Buyer Relationships: I do not think it means what you think it means

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In the movie the “Princess Bride”, the character Vizzini continually uses the exclamation “inconceivable!” to describe events he is witnessing. If the ship


pursuing him is gaining on him, he cries out “inconceivable!”. When the masked man scales the Cliffs of Despair and catches up to the crew he believed to be uncatchable, he repeats. “Inconceivable!”. Eventually, after several rounds of this, his sword-fighting Spanish companion Inigo Montoya says “You keep using that word. I do not think that word means what you think it means.” It is not only conceivable that this team will be caught by the masked man, but it is in fact happening

When I work with sales people, I hear many uses of the word “relationship”, and very often I want to reply as Inigo Montoya does: “You keep saying that word. I do not think that word (relationship) means what you think it means.”

I’m not saying that every sales person gets it wrong. Clearly some relationships work for both the buyer and the seller. But many do get it wrong, and it’s costing your company money.

First, though, let me defend the sales person. It’s not her fault. We (company management) sets her up. Sales is one of the most anxiety-producing jobs out there precisely because we think of it as such a personal thing. We think that sales people need to be smooth or slick and able to build rapport and retain personal relationships. Sales people are often the most highly compensated in the business, and in some cases earn more than the CEO. We wouldn’t reward them this way unless we thought that a lot of their success came down to them. Similarly, if they fail, it must also be their fault. And we are surprised when they feel insecure.

Sales people themselves do, however, collaborate with this myth of personality. I often hear “why we won” reports, and they attribute wins to their own success in building personal relationships and the prowess of the sales engineer. Losses, by contrast, are attributed to product deficiencies (quality, features, ease-of-use), lack of interest, lack of budget, competitive discounting (price).

Like any good myth, parts of it are true some of the time.  But there are two problems. First, relationships play a role in both wins and losses. And second, the word “relationship” means something very different to your buyer than you, or your sales team, probably thinks. I do not think it means what you think it means.

All Give, No Get

One of the most common mistakes that I see in sales behavior is what I call “All Give, No Get”.

There are many flavors of this. When we first make contact with a buyer, it is as though we frame the whole discussion with a single question: “what can I do for you?”. Sellers will meet according to the buyer’s schedule, bring resources into the conversation for free and without any reciprocal action on the buyer’s part. Sellers will spend endless time with the buyer answering questions without getting many valuable questions answered by the buyer. Sellers do of course ask basic questions to qualify the prospect, but quite often these are about technical fit and budget. They are asking for information, not for commitments of increasing value from the seller. Many seller/buyer relationships end up in being unbalanced and asymmetrical where the buyer can ask for anything, the seller will give whatever management will allow him to give, the seller asks for very little in return, and the buyer develops a feeling of power in the relationship over the seller. We sometimes get the sense that sellers are working for the buyer to get the best deal possible from the company they are supposed to represent.

How did things get this way?

A lot of the behavior described above comes from a fundamental place of insecurity on the part of the sales rep and the selling organization. Insecurity can be both an individual trait and a cultural trait; if a sales leader sets an insecure tone (we will do anything to get a deal), the company will follow that approach. That behavior will be rewarded and the company will attract reps who act in similar ways.

Insecurity comes from a place of undervaluing what we have to offer. There are a few different ways to undervalue what we have:

  1. undervaluing the product or service that we are selling. Very few of the reps that I interview can give me a clear description of the impact that they can have on the business that is buying from them, or on the career and satisfaction of the individual(s) driving the purchase decision. Those who can describe this often provide ROI or cost/benefit analyses that they as the seller have created. These rarely match with the buyer’s perception of benefit.
  2. undervaluing the seller’s time and company resources: How often do you hear a sales rep say “no” to a customer request for a demo, visit, price quote, proposal, or other uses of the company’s resources? How often does the sales team ask for something in return for these valuable items? Enough said?
  3. Overvaluing each individual deal:  If the sales rep cares so much about this particular deal, she will automatically want to cut price and give stuff away for free.

The result of all of this is that you end up with many asymmetrical relationships with your buyers, where you give a lot and they get a lot. You sacrifice margins and profitability, which ultimately undermines your competitiveness as a company. And if your company is less competitive, this is in fact bad for your buyer too. In the long run, asymmetrical relationships are bad for both parties.

In my next article I will talk about what I think a more healthy relationship might look like and some specific ways that you can improve things, whether you sit in product marketing, sales management, or in direct sales.

– Alan

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