Why B2B Salespeople Love Value Propositions – But Shouldn’t

I wrote yesterday about how value propositions play a role in B2B sales analogous to models in economics. Useful, but not to be confused with what really happens.

In the real B2B world, buying decisions are far more emotional than salespeople—or buyers!—like to admit. And while salespeople will admit the truth of this, only the really natural salespeople actually incorporate it into their selling.

Why is that? Why are B2B salespeople afraid to bring emotional connectedness to the sales game? Even when they acknowledge its power?

Let me clarify what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about shooting the breeze, ‘how ‘bout them Bulls,’ or commenting about the kids’ pictures on the bookshelf. I’m not talking about cheap fake intimacy, scripted active listening, or golf outings.

I’m talking about genuine concern for the whole-person well-being of the buyer as individual, and the buying organization as a group. Why do most sellers find it hard to go there?

It’s partly about fear, of course—it usually is. But in this case, something else is at work. It’s an inner conflict that too many salespeople contain within themselves: a battle between the desire to help other people, and the feeling that they must betray those same people to serve the capitalist imperatives of their corporate parent.

In other words: most salespeople think they are fundamentally at war with their customers. They think that business is a zero-sum game. They feel that “good social skills” exist ultimately to con the customer. (A study once showed that insurance salespeople all felt trust was very important, but they themselves were extremely untrusting of others).

They are hardly crazy to think this way. The reigning strategic model of our time is based on Five Forces of competition, including competition with our customers and our suppliers. Salespeople, whose job it is to make nice with customers, are simply internalizing the contradiction—no surprise if they feel schizophrenic.

As a result, they are torn. They know they have powerful skills—they can seduce buyers. But they believe those skills must be deployed on behalf of their company—and therefore against their customers’ interests. Hence to sell well is to harm the people they sell to.

Psychologically, there are only three resolutions for this dilemma. Some salespeople give in to the dark side and simply accept that their role is to move the merchandise, gain share of wallet, get the sale.

Most, I suspect, just live with the contradiction and suppress thinking about it.

But the really great salespeople rise above it. They realize that the best short-term performance comes not from managing short-term, but from managing long-term.

That means relationships–not transactions. And relationships mean emotional connections.

The great salespeople ignore the sales managers’ pleas to tweak end of quarter numbers, because they are truly in it for their customers. They know not only that long-term relationships are more profitable, but also that you don’t get them by re-inventing value propositions on every sale.

You get relationships the same way you get them in the real world. You take risks, you invest, you absorb the minor irritations, and subordinate your ego to the larger good of the relationship.

The best salespeople have opted out of the “competition” game. They do not obsess about “closing,” and don’t worry too much about short-term metrics. They don’t constantly ask themselves how they’re doing, but rather whether they’ve been doing enough right for their customers and for the relationship. They know that sales are simply the fruit on the tree of relationships.

They are other-oriented, not self-oriented; more collaborative than competitive (at least, with their customers). And above all, they don’t shy away from deeply emotional selling. Because they care—big time and long term. And it pays off.

Those people don’t sell by economic value propositions. They sell by personal commitment. They have resolved the schizophrenia problem by squarely opting for the side of the relationship, and realizing there really is no contradiction between doing that and enjoying great economics.

And paradoxically, they do better as a result. Not because they try harder to do better. But because doing better is the byproduct, the side-benefit, of doing the thing that val-prop selling just doesn’t do.

Trust-based selling just works.

8 replies
  1. Paul Hebert
    Paul Hebert says:

    Here’s a bit of a different take on this…

    It’s not that value propositions aren’t important – or that you shouldn’t understand the value your company/product/service has – but in a relatonship building strategy the value proposition emerges during the process of building trust versus being "presented" during a "call."

    I’m a firm believer that all sales "tactics" have their place but in our rush to "sell" we remove them from their real context (the relationship) and that is where the problem starts.

    With a relationship-based approach the discussion of value will happen.  The discussion around why buying now is better than waiting (closing) will occur naturally. Name any other "tactic" it will occur but in the normal course of the relationship.  Pulling these tactics out of the context in order to speed up the sale is what makes them feel manipulative and a bit duplicitous.

