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This is the title of a Harvard Business Review article that has caused a bit of a stir in sales circles.

The authors divide (B2B) salespeople into five groups and argue that, of the five profiles, one significantly out-performs the others – and that one under-performs, to a similar degree.

Here are the five profiles (in the authors’ own words):

Relationship Builders focus on developing strong personal and professional relationships and advocates across the customer organization. They are generous with their time, strive to meet customers’ every need, and work hard to resolve tensions in the commercial relationship.

Hard Workers show up early, stay late, and always go the extra mile. They’ll make more calls in an hour and conduct more visits in a week than just about anyone else on the team.

Lone Wolves are the deeply self-confident, the rule-breaking cowboys of the sales force who do things their way or not at all.

Reactive Problem Solvers are, from the customers’ standpoint, highly reliable and detail-oriented. They focus on post-sales follow-up, ensuring that service issues related to implementation and execution are addressed quickly and thoroughly.

Challengers use their deep understanding of their customers’ business to push their thinking and take control of the sales conversation. They’re not afraid to share even potentially controversial views and are assertive — with both their customers and bosses.

The authors’ research suggests that while salespeople are distributed evenly across these five categories, 40% of high-performers are Challengers while only 7% are Relationship Builders.

While this study’s methodology is questionable, it does remind me of an interesting (and painful) story from our own history.

A real salesperson

Years ago, I decided to experiment with the addition of a professional salesperson – someone who could free me to start work on the book that I’m in the process of finishing currently.

I was in two minds as to the nature of the individual who we should employ.

One option was to employ someone like yours truly. Someone who was naturally skeptical of the status quo. And someone who enjoyed conflict – who viewed it as a necessary and healthy ingredient in the problem-solving process.

The other option was to employ someone who fitted the mold of what I (at the time) regarded as a real salesperson. Someone who was agreeable and inoffensive. Someone who who would love customers into buying from us (as opposed to terrorizing them!)

I chose the latter.

I really wanted Arthur (not his real name) to succeed. I gave him my executive assistant – along with the promotional support required to fill his calendar with 15-20 sales meetings a week.

And I travelled with him for weeks, demonstrating to him exactly how I went about selling.

The conversations we had between appointments were interesting. Arthur would scold me for being demanding, abrasive and aloof in meetings – and I would agree with him that my conduct was somewhat heavy-handed and reflect on the fact that everything would be better once Arthur was firmly in the driver’s seat. We both concluded that we were making sales in spite of – and not because of – my boardroom antics.

When Arthur was firmly in the driver’s seat, everything proceeded to plan – except for the sales, that is! In the five months Arthur was with us, he sold only one engagement (and that was with my assistance). Aside from that, he sold NOTHING.

During this period, I managed to stumble across 10 or 12 new clients, in spite of the fact that I was doing my level-best to avoid selling (and stay home and write a book).

I’m ashamed that it wasn’t the total absence of sales that convinced me to get rid of Arthur. It was the steadily-increasing volume of calls from potential (and existing) clients complaining that Arthur added no value whatsoever in his meetings.

The message from the chorus was clear. They didn’t need a good-looking, personable, well-dressed fellow to warm a seat in their boardroom and agree with everything they said. What they really wanted was someone with a critical eye who’d challenge their base assumptions and compel them to think differently.

“This”, and I heard these words over and over again, “was what attracted us to Ballistix in the first place.”

Obviously, a single data point adds no weight to the argument above but, in my experience, at least, it’s true that selling is NOT about relationships.

The death of field sales

You may have already gotten word that I’m presenting a webinar in a couple of weeks with this title.

There’s more than a touch of hyperbole in the title, of course, but I will  be arguing that, in many cases, organizations should be moving the sales front-line inside.  I’ll present both an economic and an effectiveness argument for this.

The link is here: http://ripfieldsales.eventbrite.com/

The initial batch of tickets for this event sold-out overnight but I’ve upped the capacity of the webinar service and released more tickets. If you miss-out, please join the wait list and we’ll either up the capacity again or we’ll schedule another event soon.

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Home Forums Selling is not about relationships

This topic contains 4 replies, has 2 voices, and was last updated by  Justin Roff-Marsh 6 years, 3 months ago.

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  • #1739 Reply


    That article was to promote a book the authors recently published. I’ve bought it for my shelf, but haven’t read it yet: The Challenger Sale.

    It suggests that the odds are in favour of a person who exhibits this kind of behaviour:
    * offer a unique perspective
    * use two-way communication skills
    * understand the customer value drivers and can identify economic drivers
    * are comfortable discussing money
    * can pressure the customer
    …in other words, they Teach, Tailor and Assert Control.

    Which is the kind of person your former employee was not.

    #1740 Reply


    I agree absolutely.

    While I’m concerned by their methodology, I very much like their premise — which is probably to be expected, considering that I’ve always sold like this.

    Increasingly, I’m forming the opinion that those ‘selling’ situations that favor relationship-builders should probably not be referred to as selling situations in the first place (transactions is a better word), and they should be brought inside to be handled by an inside team.


    #1741 Reply


    I would like to verify the methodology too, but even without having done that I know of two key caveats: (1) their recommendation would only be a best fit for the kind of environment the sales people were in. It’s said it was for large-scale complex B2B deals (which is what I’m interested in too).

    However its Challenger type would probably not be suitable for high-volume manufactured goods sold via channels, nor for most acquisition sales of B2B cloud/Xaas offerings, for example.

    (2) I think it presumes that people do not have the self-development to switch between behaviour types, to adapt to the situation at hand, to be a situationally-aware sales person. I think that’s a false conclusion for some people who are capable of bringing different parts of themselves to the fore, when required.

    I agree with your point about relationship-oriented selling. If its the better model, then perhaps its better to not even call it a sales situation. That’s a subtle point, but merits bearing out. After reframing the situation, you would then decide whether to use field or inside sales (depends on your market, transaction value and other factors).

    Actually that would help you recruit people too. Instead of calling it “sales” you could call it relationship management, and you’d gain a large field of applicants who may well not be so money-hungry, driven, or aggressive. Introverts perhaps. You’d have to interview for them differently too.

    #1742 Reply

    I agree with with most of what you say.

    But, I suspect there are many ‘relationship builders’ who simply don’t have the ability to operate in a ‘challenger’ environment. Personally, I’m sure I could operate in a ‘relationship’ environment if my life depended on it. But, if I had the option, I’d just as soon leave and do something more challenging.

    With the exception of retail environments, I think that repeat and commodity sales will / should move online and inside (inside sales and customer service teams). It simply doesn’t make economic sense anymore to prosecute these transactions in the field.

    That’s what my upcoming webinar’s about.

    And you’re right, in the correct environment, someone’s who’s knowledgeable and personable will often outperform a traditional ‘closer’.

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