The Sales-Customer Relationship Needs Clear Give-and-Take

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Salespeople know better than anyone that you’ve got to give in order to get. And they give a lot. They give their time, their expertise, their commitment, their willingness to do whatever it takes to help customers succeed.

It’s not altruism, of course. We do all this because we expect something in return. And not just a commission check. We expect our customers to reward us with their loyalty, their honesty, and their willingness to invest their own time, attention, and energy into the relationship.

This give-and-take—what psychologist and researcher Robert Cialdini calls the “law of reciprocity”—is one of the most fundamental principles governing human relations. Our brains are deeply programmed to maintain a mental scorecard of giving and receiving, and to keep the books balanced. Of course we don’t want to be taken advantage of (that is, giving more than we get). But for most of us, the opposite is also true. We don’t want to take advantage, to get more than we give. We don’t want to be in anyone’s debt. If someone gives us a gift, we feel obligated to do something in return. If we ask a favor, we’re anxious to someday do one in return.

We clearly see this dynamic in play at social or family events. If you’re invited to a wedding, you bring a gift. If a colleague takes you out to lunch and pays for the meal, you say, “Next time, it’s my treat.” If we’re in a carpool, we insist on taking our turn behind the wheel. We don’t want to be seen as a mooch.

Different Rules

In a sales situation, the law of reciprocity still applies. But it works a little differently, because these are business relationships, not personal ones. If a salesperson takes a prospect to lunch, customers may not see the need to pick up the tab next time. And this is not because they’re unsocialized, but because they think the salesperson is getting value just from the relationship itself. The buyer may honestly feel that their presence alone is reward enough. The salesperson’s job is to schmooze buyers, so by allowing themselves to be schmoozed, they’re helping the salesperson do their job. (I told you it was complicated.) So in the customer’s mind, the books are balanced. Ditto when the salesperson provides above-and-beyond service. The customer thinks: That’s part of what we pay for. I appreciate all the hard work, but I haven’t incurred a social debt that must be repaid.

And let’s face it: Salespeople aren’t doing these nice things just out of the goodness of their heart. They want the buyer to feel obligated—because then maybe they’ll buy something, or reward us with their loyalty.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this, as long as everyone understands the rules. Where it does become a problem is when salespeople and buyers have different expectations. For example, when a prospect allows him- or herself to be wined and dined but never ends up buying anything, some salespeople take it personally. When salespeople give up a weekend to help a buyer out of a jam, they think the buyer should reward them by giving them more business. And when it doesn’t happen, the salesperson gets offended. Buyers, in turn, sense the resentment. Or they feel manipulated. Trust erodes. What should be a mutually beneficial relationship turns into a mutually suspicious relationship.

Ultimate Sales Professionals don’t get offended. They don’t take things personally. They recognize that this is a business relationship. They don’t expect people to buy out of a sense of social obligation. They want buyers to do buy because of value.

But because it is a business relationship, USPs are not in the habit of giving without getting. They’re positive and polite, but they’re explicit about their expectations.  

And guess what: When you’re up front about what you expect, buyers respect that. Because you’ve avoided the potential for misunderstandings. Relationships are stronger when everyone understands the rules.

Paul Cherry is the author of THE ULTIMATE SALES PRO: What the Best Salespeople Do Differently (HarperCollins Leadership). He is also the founder of the sales and sales leadership training firm, Performance Based Results.

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