What is the Relationship Gap in sales?

8 minute read

The relationship gap is the difference between the current and desired states of influence and support. To bridge this, sales teams need to look at their stakeholder maps, and consider how relationship mapping tools can help.

Why is understanding the relationship gap in your accounts important?

Are relationships the lifeblood of your deals?

In a competitive landscape, the strength of your relationships with the right decision maker often determines your success as a seller.  But how do you assess the health of your relationships with decision makers? The key is to identify the relationship status that you need, and where you are currently falling short of that goal.

Indeed, moving from one end of the relationship gap to the other is much like mapping a course – this is why we call the process relationship mapping. Once you have determined your current state of influence with your various stakeholders you can then plot a path to the desired state of influence needed in order to be successful in the account. Do this and you can efficiently identify the relationship gap in sales.

Levels of Influence explained

Before we can really get into a full discussion on identifying relationship gaps, however, we need to establish a firm understanding of what each level of influence is. When understood, you can quickly see how these are footholds on the climb to the desired relationship you need to succeed.

The four levels of influence you can attain with a key player are:

  • Level 1: Vendor
  • Level 2: Credible Source
  • Level 3: Problem Solver
  • Level 4: Trusted Advisory

Level 1: Vendor

At this level, the seller acts as a vendor, providing basic product or service information. The focus is on completing a transaction. The seller might answer questions about features, pricing, or availability, but the relationship is transactional.

Level 2: Credible Source

A seller becomes a credible source by offering industry insights and educating customers. They don’t just sell products; they demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the customer’s needs and challenges. They might share industry trends, offer educational content, or compare different product options.

Level 3: Problem Solver

This seller goes beyond information provision and steps into the role of a problem solver. They actively help customers identify and solve their problems. This could involve understanding the customer’s specific needs, analyzing their situation, and recommending the most suitable product or service.

Level 4: Trusted Advisor

The highest level is the trusted advisor. Here, the seller builds long-term relationships with customers and guides them strategically. They become a partner in the customer’s success, anticipating their needs and proactively offering solutions. Trusted advisors have a deep understanding of the customer’s business and goals, and they leverage that knowledge to provide ongoing support and guidance.

Estimate your desired level of influence carefully

With these key milestones in mind, how do you start charting your path to success in an account?

First, the key is to estimate your desired level of influence carefully and realistically. Everyone likes to think they are at “trusted advisor” level with their customers but you need to be realistic. If you underestimate your level of influence and you are content with remaining at a vendor level, you have fewer opportunities to grow the relationship and revenue in the account. Once you’ve assessed your contacts and their influence – and whether they are in a position within their companies to establish initiatives, you can begin mapping.

For example: the VP of Sales in one of your key accounts considers you a problem solver. Good for you – that’s a stellar achievement. But what does your contact’s role entail? If the VP of Sales is the person who sets the business strategy to respond to the business drivers impacting the company and the one who establishes initiatives to drive growth, you want to attain one level above problem solver: the level of trusted advisor. Doing so will solidify your role in the early, strategy-level conversations.

Preference plays a role in defining and crossing the relationship gap

Let’s start by pointing out the obvious: it’s rare that a decision maker is truly neutral to the solution on offer. If someone had to pick between two vendors for a solution, they will almost always have a preference one way or another. If you think a key player is neutral, then you should put on your detective hat and assume he or she is a non-supporter at best. What’s the worst that can happen? You might waste a little time. By assuming that neutral means non-supporter you can then look to bridge the gap to supporter, thereby avoiding the murky “neutral” waters. Then you might indeed find that there were issues that needed to be resolved that you would have missed if you had not given the relationship gap some attention.

How to judge the relationship gap

Similar to our exercise above, we’ll start by identifying our key players, the current state of the relationship, and our desired state in order to judge the gap. In this example, you might be surprised to see that we didn’t go straight to Mentor as the Desired State for the VP Sales role. Remember a mentor is a key player who is selling on your behalf. If the VP of Sales is the ‘main person’ – and they’re also your mentor – the deal would already be done. This leads to a related topic that can help you to determine the desired state: buying role.

It’s important to have a positive preference – supporter or mentor status – with approvers and decision-makers. It is also extremely unlikely that you can be successful in a deal if you don‘t have a mentor. Others will refer to this as a Champion or Coach, but whatever word you choose, you definitely need one to win.

How Do You Bridge the Relationship Gap?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, just like Google Maps, when you put in your desired destination, it can just map out how you get to your journey’s end? But even if you don‘t have a Google Maps for sales to help guide your journey, there are a few key principles that provide signposts to ease your path to bridging a relationship gap. In essence, the key to elevating and expanding your relationships comes down to one key principle: you must create, measure and communicate value to the customer. Once again, context matters.

Lean on prior success in the account

If you have an existing relationship with a customer, you will already have had the opportunity to make a promise on which you are able to deliver. Unfortunately, sellers frequently do a poor job of communicating value. If, for example, you deployed an HR Management product to your customer that reduced the time to process job applicants by half, be sure not to keep it a secret. Make sure that you have captured the baseline data so that, when relevant, you can remind the customer of how hard it used to be to process job applicants – how hard it was for their business before they adopted your product. Their success is your success – just as when they have a problem with your solution, it is your problem.

Don‘t forget to document customer successes. Your marketing team will love you if they can share them in the marketplace, but even if the customer does not want to share their success outside the four walls of the corporate HQ, make sure that everyone inside these walls knows that you delivered on your promise. Buyers reward sellers who understand their business. You can’t create or communicate value unless you can feel their pain. Once you understand the customer’s business you have the opportunity to leverage your own expertise and that of your company to understand your customer’s business problem.

Shine a light on what is possible

A better approach is to consider what you would do if you were in their position. That forces you to ‘get in their shoes’ and walk with them. It forces you to consider the impact on their business if they make the right or wrong buying decisions and it illuminates dark spots in the buyer’s mind where they have not yet seen what is possible. Your job is to shine a light, provide valuable insights into the business and into the market and guide them to see what is possible. Then they can connect their business priorities to potential solutions. That’s one sure way to elevate your relationship.

As always, these behavioral factors apply:

  • Always give more than you get to demonstrate that you want to add value.
  • Don’t wait until you need something from your customer or prospect before you deliver value.
  • Always do what you say.
  • Be respectful.
  • Show up on time.
  • Consider their interests first.
  • And if they are selecting the wrong product from you, even if it means a bigger deal for you, advise them against it.

If you want to become a Trusted Advisor, or if you want them to support you in a deal, you have to earn their trust. Trust starts with the first promise you make and ends with the first promise you break.

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