What Happened to Relationship Selling?

Sure, peg me as “old school”. But I want to point out that robots and AI have not yet taken over selling… it’s still mostly human-to-human. And it’s going to stay that way for a while. So why is everyone so down on relationship selling?

As automation has risen, relationship selling has taken a back seat.

However, I strongly believe we’ve swung the pendulum a bit too far and have virtually forgotten about the importance of human relationships in selling.

In the last ~10 years, we’ve focused too much on the sales process, the automation, the metrics, and the mechanics of selling.

And we’ve been losing the softer side of sales – the “relationship” with our buyers, deeply understanding their needs, and providing customer value. 

So, What is Relationship Selling?

Relationship selling is a sales tactic by which a salesperson seeks to build rapport and earn a buyer’s trust to win deals, rather than highlighting product features or negotiating the price.

The Impact Of Our Automation Obsession Is Real

Sales leaders are struggling with some of the basics of helping their teams build relationships in selling.

I did a survey of 50 VPs Sales/CROs in Tech:

87% of respondents said that their teams are missing key occasions to reach out to prospects, and touch points are falling through the cracks. This is even with all the email automation tools out there! If you don’t have a relationship with a prospect, it’s easy to miss out on the best opportunities to reach out.

66% of respondents said that an account being single-threaded (only having one contact) has a huge negative impacting on performance. If teams don’t have multiple threads in an account, it’s possible they can lose the account entirely when a champion moves on. It’s in a sales team’s best interest to build relationships across an account to both acquire and retain it.

Over 55% of respondents said their teams only maintain relationships with prospects that are going to immediately close. This means that lots of relationship building opportunities for future pipeline are simply not happening.

What’s most disappointing is with all of the tools out there to measure activity, make virtual connections, and find interesting insights, sales teams aren’t comfortable playing the long-term relationship game.

We are still looking for the immediate fix to close deals NOW.

The State of Sales Survey done by LinkedIn in 2017 says that the #1 contributing factor in making a purchase decision is if a buyer has TRUST in the salesperson.

Doesn’t a relationship have to start with trust?

And isn’t a relationship built on more than just a 7-touch email sequence?

CEB confirms that 53% of C-Levels buy because of the experience they have with the salesperson.

Trust me… “experience” is more than the emails you’ve sent them or following them on Twitter.  

Why Is It So Hard? Why Are We Not Focusing On Building Relationships? 

When I asked 50 sales leaders, here were some of their responses:  

One sales leader in the survey cited constantly shifting territories as the reason they struggle to create and maintain lasting relationships.  

Others said that we have introduced too many tools and too many steps that reps don’t have time to nurture relationships.

Many said that all the hand-offs in the buying process make it hard to build relationships: from SDR to AE to CSM… who’s managing the customer relationship?

Many shared not being able to train for this type of behavior – so it all came down to hiring reps who know how to build connections intrinsically.

Here’s The Most Alarming Part (This May Shock You)

The most alarming to me was the number of respondents who don’t believe it matters.

They believe that as long as they follow a consistent sales process and hit key activity metrics, they’ll be successful.

Perhaps an approach that doesn’t focus on relationships works with a transactional product or service (where trust in the seller is not a critical part of the buying process) because the risk of getting it wrong is low.

But I know that companies that have complex products and/or long buying cycles are having (or will have) challenges with churn or customer satisfaction if they aren’t focused on their relationships with their customers.

Resources To Help You Get Back To Basics

The good news is that the pendulum is swinging back. I’m seeing more and more sales solutions, sales books, and thought leadership to help bring back the softer side of selling.

Below is a list of resources to help you think about how you can get the human-to-human back into your sales repertoire.

Although, keep in mind that no single tool or book will help you create better relationships.  

Ultimately, we have limits – as humans, we can only effectively nurture a finite number of true relationships. But these resources can inspire you to think differently, and they can help take some of the heavy lifting off your plate.  

The rest is really up to you.

Here are some resources that help you focus on relationship building.

Comment on this post with others!

Emmanuelle is a SaaS sales veteran who has run sales teams at DigitalOcean, Influitive, VMTurbo, and Sophos. She regularly advises small companies and serves on the advisory board of 4 start-ups. Emmanuelle lives outside of Boston with her husband and 3 girls.

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