    It’s as though all the sales training techniques that focus on tactics looked at the successful sales person – identified the things they did and the ripped them out of the context of the relationship assuming they would work without the fabric that supported them.

    Make sense?

  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Paul, that certainly does make sense to me.  The concept of "out of context" is very right, and I think that’s a diagnostic that applies to a lot more than just selling.

    This is a vast sweeping over-generalization, but in business we have consistently over-worshipped the god of analytics (and I say that as an ex-strategy consultant who has great respect for them, and a tiny bit of talent at using them).We assume that if some measurement is good, then more is better, ad infinitum. 

    We have ended up mistaking the measurement for the thing it ostensibly measures.  Like "value propositions" that are purely economic and, as you put it, out of a relationship context.

    As you point out, everything that is normally taught about selling will show up "normally" in the course of the relationship.  Sales get closed, leads get qualified, quotas get met, bonuses get paid, etc.  But it makes a world of difference how you get there–after some point, getting there by relationship is vastly more powerful than getting there by the numbers.

    I like your language of "ripping out the behaviors from from the fabric of the relationship."  That is the inherent limitation of focusing too heavily on a behaviors-driven view of interpersonal behavior; you can make it do the job, just like you can knit with mittens on or teach a pig to count, but there are easier ways to get mittens, counts, and sales.  Like you said.

  3. clarke ching
    clarke ching says:

    Charles, Your 2 most recent blogs … have been your best ever. I did an online entrepeneurial personality test a couple of days ago on the peoplemaps website. (It was based on myers briggs and the company is based here in Edinburgh.) Very professional – but the results surprised me: they described me as a natural born seller, but I have always felt I was bad at selling. I thought about and I realise that I am a good seller – especially when it’s selling ideas and benefits – but I don’t like having to deal with the commercial side of things … I’d rather give my work away for free than have to discuss charging for it. Your blog captured my dilemma very nicely.

    I shall think about it a lot more.

  4. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    Thanks for your comment.  I like to think you’re not alone; a lot of good people are sub-optimizing in their client work because of exactly the dilemma you describe. It’s  shame and a waste and unnecessary, and I’m glad to hear you’re overcoming it.   The conflict is only in our heads.


  5. Leslie C.
    Leslie C. says:

    I agree with Claire, these were two terrific posts!

    My current position is the first in my career where I’ve been encouraged to look at my contacts — personal or otherwise — as prospective clients. It’s been challenging for me to reconsider these relationships. I have also found it challenging to put myself in what you might call classic "networking" types of situations.

    In both cases, the difficulty is not in the interpersonal relations part. I genuinely enjoy meeting and chatting with new people. It’s getting over the feeling that I am "being salesy" — i.e., worrying that I am using my relationships skills for cynical purposes.

    And, just as you mention in your post, the time crunch/meeting numbers aspect is at the heart of the problem. I find myself thinking, "Do I have time to let this play out?", even knowing that a lengthy courtship would ultimately lead to the best type of relationship, business or otherwise.

    In any case — thanks  again for the great posts!

  6. Trip Allen
    Trip Allen says:


    I completely agree with what you say, and this is a dilemma I  personally faced with management who micro-managed and "drove" sales and business purely for numbers- ‘always be closing," do or die.

    I believe the root of the problem comes from the top- the CEO and down. If top management is relentless about hitting quarterly numbers and closing big deals while they monitor their CRM systems like deer in headlights (all to keep the short term focused shareholders happy), the habits trickle down.

    Most mid level managers follow orders, mimic their seniors and are encouraged to perform such tragedies as closing deals that may affect the long term client relationship. "Who cares- as long as we close the deal and  hit our numbers." If the upper level management only knew all the tricks being played at street level (and they probably do- they just ignore them).

    The question is..how and will it change at the top? Maybe the current crisis will teach the world and the leaders a lesson. What caused the house of cards to collapse?  I believe it was the banks’ management- pushing products through salespeople (and rewarding them well) to unsuspecting ‘widows and orphans" (as Frank partnoy says).

    It’s time for a change.

    Trip Allen, Singapore


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