B2B Selling. It’s About Relationships, Right?

August 17th, 2009 Posted by B2B Selling 11 thoughts

In short, no.

Growing your existing business with a particular customer or client may very well be about cultivating the relationship, but getting customers in the first place is not. While relationships with referral sources can lead to referrals, relationships with prospects will often only create a sale if everything else is equal.

Consider the following scenario. A prospect you would really like to land is doing business with another company like yours. Common wisdom suggests the first thing to do is establish a relationship with the prospect. Let him get to know your company. Get some face time. Build some trust. Then, you’ll get an opportunity to quote or present a proposal.

So you send him something. You have a telephone conversation. Engage in social media activities. Get a meeting. Have lunch. Take him golfing.

Then, after several months, you get the opportunity to make a presentation. The presentation goes well, and you feel you have established a rapport with the prospect. Afterwards, you keep in contact with the prospect, periodically calling him or sending him things to show you’re thinking of him and his business.

Finally, after about six or eight months, the prospect gives you the chance to quote on something.

This is your big chance! If you do well here, you not only have a shot at getting this sale, but also the rest of his business. You and your team spend countless hours responding to the RFQ or RFP. You check the specifications. You identify areas where you can save them money. You carefully craft responses to their questions. Several internal meetings are devoted to establishing the right pricing and estimates. Then you send it off, go have a beer with your tired team, and hope.

Later you learn that you didn’t get the job. The prospect is cordial. He sincerely thanks you for your time and says you did fine, but they chose to go with their existing provider. You ask some questions to help you understand why they chose not to go with you. The prospect gives you some feedback and assures you you’ll get another chance.

A few months pass and, sure enough, there’s another opportunity. Using what you learned, you go through the same process again. This time, however, you sharpen your pencil a bit more. You say, “Let’s just get the job. Once they work with us, they’ll see how we’re different, and we’ll do lots more work with them.”

Finally after a few more proposals, you get the good news. You got the job! Quick. Marshall the resources. Put the team together. Make sure we do a great job—and make sure we over serve them so there’s no way they’ll go back to their old provider.

The job goes well, great even—from your perspective. And sure enough, you get the opportunity to propose on the next opportunity—along with a host of competitors.

What Happened???

What happened is simply all too common.
You didn’t win the work because of the relationship. The “relationship” won you the opportunity to bid on something. You won the work based on price—and your willingness to lower that price to an unsustainable level.

You spent a lot of time, money, and effort chasing this prospect—and you were reimbursed for none of it. What you got in the end was a sale that is, at best, marginally profitable. When considering everything that went into it, you probably took this sale at a loss—all in the hope of future opportunities.

In the process, you gave your prospect information that allowed him to get price concessions out of his existing provider. Now there are at least two of you who are willing to do the work for a lot less.

You also convinced your prospect it’s not about the relationship. It’s about price. Despite your beliefs that the value you bring to customers is different than your competitors, you convinced your prospect otherwise. You convinced him it wasn’t about the relationship. And it wasn’t about the unique value you bring to the table, either.

The Role of Positioning

Relationships with referral sources can get you opportunities. However, relationships with prospects will almost never swing a sweet deal your way. If your ability to get in the door—to get to the table—relies upon your relationship with the prospect, you might get the job if your price is the same as your competitors’. If your price is higher, your prospect might say he’ll give it to you if you can get your price in line. Is that really what you want?

On the other hand, if your company is well positioned in the marketplace—if it’s seen as being one of the leading suppliers of specific solutions and a company for which there are few credible substitutes in the market—you’ll not only get to the table quickly and easily, you’ll be proactively invited. You won’t waste months trying to cajole your prospect into throwing you a bone.

You’ll also protect your margins. Profit margin is a function of positioning. Properly positioned companies don’t play the low-price game. They don’t have to. Their prospects see them as having something different. Their prospects don’t have to be convinced; their prospects want to buy. Properly positioned companies don’t have to sell. They merely have to facilitate the buying process.

If you’re spending a lot of time, money, and energy developing “relationships” with prospects, you’re likely spending a lot of time, money, and energy chasing low-margin work—and you’re devaluing what you offer to prospects.

If the above scenario sounds all too familiar, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate how you’re positioning your company in the marketplace.

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11 thoughts on “B2B Selling. It’s About Relationships, Right?”

  1. Galen,
    Great post. I wanted to also add that better positioning helps get the introductory appointment. We have found that better positioning delivered through nurturing can increase not only the number of meetings, but also the conversion rate to opportunity.

    That, combined with your increased throughput of success when positioning is improved, is a win-win strategy.

    More in a blog article here: https://www.damphousse.org/2009/06/b2b-appointment-setting-best-if.html?blogcomment

  2. Thanks, Mike.

    You’re absolutely right. The right positioning does get you the meeting. It also makes sure you’re on the short list from the start. Frankly, its amazing what proper positioning can do, and yet so may companies continue to spend huge sums just for the opportunity to battle it out on price. Amazing.

  3. Ardath Albee says:

    Hi Galen,

    Great post! And right on target. Positioning, done well, builds a value-based relationship – not just an acquaintance factor.

    The situation you describe is kind of like embracing the adage, “People buy from people they know,” without looking deeper into what that means. With positioning, that adage can shift to “People buy from people they know provide value they can’t get elsewhere.”

  4. John Bottom says:

    Like it, Galen. A buyer has every reason for listening to you but, unless you offer something distinctive (ie you have a distinctive positioning) they have no reason to actually buy.

  5. Mike Marn says:

    Nice contrarian post, Galen. The examples are real enough, and it’s an excellent, if not very subtle, endorsement for what Proteus is about,

    The one exception to your caution, however, is golf, You HAVE to take the prospect to play golf, and in most cases, take your senior creative people along.
    Other than that, you’re right on….

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  7. Galen………….the scenario you described is unfortunately a familar one.

    Two additional thoughts:
    1) if after the first lost deal you haven’t changed your positioing in your prospects mind I would walk away from that prospect. That would save the company $$.
    2) there are times when you win the business the first time around. That occurs when you combine the relationship with your unique value aka positioning.

    Selling by relying completely on relationship is not effective.


  8. William King says:

    It’s quite apparent that one will get sales if he/she is offering prospect a distinctive and different kind of service. Establishing a relationship with the prospect is major tactic in B2B selling. All you have to do is to gain trust but the service should also be distinguishing and more prominent to the prospect.

  9. Pingback: The Long Hello. Building brand-relationships in B2B

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