Relationship Selling: Platform or Lifeboat?
Larry is a salesman who has developed a taste for fine dining. He enjoys the subtle flavors of haute cuisine and the refined ambiance of a gourmet restaurant. As often as his wallet and schedule allow, he treats himself to a meal at his favorite high-class bistro. For Larry, it’s more than mere indulgence. It’s a level of dining he’s come to expect and feels he deserves.
Larry has been driving around all day with a client he wants to impress. They’re tired and hungry. Larry suggests dinner at the upscale restaurant he favors, but the client wants to pull in at the first burger place on the right to seal the deal.
But Larry stridently refuses to eat “that garbage.” He says he’ll hold out for foie gras or he won’t eat at all. And that’s exactly what happens. That night Larry goes to bed hungry, and the next day the disgruntled client signs a contract with a competitor.
Would a professional really forfeit a sale for the sake of a so-called principle? It happens more than you might think. It could happen to you—if you let your selling style become a lifeboat instead of a platform.
There are many different selling styles and plenty of opinions on which one is most effective. Traditional sales-training attitudes hold that selling should be transaction-oriented. The goal in this type of selling is to close at the first opportunity rather than to create a long-term association or bond with the customer. For better or for worse, think of the mercenary real estate hawkers of “Glengarry Glen Ross”: Get the order, make the deal, hit your numbers.
At the other end of the training spectrum, and in response to hard-edged stereotypes, a newer, softer style of selling has emerged in recent years: customer-oriented selling. The focus here is on warmer client interactions, a potentially longer sales cycle, and closing based on intangibles like trust and loyalty rather than price or “the pitch.” Popular “relationship selling” programs are based on this approach.
There is little evidence to support that one type of selling consistently yields better results than another. However, decades of research have shown that, regardless of your style, the key to making sales is your willingness to seek opportunities to sell. That includes the whole range of revenue-generating behaviors: cold-calling, giving presentations, working the phones, asking for referrals, whatever it takes. As a professional salesperson, the more comfortable you are at getting yourself in front of prospective customers, by any means, the more sales you’re likely to close.
But our most recent research suggests an important correlation between your selling style and the likelihood that it may be costing you opportunities. Specifically, we’ve found that salespeople who tend to adhere more rigidly to the principles of relationship selling, regardless of whether it’s the most effective approach in a particular situation, typically experience more discomfort with prospecting. On the other hand, salespeople who feel most comfortable with initiating sales contacts also are at ease with switching between relationship-oriented and close-oriented selling as the sale requires.
In theory, the selling style you choose is the one that allows you to best achieve your sales goals in your particular situation. Your style should be a platform on which you can showcase your knowledge and skills. But in practice, we’ve found that, for salespeople with unresolved anxieties about the sales process, the idea of a wide-open selling platform may be threatening. Instead of opportunity, these sellers see only potential for risk and exposure. In an effort to cope, they may cling to the tenets of a particular style, like a shipwrecked sailor to a lifeboat, even when it’s not the most effective way to close the sale. And for salespeople who are less comfortable with assertive prospecting, it makes sense to gravitate toward rapport-based, non-assertive selling.
But like Larry, our salesman with the expensive tastes, you may lose sales if you’re unwilling to leave your comfort zone. In the case of relationship selling, it’s one thing to tell yourself that building rapport is important. It’s quite another to pass on opportunities to close a sale because the warm-fuzzy meter hasn’t reached critical mass.
While the emphasis on relationship building and consulting can be a highly effective approach, it can also camouflage discomfort with assertive, consistent prospecting. Clinging to the rules of relationship-based selling can mean defining buying signs so narrowly that opportunities fly under the radar—or out the window.
In short, salespeople who are more comfortable with prospecting overall are also more willing to alter their approach to get things sold. They see the rapport-building component of selling as the means, not the end.
What about you? Would you give up steak if a burger would close the deal?