Monday, June 9, 2014

Do Relationships Still Matter?

The book The Challenger Sale has generated a good deal of debate and discussion since it came out in 2011. Authors Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson helped stir the pot further with provocatively-titled articles—"The End of Solution Selling" (see my take) and "Selling Is Not About Relationships"—published in Harvard Business Review.

The book and articles are based on a study by the Sales Executive Council examining the methods of over 6,000 B2B sales reps across multiple industries. The study concluded that every seller falls into one of five distinct categories, and examined the relative success of sellers in each category. 

One of the more controversial findings was the category that finished dead last—Relationship Builders. Sellers who stressed building relationships over all else comprised 26% of the total sample, but only 7% of the top performers. Among the top sellers of complex solutions, only 4% of them were Relationship Builders.

Several well-known sales experts have challenged those conclusions, including Mike Schultz and John Doerr of RainToday. They conducted their own research and determined that both solution selling and relationship selling are still very much alive. I suspect that much of the debate is a matter of semantics—relationship selling is defined differently by different sales gurus.

I remain convinced that relationship building is still a crucial element of successful selling. But let's be honest; the relationship dynamic in sales has changed over the years. There are few clients who will select your firm these days primarily because they like you. Yet I still encounter rainmakers who seem to think that their ability to make friends is their greatest sales asset.

That's selling clients short. They have more important matters to deal with in this post-recession economy than deciding which of their friends to hire. And even if they wanted to hire you, their companies' evolving buying process has likely made that more difficult. My previous employer once secured millions of dollars of sole source work from their Fortune 500 clients. Now they must compete for everything, often subject to government-like procurement rules intended to root out any semblance of good-ol'-boy favoritism.

Relationships still matter, but increasingly you'll need to adapt to the new terms of engagement. This will include the following:

Learn how to articulate and deliver business value. Being a talented designer or consultant means less these days if you cannot connect what you do to meeting clients' strategic needs. Many A/E practitioners struggle to discuss their clients' business issues in any depth. Do your homework and develop a deeper understanding of what matters most to your clients (hint: it probably isn't your technical services). You'll know you're making headway in delivering business value when:
  • You're spending more time meeting with your clients' C-level executives
  • You're talking more about business outcomes, not just project issues
  • You're participating in strategic planning sessions with your clients
  • Your fees are no longer an important selection criterion
Focus on optimizing the working relationship. Ask many A/E firm leaders what steps they take to strengthen client relationships and they emphasize client entertainment. I'm not against having a good time with clients, but that's no substitute for crafting a productive working relationship. That's the relational context in which you deliver your services, and thus it deserves far more attention that most firms give it. I strongly advocate developing a client service delivery process, with particular emphasis given to two activities: (1) benchmarking client expectations and (2) soliciting client feedback.

Don't take loyal clients for granted. It seems I've heard of more firms losing long-time clients in the last few years than in all my previous years in this business. A common theme seems to emerge: They liked us but we fell short in meeting their expectations. Not surprisingly, the fallout seems to occur most often in two areas—failing to deliver business results or failing to maintain the working relationship. So why am I repeating those same themes again? Because you are perhaps most vulnerable where you think you are least vulnerable. Sometimes we're less diligent nurturing client relationships we think we can count on than those we know need more work. Don't make that mistake!

Have your client relationships changed in recent years? How and why? I'd love to hear what your firm has experienced.

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