One of the ways we make trouble for ourselves and others is to categorize and rank things. Our strong tendency to rank, well, everything, often finds us suggesting one thing is more important, or better than some other thing. On a recent post on LinkedIn, one comment suggested that there was evidence that relationship sellers fared the worst when it comes to sales. The person commenting lacked information, as that isn't exactly true. For those aware of the book, The Challenger Sale, Challengers had the second highest score on relationships.
A false dichotomy forces a person to choose between two items. It's something like, “Do you love your mom or your dad?" It is possible, in fact it's likely, that you love both (even though each may have a favorite child that remains undisclosed). Let's tease apart relationship selling and consultative selling and see if we can't merge them back together in some meaningful way.
The Nature of Relationship Selling
The main idea that defines relationship selling is that the salesperson is focused on developing a relationship with their prospective clients. They work to develop rapport, and they spend as much time as possible with their prospect. They try to be as helpful as possible, creating value for their contact. The time spent with their prospective client and their willingness to invest in the relationship creates trust, and the trust makes it easier for the prospective to buy from this person.
Salespeople on the far end of the relationship selling spectrum get into trouble by needing to be liked, causing them to avoid conflict, as they fear it will harm their relationship with their contact. This is a different variety of relationship selling, this species of salesperson is really an order-taker.
The Nature of a Consultative Selling
The main idea in consultative selling is that the salesperson sits alongside their client, helping them to understand the internal and external forces or factors that cause them to have results that are not acceptable. The consultative seller helps the client understand the root cause of their poor results, educating the client on the decisions they will need to take, and providing them with counsel, advice, and recommendations.
Even though I believe that world has turned, and the new rapport-building is a business conversation when speaking to a businessperson, there are still plenty of consultative salespeople who use the more common rapport-building. There are also places and cultures where not doing so will lower your chances of winning the client's business. In other places, this rapport-building will cause your contact to believe you are a time waster.
Every Client is a Relationship
Unless you are using a transactional selling approach, having a client means having a relationship. It's not something you can avoid, and, like all relationships, it comes with a cost. That cost is made up of time, attention, and value creation. Because this is true, we don't have to choose between relationship selling and consultative selling. Instead, we need to merge them to understand where these two come together.
Merging Relationship Selling with Consultative Selling
Let's begin by looking at relationships. You are pursuing a large client, your dream client. You know for certain that you are competing with three other salespeople. Would you want your contacts to be more comfortable working with you? Would you want them to have greater trust in you than the three people working to win the client? If your approach allowed you to create an advantage by spending more time with the people who will eventually decide who to buy from, would that be worth the investment of time and attention?
One of the factors that decision-makers and their teams make is whether the salesperson knows them and their business. Another factor is whether the salesperson can help them improve their results, which now moves us directly to consultative selling.
It is possible that you can have an outstanding relationship with your contacts without creating value for them outside of the relationship. The consultative selling approach corrects the error of believing the relationship is the only variable the client is going to consider. Sadly, we allow B2b salespeople to believe that they are responsible for providing information about their company and how their products and services can solve their problems. We should be teaching, training, and enabling an approach that feels more like a business advisor. The best salespeople today are One-Up, possessing the knowledge and experience to lead their clients using a consultative selling approach.
The Trusted Advisor
Your prospective client can trust you but not like you. They can also like you but not trust you to help them improve their results. But it is always better for your future clients to both like you and trust you, even if one of the reasons they like you is because you can help them by filling the gaps in their knowledge and experience.
In a lot of cases, the trusted advisor need only win the client's business once. The combination of an excellent working relationship and the ability to improve their client's results can find you with an absolute right to the next initiative your contact is considering, one that won't find your contacts considering your competitors.
There is no reason to believe that having a relationship with your contacts is going to harm your results unless you are unwilling to tell your contacts the ugly truth or because you don't create any real value as it pertains to the client's results. But being a trusted advisor comes with a charge some are unwilling to keep: The truth at any price, even the price of the deal.
You are always going to have a relationship with your clients, but what kind of relationship is up to you. The best advice is to ignore the false dichotomy that is relationship selling or consultative selling and practice an approach that includes elements of both.