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The End of Relationship Selling

I am not going to sugarcoat this, and I am not going to be polite.

All of this talk about the end of relationship selling is pure, unadulterated hogwash. While those that declare relationship selling to be dead shout louder, ignore their words. They couldn’t be more wrong.

You will hurt yourself and your sales by believing and acting on this horrid and horrible idea. Relationships are an essential part of winning an opportunity. They are also the biggest part of retaining your clients.

Where the Critics Are Right (and Wrong)

There are two reasons that the critics bash relationship selling.

The first reason critics bash relationship selling is that too many sales people believe that a warm, friendly relationship is enough to win and sustain client relationships. The critics are correct; it isn’t enough. Your relationship must be built on the firm foundation of your ability to continually create value for your client.

The critics mistakenly suggest that relationships and value creation are mutually exclusive. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that the stronger your relationship, the greater the likelihood that you will be trusted to sell the ideas that create value, especially the big ideas that lead your client.

The second reason the critics are crooked on relationships is because so many salespeople avoid the necessary conflict that accompanies selling. These salespeople are conflict averse. And again the critics are correct.

But the critics of relationship selling make the mistake of believing that a warm relationship and an ability to deal effectively with conflict are mutually exclusive, that they can’t exist in the same body at the same time. But relationships and conflict aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, a strong relationship improves the odds of a conflict being successfully resolved. Wouldn’t you want a strong relationship going into a conflict? Wouldn’t you want to have a relationship that could withstand a nasty issue?

What Is and What Isn’t a Relationship

A personal friendship is a surely a relationship, but it doesn’t rise to the level of an effective sales relationship. Your warm, friendly, personal relationship must be coupled with an equal or greater amount of value creation.

If your personal relationship means that you can’t effectively manage the conflicts that accompany selling, then you don’t have an effective sales relationship. One who can’t deal with conflict in sales is an order-taker.

An effective selling relationship is personal, professional, value creating, and built on trust. If you would be a trusted advisor, you are going to have to deal with conflict, and you are going to have to have the relationships to withstand those conflicts. If you are going to be a Level Four Value Creator, you are going to need the relationships that allow you to act as part of your client’s management team, and your clients don’t want people on their team with whom they don’t have great relationships.

You can make a lot of mistakes and still win in sales. Believing that you can go without relationships isn’t one of them. In a time when so many people are behaving like sales is transactional, swim against the current and build the deep relationships that success is built on.

All things being equal, relationships win. All things being unequal, relationships still probably win.


Are your relationships important to selling effectively?

Can you have a personal, warm, friendly relationship with your client and still sell effectively? Can you have that relationship and still create value?

Do your relationships enable you to effectively deal with conflict, or do they cause you to avoid conflict?

At the time of your dream client’s decision, would you rather have a strong personal and professional relationship, or would you rather just try to sell the value you create?

Have you ever lost a deal that you should have won because your competitor had the relationship? Have you ever won a deal that you should have lost because your competitor had a strong relationship?

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  • Robert Straveler

    Thank you for the blog. I find I agree with you, but also
    have a “questment”. First, consumers are
    demanding the relationship with the seller as evidenced by the product and
    company searches, the blog comments and ratings seen on many a business
    websites. Second, the consumer seems to
    be put off by and not want to be associated with business that compromises
    belief systems or values – call it value if you like. This leads to the conclusion that the critic
    is wrong to think relationship selling is dead.
    However, and here is the question comment (questment).

    IF we push the
    relationship between seller and buyer further into the business horizon we come
    to realize that even the best of relationships must be tended by a highly
    trained and state licensed third party often called a therapist, counselor or
    social worker. In more difficult
    relationships, the therapist chooses a theoretical platform to begin the
    mending process- ideally the therapist chooses a theoretical platform that best
    matches the discord, but often chooses the platform due to training or personal
    preference (I just want to be real.). One particular approach is called family
    systems theory ( Another is called solution focused brief
    therapy ( Each theoretical platform deals with the
    dynamics of social relationships, and has a strategy to build these
    relationships stronger – with the help of the therapist.

    So where am I going
    and what does this mean for businesses and sales people, and why is it relevant?

