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The 3 Steps To Rehabilitate the Buyer/Sales Relationship

Do you think of Sales as a relationship of adversaries, friends, or partners? Of course if we put it that way, everyone will choose partners, but it rarely looks that way in practice. I recently talked to the head of a major tech advisory practice, and he said that only about 20% of his major client relationships allowed for true partnership. In the rest, he felt more like a lackey: called on when needed, expected to react immediately, then promptly ignored once a task was complete. Hardly a partnership. 

Sales is like that too often: We believe internally that the seller wants or needs the business more than the prospect needs the product being sold. I’m pretty sure this goes back to ancient times, and the buyer/seller relationship is encrusted deep in a place we’re not even conscious of. We just act it out.

I often draw the analogy to relationships, and to give you an idea of what I mean, I refer you to that encyclopedia of relationship insights that no one else is willing to talk about: George Costanza. Many product companies and sales organizations feel like George. No hand! I have spent a lot of my career trying to help product companies and sales people get out of that subservient attitude. For products, it’s all about competitive differentiation. Undifferentiated products, where we fast-follow our competitors, lead to commoditized selling efforts, and really take power away from sellers.

But the sales relationship can be reshaped too. Here I want to describe one concrete way for sales organizations, or a single sales rep, to take back some of the power. Thankfully, George has an answer in his world of relationships: the pre-emptive breakup. If you’re wondering how this might help your sales teams, I submit to you the proposal withdrawal Let’s break this into three phases.

Phase One: Withdraw your Sales Proposal

Phase One is to get a clean slate. It might seem counter-intuitive, but the best thing you can do is withdraw your sales proposal. In fact, withdraw from the sales process entirely. Sure, the potential sale is what brought you and your buyer together - but it’s also driving you apart. Maybe the terms aren’t right, maybe your goals are muddy, maybe you’ve both just lost sight of what it is you want - either way, the presence of the potential sale is putting pressure on the relationship you and the buyer have built. If you remove that pressure, you will be able to see one another clearly again, and not as embodiments of offers and counter-offers. It’s a good way to help the buyer recall what they liked about you in the first place. As a bonus, with the proposals withdrawn, you can also look at them with a clearer view. Remember that a sales relationship is typically an unequal one, with the buyer holding most of the power: removing yourself from the equation, freeing yourself from those power dynamics, will put both of you on a more even keel. Unbound, and without the pressure of the old pitches and the need to defend them or sell them, you can examine the buyer on their own terms. Conduct your own win/loss analysis: assess where things started to go wrong. Take the proposals apart and contrast them with other proposals you’ve made in the past - why is one not working where another succeeded? Did you make a mistake? Did the buyer make a mistake? Was there miscommunication? Have things just gotten out of hand: too many messages, too many promises, no clarity on what is and isn’t on the table anymore? Phase One is where you truly drop the sale and find out.

Phase Two: Rediscover your Buyer’s Needs

With Phase One under your belt, data in-hand from an internal win/loss, and the pressure relieved from the original sales proposals, it’s time for Phase Two. It’s time to start talking again, but it’s important not to repeat past mistakes. You can’t resell to the buyer with your previous proposal: that pitch helped get you into trouble in the first place. Things won’t be the same this time: you’re a little older, a little wiser, and unwilling to repeat past errors. From a sales perspective, that means you’ve got to rediscover what the buyer is really asking for, and how you’re going to provide it. This is where your win/loss analysis really comes into play because you’ve asked yourself the hard questions: did the sale stall, or did it die, and no one wanted to admit it? This rediscovery period is where you and your buyers have a chance to really commit to moving forward: there’s no point in even trying if everything is just going to stall again. It’s also a chance for you to sound each other out, see how well you can talk now that the proposal’s not weighing you down. You may find that communication is still a struggle, or you may not, but if rediscovery is underway, it’s time to move on to Phase Three.

Phase Three: Seek Third Party Objectivity

So you’ve given your withdrawn proposals a hard look, and your buyer is willing to give the sale another go. Now is the optimal time to bring-in a third party. Third parties don’t know your product the way you know it - you’re the one with the first-hand knowledge, you understand the possibilities of your product’s future - but they bring some well-needed objectivity. They don’t have any sour memories of a stalled sale, so they talk to the buyer without any preconceptions. Just as your internal win/loss analysis was a vital tool, third party win/loss analysis can provide a second set of eyes and ears, and maybe catch something you missed.

A third party can serve as a mediator between buyers and sellers who are still having problems talking. However, the role can be much more than that, too. It depends on what is it you want from a third party. Are you looking for a fresh perspective? Their critique? Their recommendations? or just their help as a mediator? Whatever you ask for, remember that the third-party is there to help; use them accordingly.

If the relationships you’ve built with your buyers matter to you, you owe it to yourself to do everything you can to keep them healthy. This means facing hard truths: you can’t just recognize the need to change your tactics, you have to actually change. It takes effort, and it’s why third-parties are last on the list: change, and the will to change, begins with you. If you’re not willing to do something drastic and shake-up a stalled sale, then nothing gets resolved, and that stalled sale will become a dead one, if it hasn’t died already. If you’re not talking, then the relationship is going to suffer, and that sale is never going to move forward.

Remove the pressure. Start talking, really talking. Get to know your buyer again.

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