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True Relationship Selling

Furniture World Magazine


Salespeople adopt a sales approach (a form) that sells something to the customer (the function).

In recent years a new concept in industrial design has been gaining steadily on, and has perhaps already surpassed the age old saying that form follows function. The new concept focuses on function following form. Because of this new focus, design engineers have taken a new look at traditional shapes and forms of such things as bicycle seats and computer key-boards and the like, and significantly modified them with intriguing results in function: more comfortable seating and pain-free keyboards. This new focus is akin to the saying in the sixties that the medium was the message. This focus on form first and function second will undoubtedly continue to dazzle us as product after product, like automobiles, computers, appliances and countless tools will take on radically new forms.

Nor will this new focus on form affect a relatively small percentage of aficionados as, say, in the case of abstract art. Instead the new focus on form by industrial designers will continue to affect the common person because of its affect upon countless commodities used countless times every day. This new focus on form will not be limited to the walls of some art museum or at the private gatherings of art lovers.

So impressed am I by the concept of function following form that I believe it will replace the traditional concept in selling in which the sales form follows the sales function. In other words, salespeople are urged to adopt a sales approach (a form) that sells something to the customer (the salesperson's function). To that end salespeople learn to shape their approaches and techniques to closing the sale.

Even in the more recent approach to selling called relationship or partnership selling, form seems to continue to follow function. Proof of this lies in the fact that authors like Brian Tracy have merely changed the percentage of emphasis to be placed on the various phases of selling as seen in the accompanying diagrams.

While the intent of such authors deserves approval, the fact that selling continues to be viewed by them as a numbers game belies that same intent. Such diagrams would leave the salesperson believing that empathy and trust are things to be taken on early in the sale as if by inoculation and then to work as antibodies for the duration of the selling sequence. Although I respect such mathematical formulas as the 80-20 Pareto principle in general, I have always looked with grave suspicion upon those sales systems which would look upon selling as a numbers game with precise percentages allotted to its different phases. The words of one author have never ceased to ring in my ears, "The trouble with memorizing our lines is that the customers keep on forgetting theirs!" Diagrams neatly placed in books and on flip charts are, by their very nature, static and though they easily lend themselves to the eager eyes of participants, they naturally fail to meet the tests of the dynamic world of selling which changes with each customer. The communication cycle within which each salesperson must function is not static at all, instead it is dynamically challenging enough to leave even those who have spent years both studying and practicing the art of selling feeling ever so humble. Like all art forms, which masterful selling assuredly is, the masters are always those who realize that beyond the mechanical mastery lies an intangible (and perhaps unteachable) artistry.

Having said that, let us move on to discuss what true relationship selling is, the kind that focuses on form first and function second, the kind that looks upon the relationship as one continual process from beginning to never-ending end. It is the paradox of the never-ending end that is especially fascinating.


Traditionally, selling has emphasized closing and even more recent books on the subject reveal in the end that getting the sale "now" is what really matters. Statements like "If you believe in be-backs, you might just as well believe in tooth fairies," would have salespeople feeling ashamed of themselves for ever allowing a customer to leave the store without having bought. While I share the conviction that too many customers leave without buying because of poorly trained salespeople, I remain steadfastly opposed to anyone who does not admit, at times, the best approach to selling is to honor the customer's decision to continue shopping. Honor is a word pregnant with quality. Only professional salespeople are capable of honoring such a decision out of respect; unprofessional salespeople are at best doomed to tolerate it with regret.

Earlier we mentioned that true relationship selling is never a number's game, that it focuses on form first, on function second. The form it focuses on takes its entire meaning from the customer's needs. As Zig Ziglar is fond of saying, "If you want the customer to give you what you want, first give the customer what he wants." The form selling takes must therefore grow out of the customer's needs. In that sense, relationship selling presents nothing new from the seminar originally developed by the Xerox people, "Professional Selling Skills" based on Need Satisfaction Selling. What is new in the kind of relationship selling I propose is the faith called for on the part of salespeople to look upon the phases of selling not primarily as a means of winning the customer's commitment to the purchase (getting the sale). That is the secondary aim. The primary aim of relationship selling must be that of winning the customer's trust. That is the form the entire sales sequence must take and not just a percentage of it, however great. For that reason, I have chosen to call this system CONTINUUM-RELATIONSHIP SELLING. Several sentences ago I stated this new system calls for faith. I meant that word to be understood in its legal and ethical sense, not in its religious sense.

Here is the thesis I propose as an outgrowth of continuum - relationship selling based on faith in the customer. Such selling will consistently win the customer's purchase only if the salespeople who use it make the eventual purchase their secondary or indirect aim. The primary aim must be to create a relationship of trust from beginning to never-ending end. By so doing, salespeople will consistently attain what Michael Le Boeuf intends in the title of his book, "How To Win Customers and Keep Them For Life."

Why the stress on faith in the customer? Because success shall only accompany those salespeople who proceed to use this new system of selling with sincerity, that is, with the deep-seated conviction that customers are owed relationship selling out of the common humanity which binds us all. Unless salespeople are thus convinced, it will be virtually impossible to transmit that feeling of trust to the customer with anything approaching consistency. Customers are very good at perceiving the lack of sincerity on the part of the salespeople they work with. As a result they seldom put their trust in such salespeople. Relationship selling, like a true singing voice, must sound true to the ears of the customer. For that reason, any attempt to analyze relationship selling into its component parts on a percentage basis fails to understand why relationship selling works. It works because the customer is won over by its sincerity throughout the continuum of selling. Because of this, the best salespeople do not simply look for moments of truth in the selling process but for one continuous moment of truth. Any lapse in the continuum perceived by customers threatens their trust and therefore their commitment to any purchase. But it is their trust which is threatened first and the sale second.

What then is the danger in faking a commitment to partnership selling? The danger is in the predictable ability of most customers to perceive the fakery and not lend their trust. The logical order of unsuccessful sales is the loss of customer trust first, the loss of the sale second, though most salespeople may see it simply as the loss of a sale: "Damn customer; why'd he come in if he had no intention of buying?" Or: "That customer wouldn't know a bargain if it bit him in the nose." Those of us who have been in sales long enough recognize ourselves as having uttered similar words at least once or twice. Such utterances are always a sign of the failure we salespeople feel about something we feel helpless to do anything about.

Until we make up our mind to do the only thing we are capable of doing each and every time--win the customer's trust--we shall repeatedly be the victims of our own misguided selling. Relationship selling, perceived as an end in itself first and only as a means to an end second, is the salesperson's only assurance of successful selling, once we define successful selling as winning customers and keeping them for life. Understand that and you understand the paradox of the never-ending end, a paradox which will never cease to fascinate you.

Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD at pmarino@furninfo.com.