Sales is not about personal relationships

Salespeople (and other folks who should know better) accept it as a given that sales is all about personal relationships.

The problem with this position is that:

  1. It’s not generally true.
  2. It’s a default assumption that informs the design of most sales environments.

However, because it sounds reasonable enough, this assumption rarely gets questioned.

So let’s question it now.

It’s easy to identify a scenario where the personal relationship between a salesperson and a prospect does add value. In a major-account-sales environment, it’s often not possible for the prospect to make a purely objective purchasing decision. They lack the knowledge required to do so (or a trading history with the potential vendor). So, in this environment, a prospect will (understandably) use their personal relationship with the salesperson as a proxy for the commercial relationship they expect to have with the vendor.

Fair enough.

However, in most organizations, only a small percentage of revenue comes from such transactions. Most revenue originates from existing accounts and, even where new accounts are concerned, must transactions do not fall into the major-account-sales category.

So, when we examine the assumption that sales is all about personal relationships, let’s consider the ordinary transactions that generate 80% of an organization’s revenue, not the extraordinary 20%.

Operational dysfunction enables salespeople’s personal relationships

Where ordinary transactions are concerned, the truth is that salespeople’s personal relationships add value to the extent that the organization is operationally dysfunctional.

Think about why customers make contact with your organization. Is it because they are in need of personal relationships? Unless you’re a dating agency (or similar), obviously not. They want whatever it is you’re selling. Legal advice, hydraulic componentry, custom point-of-purchase displays, or whatever. And they want a high-quality product (or service), delivered fast, for a reasonable price.

If you discover that your customers’ transactions are contingent on personal relationships you should be very concerned.

If you are operationally efficient, personal relationships will actually detract from most transactions—meaning that your prospects will avoid them. The reason is those personal relationships with salespeople will add friction (or lag) to transactions. In a healthy business, customers will naturally gravitate to the most efficient purchasing channel. Meaning, if they can, they’ll purchase online and, if they can’t, they’ll transact via customer service, inside sales or field sales (in that order of preference).

I’m sure you won’t be surprised if I suggest (humbly) that, if your organization is operationally dysfunctional, it makes more sense to identify and fix the root cause of the dysfunction than it does to deploy salespeople to treat the symptoms!

Operational dysfunction is just a simple way of stating that an organization doesn’t keep its promises. Or, to be more blunt, that it tells lies. It doesn’t deliver on time or it delivers defective products (or services)—which is the same as failing to deliver on time.

The root cause is simple to identify (but harder to fix). The root cause is that the schedule is not sacrosanct. An organization’s schedule is a log of activities that must be performed as planned for the organization to deliver orders on time. It might take the form of a job board in a production environment or a set of project plans in a project environment.

Most organizations know how to build an effective schedule. How to identify the sequence of activities that must be performed to produce the required product. And how to estimate both the duration of these activities and the safety that must be added to provide a high level of confidence that each order will be delivered on time.

Your schedule is valuable for as long as it is representative of reality. However, if you allow your schedule to misrepresent the nature of reality then your organization will quickly become chaotic. And it will become more chaotic faster if salespeople are involved in ordinary transactions.

The vicious cycle

Here’s what happens:

  1. A customer demands an aggressive lead time for an order
  2. The salesperson says yes, without conferring with the scheduler
  3. After winning the order the salesperson uses their influence to force this order onto the schedule
  4. The scheduler adds the order to the schedule—without replanning the schedule—hoping that there will be sufficient safety to absorb this rush order (but suspecting that there won’t be)
  5. When it becomes apparent that the order will be late, the salesperson uses their influence (again) to lobby for the priority of the order (internally) and to beg for forgiveness (externally)
  6. The customer observes the effort that the salesperson is expending in order to get their order delivered on time and (grudgingly) appreciates their involvement
  7. Even if this order is delivered on time, the average on-time performance of the organization takes a step backwards
  8. In an effort to mitigate late orders, your scheduler adds more safety and, consequently quotes longer lead times for jobs
  9. Salespeople, realizing that the quoted leadtimes are entirely unrealistic, resolve to ignore the scheduler altogether
  10. Those customers that don’t take their business elsewhere, demand even more aggressive leadtimes—padding their schedules to compensate for their lack of confidence

Sadly, the dysfunction above is surprisingly common.

You will only break out of this vicious cycle when you are prepared to make (and honor) a simple commitment: the schedule is sacrosanct.

The end of organizational dysfunction

The significance of this commitment is that your schedule is always representative of reality. It means that no one can EVER crash the schedule. This commitment does not mean that you must say no to any particular order: you can always replan the schedule. And it does not mean that you necessarily have to turn away work: you can always add more capacity (a second shift, perhaps).

What it actually means is that you can never tell lies.

In the absence of organizational dysfunction, the salespeople’s personal relationships cease to be of strategic significance. And, rather than maintaining personal relationships, salespeople are free to find something more productive to which they can apply their time. Sales, perhaps?