The world is full of B2B  salespeople who claim, quite proudly, to have great relationships with their customers.  If that were true, it really would be great.

But unfortunately, “great relationships” is too often a veil that salespeople hide behind to keep from exposing the weakness in their sales skills.

Here’s How it Works

An experienced B2B salesperson believes that he/she has developed great relationships with customers.  Therefore, he spends his time visiting these great customers and focusing on maintaining the relationship.  He can’t really dig deeper into the motivations and needs of the customer because he’s never really had those conversations before, and to do so would interject a new and disparate element into the relationship.

Better to not take the risk.

He doesn’t present the new product or service too strongly, because, after all, it might jeopardize the relationship.  And besides, he knows this customer well enough to know that they would never be interested in this new product.

He never closes or asks for a resolution of an offer, because he doesn’t want to hear a rejection from that great relationship.  Too risky.  And he continues to invest selling time in this account, regardless of its potential, because to do any less would be to jeopardize the relationship.

The relationship becomes the end, instead of a means to an end.

Paralyzed by the idea of “great relationships” the B2B salesperson forgoes the basics of consultative selling and loses track of the essential function of sales and the heart of the sales person’s job – to bring revenue into the company.  Striving for, and protecting “great relationships” becomes a deterrent to effective selling.  It is, particularly among more experienced salespeople, one of the biggest obstacles to sales productivity.

I’ve often thought that some marginally-performing salespeople, aware of their lack of sales skills, intentionally hide behind the screen of “great relationships” to excuse their lack of results.

The Cold Hard Truth in Sales: 

In business, the relationship is a means to an end.  Business in general, and sales specifically, is not the same as family, friends, or romance in that the relationship is not an end in itself.  In sales, if the relationship doesn’t result in revenue coming into the business, then the relationship is not valuable.

The result is the reason for the relationship.  The measurement of the depth and power of a business relationship is not how much you know about the customer, nor how well you get along.  The measurement of a business relationship is the amount of dollars generated.  If the relationship really is great, then the account would be buying everything from you.

What should sales managers do?

If you realize that I have put into words something that has lingered under the surface of your consciousness, something that you have suspected for quite a while but have never put into words, then there are implications for you.

First, assume that “great relationships” for all but your top-performing salespeople is probably a smokescreen, directing your attention away from the real issue – lack of confident and competent sales skills.

If the salesperson is a consistently good performer, leave him or her alone.  Their relationships are probably working for them.

Focus, instead on the marginal performers.  When they claim to have great relationships ask this question; “If your relationships are so great, why aren’t they buying everything from you?”  Begin to measure the quality of relationships by the cold hard reality of account penetration.

If the account is not growing disproportionately, then the relationship isn’t really an asset.

Consider Two Actions:

  1. Training the salesperson in the principles and practices of consultative selling. It is the unfortunate truth that most B2B salespeople have never been educated in the paradigms, principles, processes, and practices of consultative selling.  They often just don’t know how to do their job well.  Before you can expect that of them, you must educate them.
  2. Trading accounts among salespeople. Take some of those “great relationship” accounts – particularly those that aren’t growing, away from the salesperson and assign them to someone else. Often, a fresh salesperson, unburdened by the baggage of the precedents and expectations of “great relationships” can often focus on sales issues and grow the business.

Emphasize in one-on-one conferences and in sales meetings, that the relationship is a means to an end, not an end in itself.  The purpose of the salesperson is to grow revenue.  Improving personal relationships is a helpful step to that end.

What Should Sales People Do?

  1. Analyze your accounts, not in terms of the relationship, but rather in terms of their potential for future sales. Adjust your time to invest more highly in the higher potential accounts, and less heavily in the lower potential accounts.
  2. Strategically build relationships. Focus on building personal relationships with those key people in the higher potential accounts.  The focus on the account comes first, the relationship follows – not the other way around.
  3. Look objectively at where you are spending your time. If you are not gaining sufficient and growing revenue from your good accounts, make a strategic and cold-blooded business decision to demote them.

Successfully selling in the Information Age demands a professional and cold-blooded analysis of the strategic role of personal relationships.  Remember, the result is the reason for the relationship.