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Personal Relationships Matter More Now Than Ever In Sales

It is a fact that the properties of water are two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

This fact is easily proven using an exemplar, a scientific method of proof. You look at a water molecule through a microscope and notice that you see two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. You ask someone else to look through the microscope, and they report the very same finding. This injunction is repeated, and you have a fact. No one ever discovered evidence to the contrary.

My friend Graham wrote a post on LinkedIn, hyperbolically titled Personal Relationships no longer matter in B2B Sales. The evidence he cites regarding some emerging trends are worth noting, but they are not, as he believes them to be, facts. They are surely not unyielding scientific facts. They are instead contextual trends and some of his personal experiences, being found in some places and not in others, experienced by some, but not all.

It is a very rare thing that I respond so directly to a post like Graham’s, but I find this line of thinking dangerous. It is disempowering, and it is an abdication of your duty to create value for your clients, something that is made more difficult through an arms-length process and a transactional relationship—the resulting sales landscape in Graham’s view.

Fortunately, Graham mostly misreads the evidence. The trends he cites, in fact, point to the opposite conclusion.

Consensus Buying Behaviors

Consensus buying behaviors do not spell the end of personal relationships in B2B sales. Citing CEB’s research that there are now 5.2 stakeholders in the average B2B buying decision, Graham suggests that you cannot “develop meaningful relationships” with multiple stakeholders from “cross-functional” segments of the business and from “different regions, all with their own (and often conflicting) agenda(s).” Yet this is exactly what we do.

Commercial relationships are personal. However, being known, liked, and trusted now also requires another component: economic value. To create that economic value, it helps to be known, liked, and trusted, because that improves the likelihood of you being able to build consensus and manage change.

Can you imagine that consensus can be more easily found with no personal relationships? Is the salesperson’s absence in this process going to allow this consensus to spring from thin air, with silos being torn down on their own, concerns resolving themselves, and enlightened stakeholders suddenly setting aside their differences for the greater good without so much as a peep? Happy days were this true. But it isn’t.

There are plenty of salespeople who successfully manage multiple relationships and help their clients find consensus around change, even when they are spread out across the globe, and even when they have competing agendas. There are also plenty of salespeople who cannot. Either way, this work is being done successfully by salespeople every single day.

Graham’s next point is in conflict with this point. That point is the idea that people buy from machines and websites.

Avoiding the Salesperson

If a salesperson cannot help find consensus, how on Earth does a website enable an agreement between conflicting agendas and needs that are at odds? The idea that buyers don’t need salespeople is mostly true in B2C, and in more transactional B2B sales.

Graham suggests that buyers in “practically every industry, segment, category, and region are now demonstrating that they prefer to bypass the salesperson every chance they get.”

All generalizations are lies, and this one is no exception. There will be countless sales calls made during the week in which you read this post, all with prospective and existing clients who have agreed to meet with a salesperson. Some portion of these prospects and clients may have chosen to place an order online, with as many or more preferring to speak with someone who can actually help them come to the right decision.

Incorrectly, Graham cites the reason for the resistance to meeting with salespeople as the buyer’s knowledge that “each and every salesperson has a vested interest in trying to convince the buyer to purchase their product regardless of whether it’s the right fit for their problem.” This generalization is also out of sync with how most salespeople sell. Most salespeople don’t sell people things they don’t need. The reason many B2B buyers don’t like to meet with salespeople is because they are presently satisfied, and because too many salespeople waste their time.

Citing Forrester, Graham says, “93% of B2B buyers say that they prefer to buy online rather than from a salesperson when they’ve decided what to buy and just need to make the purchase” What people say they prefer in surveys and what they do are often at odds, and that is likely also the case here. But there is a certain truth that when a purchase is low risk, of low strategic value, and of relatively low importance, people will transact. That, however, is not the type of sale many people in B2B are engaged in now.

Buyers Have Evolved, Sellers Have Not

Graham makes a statement of fact that is untrue when he suggests that “Buyers have evolved but sales people have not. B2B buyers no longer need a ‘personal relationship’ with you in order to make a decision. They will NOT stick with you just because you are a good person – trusted, likeable and dependable.”

In one sense, Graham is correct. Trusted, likeable, and dependable are no longer enough. You aren’t likely to have a client retain you if you don’t create economic value. To do so, you now need deep chops. You need business acumen and situational knowledge. You need to be able to manage change, as noted above. You also need to be a leader.

It is factually incorrect to suggest that salespeople have not evolved. Some may be evolving faster, and some more slowly, but there is an evolution that seems to match the customer’s evolution. Are we really selling like it’s 1958? Has the work of Rackham, and Heiman, and CEB, and Hanan, and Brock, and Bertuzzi, and Blount, and Weinberg and Konrath and many others not been widely adopted? What Graham sees as the end of personal relationships is really evidence of the evolution of commercial relationships, now requiring greater value creation, something more easily done with personal relationships, and frighteningly impossible without.

Digital Engagement

The Digital Kool-Aid has been distributed, and many have drunk deeply from what has been served. To their detriment, I am afraid.

From Graham’s post: “Yes, there are some instances when buyers still prefer to interact with a sales person, but when they do, it’s increasingly via digital means like email, chat, sales engagement platforms, Skype and collaborative software rather than F2F or via phone calls.”

As far as I know, sexting has not replaced sex. I say this only half joking. The truth is that the things that make us human haven’t changed much over the last 50,000 years. Trust still matters. Caring still matters. Having someone looking after you, helping you see around corners and avoid risk still matter very much to people who lead companies and make decisions.

Why would clients prefer Skype if not to see the person to whom they are speaking? What is it about looking someone in the eyes?

The belief that clients prefer not to meet face-to-face is extraordinarily incorrect and unhealthy, and suggesting that you forgo face-to-face visits is malpractice. There aren’t too many things that are going to help you create a preference for you, your company, and your solution like your presence. Showing up to understand your client’s world, to spend time with them, to learn about their business and, yes, to deepen your relationships will help you create a competitive advantage.

What This Really Means

Some types of selling are more difficult than they used to be. They require greater skills, as well as the ability manage more complexity. They also require different skills, like Business Acumen, Change Management, and Leadership, the final three chapters of my book, The Only Sales Guide You’ll Ever Need.

Relationships are more important now, and more is required of you if you want to maintain those relationships.

All things being equal, relationships win. All things being unequal, relationships still win. Your job in sales is to make all things unequal. Don’t believe me? Try to compete successfully without them.

I just looked over my last week’s calendar. I made a face-to-face sales call every day last week.


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