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Is Relationship Building in Sales Dead?

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Written by Mike Schultz
President, RAIN Group

There's been a lot of noise the last couple years declaring relationship selling dead. "The Internet has changed everything." "Personal connections don't matter anymore." "Selling is not about relationships." "Throw out everything you thought you knew about sales, Armageddon is coming!" Blah, blah, etc.

As we've discussed before, we strongly disagree with the idea that selling is not about relationships. Relationship building is still critical to winning sales. But it has changed. We wanted to know exactly how—from the buyers' perspective.

So we studied more than 700 buyers representing $3.1 billion in annual B2B purchases across multiple industries to learn what sales winners did differently from sellers who came in second.

We found that sales winners consistently do three things: They connect, convince, and collaborate with buyers. Our research found that sales winners make strong personal connections at more than double the rate of second-place finishers. Relationship building in sales is far from dead. So what's changed?

Hand Shakes, Lucky Strikes and Three-Martini Lunches

Let's first take a look back at how sales relationships were forged in the Mad Men era.

Classic relationship selling in the 1960s involved a lot of schmoozing (and boozing). It was, "Let's have lunch. Let's have dinner. Let's go to a show. Let's go to Sardi's. Let's meet the family. Let's do it again." Then, "OK, I like you. Let's do business."

The relationship came first in a world that was very localized, where buyers and sellers could sit down face to face.

So what happened in those three-martini lunches and personal connections?

Relationship building in sales occurs in two categories—personal connection (based on common affinity and liking one another) and business value (connection based on strength of business impact). When sellers build personal connections with buyers, they lay the foundation for trust and establish their business value. In the Mad Men days, personal connection often came first, before the sale occurred.


Source: Schultz, Mike, and John E. Doerr. Insight Selling: Surprising Research on What Sales Winners Do Differently. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

Now, some business writers are saying, "Don't bother with that. A personal connection is unimportant. Relationship builders aren’t top performers." Or they define relationship building in anachronistic terms such as "being generous with your time" or "making everyone happy and harmonious." We don't see relationship building that way. But, in any case, it's not dead. Not by a long shot.

How Sales Relationships Have Changed

Relationship building, the personal side, is still critical to earning trust and winning sales.

What has changed is the way customers form relationships with sellers. Today's sellers and buyers often determine business value first. They vet each other's businesses and decide if they want to work together—but they don't go out for extended cocktail-tipping lunches like in the Mad Men days.

Today, the business interaction comes first, with the relationship being the reward customers give sellers who work for it. That doesn't mean the personal connection is any less valuable.


Source: Schultz, Mike, and John E. Doerr. Insight Selling: Surprising Research on What Sales Winners Do Differently. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

As insight sellers establish themselves as trustworthy sources of value, buyers open up to an exchange of information and ideas. If the buyer likes and trusts you, they're more apt to take your advice. This increases your business value, along with the frequency and depth of interactions with the buyer. That's a solid buyer-seller relationship. It just happens in a different order than in the wine-and-dine-the-client-before-they-buy times.

Personal connections and being liked helps the seller become essential. In fact, our research found that sellers who weren't liked lost sales. However, being liked alone was not enough to consistently win sales. Sellers who were only liked and did nothing else still lost.

The value of relationship building isn't an either/or proposition in sales. It's a yes/and. We're not tossing out everything we've learned about sales and relationship building—we're adding to it.

Indeed, the world has changed. The rhythm has changed. The order in which we do things has changed. But what hasn't changed is the need to be liked and make strong personal connections. Dismissing the value of personal connection is ill-advised.

Relationship building in sales is alive and well. We don't see that changing any time soon.

What Sales Winners Do Differently@2x

Last Updated July 25, 2023

Topics: Insight Selling