprise…….[and]….Almost 46% of respondents report their understanding of the customer buying process is in need of improvement when asked to assess sales performance to-date.”

The evidence, then, is that the core skill requirements for a good seller have not substantially changed and people should beware falling into fashionable traps that suggest they have. True, it is no longer sufficient, perhaps, to sum things up with the tired but undeniable cliché: “People buy from people”. But it’s a reasonable starting point. Other attributes and skills can then be layered on top but there are core interactive, relationship-building behaviours without which no salesperson should hit the road.

So, if selling is irreducibly a human, verbal, consultative skill, what are the core interactive behaviours and how are they best trained? How can we help people to learn them, use them, reinforce them, rely upon them and ingrain them in the cultures and practices of the organisations in which they work?

The retreat from the relationship is not a response to any objective proof that such ideas belong to the 20th century. Rather, it is the consequence of lack of skills, and therefore lack of personal confidence, in three key areas that are – or should be – very much part of the 21st century selling landscape.

First, building value, through sales call execution skill. At some point, you are going to get face-to-face (or voice-to-voice, or Skyped, or possibly social networked) with a potential buyer. The medium of the exchange isn’t important (though face-to-face is always best in anything where risk, trust and significant levels of understanding are involved). What matters is how the available air-time is shared and with what skill it is used. Given all the evidence now available, nobody any longer seriously doubts that seeking information, in this setting, is more powerful than giving it. Nor, surely, does any selling professional invest the crass, old-fashioned (and false) distinction of open and closed questions with any credence. We have all moved far, far beyond those primitive terms, to delineate questioning types with reference to the investigative outcome they produce and the milestones they mark in the process of uncovering needs. The majority of people have recognised the validity of this approach since we started codifying the SPIN® model a generation or two ago. But that doesn’t mean they all know how to do it.

What, therefore, is the best way to train these skills, in accordance with the exhortation of many a music text book: “Don’t practise until you get it right, practise until you can’t get it wrong”?

One obvious way is to mirror the high degree of interaction that sellers must be equipped to deploy as they build new customer relationships, with a commensurately high degree of interaction in the learning environment. [pullquote]To ingrain skills requires real-time group work, role-play and the involvement of a skilled trainer/coach[/pullquote]. That usually means immersion in a training room as we traditionally understand it for a good part of the total learning time. And we’d advocate the use, for example, of e-learning only as a starting point for imparting knowledge, or as a follow-up for embedding it. I have written in these pages before2 about the virtues of the Virtual Classroom so there is no need to labour the arguments once more, except to say that the best virtual environments emulate almost exactly the experience of the face-to-face classroom (plenary sessions, break-outs, one-to-ones, flipcharts, content sharing, contiguous inclusion of all participants) and can be as good as the real thing – in the right hands and with the right instructional design.

We have always found that one-to-one role-plays immediately following instructor-led modular inputs of the relevant key concepts help to establish the theoretical knowledge in its practical, behavioural setting – and the more the client wants the role-plays to be customised to the probable scenario the sellers will face, the better. But there is one proviso: the role-plays should not be so product/client specific that the delegates start to debate the technical aspects of the scenario when they should be focusing on developing the generic skill of uncovering needs, behaving consultatively, building a picture of the right solution and establishing a relationship of trust and credibility with the customer. So, writing a great role-play is a considerable skill and requires subtle co-operation between the training provider and the learning organisation well in advance of the training roll out.

Our general habit has been to use digital audio recording. Video is cumbersome and time consuming; the results are often distracting and since we have no particular view on the significance of non-verbal behaviour (beyond the universal norms of good manners), we regard filming as unnecessary for this kind of learning.

With particular reference to international selling opportunities, we have also found that since training people to sell is essentially a verbal exercise then it helps if their practice opportunities are conducted in the language that they are most likely to be using when they sit down with the prospective customer.

Clients in recent years have rightly emphasised the importance of coaching, reinforcement, measures of behaviour change and subsequent metrics for ROI. Given that the behaviour change that produces better customer interactions revolves around observable and recordable alterations in verbal style (drawn from research and analysis of the patterns employed by the most successful consultative sellers), the next step is simple. The productivity gains we’ve seen have been significant if we equip in-house coaches with the skill to recognise and record the use of newly learnt behaviours in real life situations, capture them on a specially-designed tablet-based dashboard tool and generate reports that relate individual or group behaviour change to improved call outcomes and – if the corporate data is available – improved financial outcomes among the trained cohort.

What emerges from this first category is a repeatable skill set that – like a golf swing – is robust in the face of stress, competition and a critical audience.

If this all sounds as though the mere ability to ask well-phrased and well-timed questions is sufficient to conclude major sales, then it shouldn’t. Understanding the customer’s needs only earns you the right to prove you can meet them. Then the competitive action really begins. In a complex bid, in response to a global RFP or tender, the selling company’s ability to excel at the stages yet to come is probably the determinant of moving from short-list to down-select, and thence to apply ink to a
favourable contract.

Indeed, the second skill is in moving matters beyond convincing one or two people of the need to change, on the basis of a persuasive conversation you are having with them personally. For the complex sale involves a mix of decision-makers and turf-warriors. There is actually a great deal of persuading to be done, with politics to be navigated and concerns to be resolved. Part of that revolves around a strategic analysis of how and when to confront which of the key players, and what to say when you have their attention – a process with which we have had much fun and gained a great deal of field insight, through gamifying the exercise over 40 years of client training courses. At some point, the lead seller or bid manager will have to articulate the offering and the payoffs of her solution in a value proposition. And as we have recently shown3, the companies whose profits increase most consistently are those whose salespeople can produce value propositions that contain quantified, needs-driven, competition-aware, payoff-laden, outcome-focused statements of fact – not general tag lines that do no more than describe the services offered.

So if we can build value at an individual call execution level and describe it with reference to the payoffs that each different key player will experience, the third and final challenge is to capture that value by doing not just a deal, but a well negotiated deal – securing terms that make the whole thing worthwhile. To do this, we need negotiation behaviours that turn plans into preparations and preparations into winning face-to-face outcomes. Again, it is not the result of a chance encounter or the magic of personal chemistry. Ambitious negotiators must study the planning behaviours that distinguish the successful from the average practitioner and the verbal behaviours that most often produce advantageous and sustainable outcomes in the exposed arena of an across-the-table encounter.

[pullquote]Getting that behavioural balance right requires a virtuous training circle of simulation, practice, observation, feedback, self-awareness and correction[/pullquote]. Nor should it be an adversarial exchange. The research shows that (for example) an abundance of counter-proposals, information-pushing, interruption, defence and aggression are less effective behaviours than asking questions, describing feelings, testing understanding, summarising and building on the ideas of others around the table.

Furthermore, setting the right personal climate and managing power responsibly in the negotiation are among the most highly prized negotiation behaviours. Why? Because the deals founded on a consultative approach and palpable integrity are at the heart of long-lasting commercial relationships. And as customers never tire of telling anyone who cares to listen, there’s still a big appetite for those. 

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