It is true that many people buy from people that they like. But is that all that sales professionals need to be a good “relationship seller”?

Why sellers often misunderstand and overvalue the meaning of "relationship selling"

Earlier this year, I interviewed an experienced and successful salesperson, one of the better producers for a manufacturer of complex industrial equipment. He told me proudly, “I’m a good salesperson because people like me. It’s all about the quality of relationship – and I’ve always been an outstanding relationship seller”.

He was friendly, pleasant and affable. It was difficult not to take a liking to him immediately. He had been working in his industry for over twenty years, and he exuded confidence. I could see how customers would develop a strong rapport with him.

He possessed a very respectable sales record. Indeed, this seller had surpassed his assigned quota each year for more than a decade. In his mind, his ability to leverage his personal likeability into strong interpersonal relationships with buyers was the principal reason for his sales success.

But is this true?

Organizational vs. individual relationships

When we discussed this salesperson’s accounts, I discovered a disturbing trend: in almost every account, he was working with only one customer contact – and those people generally were either operational-level managers or in the purchasing department. He had virtually no contact with executive-level buyers.

I asked him: “What would you do if one of your contacts left their company?” He admitted that he’d have to start over in that account, and until he could build rapport with that new buyer, he’d be vulnerable.

Trusted advisor status

I also asked this salesperson a key question: “How many of your customers share information about their strategic initiatives or projects they are planning in the future?”

He thought about this for a moment, and then replied, sheepishly, “Well, my best customer tells me about every project they are doing, but the rest… no, I don’t get that kind of information”.

One indicator of a high level of relationship is the degree to which a customer organization shares information about their strategic challenges and future plans to deal with them. In fact, the principle indicator that a seller has achieved a “trusted advisor” status – the highest level of account relationship – is when they ask a seller for advice on new potential directions, because they value that seller’s experience and expertise.

A true relationship seller demonstrates their value as an expert in their field, and thus earns customers’ trust as a useful advisor on their future challenges, strategic initiatives and projects.

Credibility first, then relationship

It was fortunate for this particular seller that he worked mostly with existing customers, some of whom he had known for many years. His record for generating business in new accounts produced a mixed result. When I asked him why this was so, he answered, “I used to be able to meet with a new prospect, spend some time building rapport, and then talk about solutions. New customers are more reluctant to do that anymore – they want to get down to business quickly. It makes it hard to build a relationship.”

Research conducted by McKinsey2 explains why this is so – it shows that buyers’ decision processes have changed in a fundamental way. Today, emotional bonds with salespeople come after a buyer recognizes value, not before. “Likeability” is a good quality to possess as a salesperson, but it is not a guarantee of sales success – or even a requirement. The old adage, “People buy from people they like”, is no longer always true. Today, it is more productive for sellers to be seen as highly credible experts than to be liked.

One way to do this is to conduct research on a prospective customer in advance, and develop a provocative point of view, based on an initial value proposition. Sellers who demonstrate their experience and expertise by offering an estimate of potential impact for a solution are more likely to stimulate a buyer’s thinking and dissuade them from adhering to the status quo.

A true relationship seller first demonstrates their credibility by offering an initial value proposition to a buyer, rather than focusing initially on rapport building.

Value-based relationships

The best relationships are those based on value. Sellers who get credit for contributing value to the customer’s organization raise their level of relationship with customers more quickly. This starts with helping the customer to capture and measure the impact of the seller’s solutions.

One reason that value capture elevates sales relationship is because executive-level buyers need solid information about the rightness or wrongness of their operational decisions. This gives them confidence that they made correct choices, or can help them take a better alternative direction. Sellers who quantify the value of their solutions are therefore better able to gain direct access to executive-level contacts.

A true relationship seller captures and communicates the value that a customer receives from solutions, and thereby gains easier access to executive-level buyers.

I asked the salesperson if he ever took time to quantify the value that his customers received from his services. He silently shook his head “no”.

“You’ve given me a lot to think about,” he said. “Perhaps I’m not as good a relationship seller as I thought.”

Do your sellers pass the test?

If you think your sales team is good at “relationship selling”, ask these questions:

  • Do your sellers know all of the key players in their accounts, at both the operational and executive levels – and do they have access to all of them?
  • Do your sellers’ customers share advance information about future strategic initiatives or projects with them? Do they solicit your sellers’ advice about how they can solve problems or create new value?
  • Do your sellers develop initial value propositions for potential solutions, before they talk with buyers?
  • Do your sellers quantify, communicate and get credit for the value of solutions they provide to customers – preferably at the executive level?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, then your sellers’ level of relationship with customers is likely not to be as high as it could be. While your sellers may be highly likeable, those qualities may not be enough to maintain sales success.

Footnotes / Bibliography / Legal basis


  1. K.Eades, T.Sullivan The Collaborative Sale: Solution Selling in a Buyer Driven World, Wiley 2014

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