Why Relationship Selling is Doomed for Failure

I read a lot. A couple newspapers a day (WSJ, FT), ~20 blogs that I follow, countless articles/papers I find on the web/twitter (via Instapaper), and ~30 books a year (98% non-fiction). It keeps me current and I hope that it gives me an edge.

Despite all of this reading, its probably been 10 years since I picked up a ‘how to’ book on sales. Somehow, one of these (The Challenger Sale) made it onto my Amazon wish list late last year (I don’t recall why) and my sister gifted it to me for Christmas. I begrudgingly picked it up last night and quickly realized that the authors' had managed to put into words, an issue that I was aware of and had sensed, but could not articulate. While the book carries the goofy title of ‘The Challenger Sale’, the insight is far from goofy and in fact, practical and useful.

The premise is that the world of sales has changed. While it was first about product selling and then solution selling, clients are now demanding something well beyond either of those. The problem is that the traditional sales approaches put a huge burden on the customer. If a sales rep is focused on asking questions (i.e. what is keeping you up at night?, etc.), this ‘discovery’ becomes a ‘Ping-Pong match between the supplier and customer. The customer explains their needs, the rep summarizes her understanding, the customer confirms whether or not the rep got it right, she creates a proposal…” This is a burden on the client, and that is why clients quickly lose interest. Given that everyone is time-starved and many decisions have truly become consensus-driven (across IT, lines of business, etc.) a new approach and type of sales person is needed.

The authors’ research concludes that there are 5 types of sales reps:

1) The Hard Worker- self-motivated, responds to everything, goes extra mile
2) The Relationship Builder- builds strong advocates, generous w time, gets along with everyone
3) The Reactive Problem Solver- reliably responds to all requests, ensures problems are solved
4) The Lone Wolf- follows instincts, self-assured, difficult to control
5) The Challenger- always has a different view of the world, understands the clients business, loves to debate, pushes the customer

The conclusion of the research is that most sales organizations are heavy on ‘The Relationship Builder’, along with ‘The Hard Worker’. Yet, clients only get true value from ‘The Challenger’.

The attributes of The Challenger include:

-Offers the customer unique perspectives (provocative)
-Strong 2-way communication skills
-Knows the individual customers value drivers
-Is comfortable discussing money
-Pressures the client
-Not trying to win a popularity contest. They are ok with turning off some people.
-Pushes customer out of their comfort zone

As you look at these attributes, you can see why the authors’ later conclude that in our modern sales environment, ‘ Relationship Builders are doomed to fail.’

As any of us look at our organizations, we immediately know who ‘The Challengers’ are and who the others are. It’s evident in their behavior, but even more evident in their results. The Challengers are the ones that consistently deliver and also bring in the homeruns. This is because of their ability to Teach (the client), Tailor (the message), and Take control.

The rest of the book details how to develop Challengers, structure sales cycles, and ultimately transform the mindset of a sales team. I recommend it, with the understanding that revamping a sales team in the mold would take significant time.

However, my view is that every sales rep and team can evolve to this approach, simply by being aware of it, and using it to guide the next client meeting.


  1. Thanks for the post Rob. I think I will put this book on my reading list too. Understanding the attributes of a Challenger and how it applies to a successful sales organization, I also see many benefits if these same attributes were more strongly demonstrated in IBM finance. In a rapidly data intensive world, finance needs to take a more active role in using the data to challenge and guide our line leaders to make the right personal opinion is that we are heavy on the "Reactive Problem Solvers". Looking forward to reading the details about how to develop more Challengers and applying that in finance.

  2. Fully agree with you, Rob. Relationship is not always working. I also wrote some article based on my sales experience and would like to share it with you.