Unscalable: How to Build Relationships at Scale

Much of what I write here is going to be anathema to a particular variety of sales experts and those who read too much into the idea that relationships are no longer critical in sales. Much of the dominant opinion that relationships don’t matter in sales stems from the book, The Challenger Sale. But were you to ask the authors, they would tell you that “challengers” had the second-highest score on relationships, and it was just a smidge behind “challenging.” What they call a “relationship seller,” I would call a “conflict-averse, order-taker.”

The truth is that relationships are more important than ever, and you need to increase the value you bring to the relationship if you want a competitive advantage and retention.

San Francisco Dreaming

Silicon Valley casts a very long and dark shadow over sales. The application of technology to, well, everything, is driven by the idea of speed, scale, and predictability. The dream is one of gaining clients faster, growing faster, and printing money. It’s also a dream that relies on the idea that all things can be conflated to a transaction. It’s one of eliminating effort on the part of the sales organization and eliminating friction on the part of the prospective client. For example, wholly-automated prospecting sequences with calendar links to schedule with a salesperson that doesn’t even know they sent an email.

Because I find everything has value in the right context, I find value in both the automated sequence and the calendar link (what must be the loneliest link, rarely—if ever—being clicked).

There are certain things that don’t lend themselves to automation, human relationships being the most important. The more complex the sale, the more you need relationships (complex meaning a highly significant decision the client doesn’t make frequently).

Scaling the Unscalable

Relationships come with a cost. The more important the relationship, the higher that cost. The reason so many people are seduced by the idea that “relationship selling is dead” is because it would mean that you could eliminate the expense of relationships.

Here I must remind you of where we are now. There are currently two major business strategies pulling in opposite directions. The first is super-transactional, where scale means eliminating friction, including price. The second is super-relational, where you are required to create greater value. The middle is a challenging space to occupy.

I am not agnostic here; my bias is towards super-relational, only because I believe that every buying decision that is genuinely transactional will be handled electronically. I also believe every decision that isn’t transactional will tend towards super-relational.

Strategy: Three Variables

There are three variables necessary to scale the unscalable: Trust, Value, and Caring. When a decision is complex, the significance is high, and where there are implications for making a wrong decision, relationships matter. If you are choosing a partner, you need to be confident that your partner is going to take care of you.

  • Trust: If I don’t trust what you say is true, there will be no relationship, commercial or otherwise.
  • Value: If you can’t create value for me, I don’t need you. This variable is still woefully neglected and equally misunderstood. If you can’t help me produce the strategic business results I need, we won’t have the necessary relationship. (This is where conflict-averse, order-takers find themselves relegated to customer service).
  • Caring: If I am not important to you, if you don’t know me, and if you are not proactive, then you make our relationship transactional. If you refuse to spend time with me because you would prefer to send an email instead of having a face-to-face meeting, you give me a strong idea of how important I am to you.

Know that what I write here is not popular. Know too that it isn’t easy, and that believing this puts you in the minority. I have chosen my side of this argument, and at some point, you will have to decide for yourself. I look backward for truths that stand the test of time and am not easily swayed by fads that tend to be fleeting, even when people want to believe otherwise.

Interactions + Three More Variables

There are three more variables you need to consider when scaling relationships: Frequency, Value, and Medium.

  • Frequency: The frequency in which you communicate with your clients, customers, or your dream clients is vital to the relationship. Have you ever gone so long without speaking to a client that it felt weird to call them? That’s because you neglected them long enough that you demonstrated a lack of caring. Frequency is one of the reasons relationships are so expensive to maintain. Without a contact strategy, scaling relationships is difficult (or maybe impossible).
  • Value of the Interaction: If you are reading this looking for a way to hack relationships, one way you might be able to do so is to increase the value you create in each interaction (I said it was a hack. I didn’t say it was an easy hack). If every interaction is valuable for your client, if you leave them better than you found them, you will deepen your relationship (you may also be able to reduce your frequency by some amount).
  • Medium: I grow weary writing about not being pen pals with your clients, doing most—or all—of your communication over email. If you want to create relationships of value, the platinum standard is face-to-face meetings. There is no substitute for your physical presence. One of the ways you improve your score on caring is by showing up. Silicon Valley is giving you every reason not to show up by providing you with technology. All of these tools are necessary, and they all have their place, yet none of them is a sufficient substitute for your physical presence. The question you have to answer here is what mix of mediums to be effective in generating the outcome you need.

What are we left with here: Strategy (Trust + Value + Caring) + Interactions (Frequency + Value Creation + Medium) = Relationships at scale.

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