The Importance Of Relationships In Enterprise Sales

One of my favorite questions to ask when interviewing a potential sales hire is: “given your experience in sales, if you had to write a book about sales, and you wanted to sell a lot of copies, what would be the theme or the thesis or the title of the book, what insight would you bring?” Much to my dismay, the candidate will often sit back and say something like, “that one is easy, relationships, it’s all about relationships”.

This is a disappointing answer. And it also isn't true. I don’t think it is all about relationships. Especially when selling innovation. People buy from a seller because they think they believe it'll move their company forward or, more selfishly, they'll get a raise or a promotion or a bonus at the end of the year after they roll out the product. They don’t buy from a company because they like playing golf with the salesperson.

That said, for some products it's different. For some products, successful selling is driven by good relationships.

This got me thinking about which products are sold based on relationships and which aren't.

I think a lot of it is driven by the life-cycle stage of the product and the level of competition in the product's vertical.  For example, when when out to sell their first cloud-based CRM product to its first group of customers, it wasn’t about building a relationship. It was about convincing early adopters to completely rethink the way they manage their customer data. It was about getting big companies that were stuck in their ways to make a massive mind-shift. You can't do that with a relationship. You do that with thought leadership and creating a vision and great communication. Of course, it probably didn't hurt if they built a nice relationship along the way but there’s no way that was what was driving their deals at that stage.

On the other hand, when Benjamin Moore sales reps sell paint to a commercial real estate developer, it probably is very much about the relationship. The products are more of less the same, so it comes down to price, and how much the buyer likes the seller.

This chart illustrates my point:

Relationship Chart

When a product is brand new and innovative, relationships matters less than when the product is mature and commoditized by lots of competition.

Of course, the line is probably not this linear. For the first 1 or 2 customers, relationships typically matter a lot (often these are friendlies) and the importance of relationships probably levels out at some stage of product maturity. But I don't want to over-think the simple point.

It’s worth salespeople taking some time to think about how they sell and whether or not the product they're selling is at the right stage for their skill-set.

You might not want a relationship salesperson selling structural innovation and you might not want a disruptive salesperson selling paint.