    Pushing the selling relationship into the business horizon, it
    is understandable why the critics may want to shy away from the notion of
    selling relationships – therapy can get messy to say the least. It is almost ridiculous to imagine buyer and
    seller sitting down on a coach together (or separate coaches) to close a
    business arrangement. After all, occasionally
    the conflicted parties find out even more about themselves than the other
    person or partner. It’s humbling. However, this does not constitute an
    argument for the death of relationship selling. At most, the critics may argue that some
    buyer-seller relationships will not work.
    But we already know that. The
    critics may do well to see that divorce is sometimes a preferred outcome for
    some relationships but certainly not an argument to end relationships

    Sales coaches are great. Consultants help us see a new angle
    to solve a problem or create an opportunity, and the service they provide is
    invaluable to consumer and seller. However, I am not sure that either is equipped
    to manage or effectively change relationships to the extent that therapists
    may, can and do change relationships that are agreeable, in conflict or headed
    for divorce. I would love to have some “quality
    time” (your comments). Robert Straveler.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Robert. But I refuse to be baited into a discussion as to whether salespeople, their clients, or the combination thereof would benefit from professional therapy!

  • Leanne Hoagland-Smith

    Anthony – You are correct about people buy from people and critics confuse the inability to secure the desired results with the strength of the relationship. My only disagreement being the contrarian is that I believe value is unique to each buyer. The salesperson cannot create value. He or she may uncover value as perceived by the buyer, may connect value, may facilitate value, may unearth the value, may unlock the value but not create. Within any solution, each buyer may have a different value perception and in some cases that value may never have been thought of or encountered through past selling experiences by the salesperson. This is one strong reason why sales scripts are not as effective as they were in the past.

    One of the best examples was when I met with a administrator regarding a curriculum that could improve the academic results of the students. Her value was centered on achieving “administrator of the year” within her district and this was uncovered just by listening and asking questions such as “and…?”, “so…?” Having successfully sold over a 1,000 of these curriculums, this was the first time I had encountered this “value” for a buyer. I did not create value. After being in sales at that time for over 30 years, I had my “Ah, Ha!” moment about “value creation.”

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Someone else made that argument here once before. I think it’s mostly semantics, but anytime you help your client move their business forward you are “creating value.”

      (As a side note, Samsung sold 50,000,000 million phones last quarter. That’s a Hell of a lot of uniqueness!)

    • Brian MacIver

      Leanne, you are correct.
      So too is Anthony for much of the Article.
      But, you just express it the same way as I do, Leanne.
      (and the Verbal Behavioural Evidence is on our side!)
      (the someone else who makes the same arguement….:)

  • David Warawa

    If the seller’s agenda is to build a relationship based on superficial shoomizing and butt kissing then frankly you are not a professional salesperson by definition. This is the stigma of the traditional salesperson with little self accountability and benefit to the client. If your relationship is based on being a resourceful consultant who is prepared to upset your client’s complacency into consideration of doing different things to get different results then you will be the professional who gets returned messages, repeat business, referrals (if you actually ask for them) and the respect that goes with the philosophy. Your job is to find conflict, isolate the pain and come up with a solution to solve the challenge. Every business owner and decision maker is looking for these people. Be one of them.

  • Richard Mack

    Great article Anthony – of course relationships matter – but in todays busy, busy world, it gets tougher and tougher to forge them.

  • Elise @

    There is no doubt the relationship sell is here to stay. Any individual stating otherwise is simply out of touch. Never has the relationship sell been more important. With consumers (and businesses alike) beginning research for what they want online long before ever speaking with a salesperson, providing extended value to the consumer and actually listening to their needs is the key. I’m 100% for the professional relationship, but I think there is a line to be drawn before getting too personal with the client. For long term trust in a professional sense, I think there have to be some boundaries. No doubt these boundaries are pushed as we integrate more social media into our lives. My best advice is to keep your relationship-centered value system in place, and the rest will follow. – Elise

  • AmyMccTobin

    For a moment when I read your title and the first sentence I THOUGHT, for the first time ever, that I was going to think “Anthony’s wrong.” But of course that’s not the case.

    Relationships will always be a key in any strong sales person’s arsenal. And you’re even more right about WHAT that relationship is for…. I fired more than one Sales Rep. to be told by our customers “But he was SOOOO NICE.” Nice doesn’t sell on it’s own. They have to want to do business with you, yes, but you need to know when and how to leverage that relationship into the opportunities to SELL.

    You are brilliant at this Anthony… My generation’s Joe Girard.

  • Morgan Barnhart

    You are right, people who say that relationship building is dead, are just trying to get a rise out of people.

    On the contrary, relationship marketing is present more than ever. Customers want to feel as if they’re buying from a friend, not a pushy sales person. Whether it be online or off, we must make time to build those relationships, even if it’s only a relationship a week. Creating relationships is a great habit to get into. :)

    Thanks for the article!

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    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Thanks for the shout out! –Anthony

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