Company or Sales: Who Should Really Own the Client Relationship?

Over my last two decades in the banking industry, I have frequently witnessed discussions about who should manage the relationship with a specific client, and how. It was definitely a question of ownership (“this is MY client”) and it was sometimes leading to multi-dimensional quarrels: both horizontally (between the various contenders claiming “I have the relationship with Mr X” or “I introduced the client to the company.”) and vertically (with a definitive “The client belongs to the company.” from the manager).

This is a crucial debate especially in times where modern day social interaction through LinkedIn or personal messaging apps is moving professional relationships away from the companies’ systems. Who owns the relationship ?

At Weavit, we believe we can create better personal and enterprise tools to resolve the issue of “ownership” by creating a win-win situation between the company and its business developers.

1. The relationship can only be owned by a person.

Of course the foundation layer of any business is human interaction: just think about the origin of the words “company” or “corporation”. The relationships that are developed and carefully nurtured over time are an essential asset of any company, and are profoundly human to human.

This might sound like a “Salesperson” or a “Business Developer” topic. But the reality is that relationships are not only for salespersons: I would even tend to think that in any company, you are selling something whatever your role is. Everyone is a Salesperson. CEOs are selling their company to shareholders as much as to clients or potential partners, CFOs are selling their accounts to auditors, and production experts can be very secretive about the relationship they have with suppliers. You might want, as an HR or legal person to work more specifically with this head hunter or that lawyer because you have a long established relationship where trust has been built. And this relationship will follow you should you change ship.

Everyone is a Salesperson.

The versatility of relationships is also what makes business interesting and can make a real difference when well understood. I have seen a client of the company that within 15 years turned into a salesperson, then into a colleague and finally into an investor in Weavit. This long term relationship came obviously as a strong asset for us, and when thinking about it there is no doubt that I would call them MY relationship.

Nurturing these relationships should be encouraged by any company. Robert Cialdini showed that building rapport has been proven as a strong business facilitator as it creates trust. This is what makes the best Salesperson — and remember: everyone is a Salesperson -, but also creates a great threat to a company. Yes the relationship belongs to the parties involved, there is no way around it, so when an employee leaves the company, they will of course leave with their part of the relationship.

2. Problems start when ownership turns into “protective” behaviour

So why are there some conflicts and discussions about WHO owns the relationship ? Money is generally the immediate (and not subtle) reaction:

  • When Salespersons have individual objectives to meet, they obviously don’t want their teammate to be dealing with “their” clients and see their quota and their year-end bonus go away altogether.
  • When there is a team effort involved, the Salespersons also wants their role to be perfectly visible and clear to their boss so that when bonus times comes there is no doubt as to who did close the deal.

However, I believe that a more profound reason lies in the relationship itself, with a strong need to control what is going on. This possessive behaviour is also observed when money is not at stake.

  • It might relate to some form of jealousy: MY relationship is messing up with my teammate — ugh.
  • It might also simply relate to not messing up the relationship itself. A carefully nurtured relationship is a complex mesh of habits, unspoken agreements and quid-pro-quos that might have taken years to establish. One certainly doesn’t want this delicate equilibrium to be shaken by a random outsider.

These protective trends are very natural but they are threatening the businesses. On top of putting the company at risk of losing relationships when employees are leaving, there are several other factors that will eventually hinder the business:

Only 10% of business interactions end up making it in the company’s system.
  • Protective Salespersons tend to input as little information as possible in the company’s systems. While researching on that topic to design Weavit, it became clearly apparent that concerns such as “ I lose all my value if I give too much details on my contacts to the CRM” were mainstream. According to SalesForce, only 10% of business interactions end up being digitised and usable for a company. This is a massive loss of opportunity to understand clients better and provide them with a better service.
  • Salespersons are not helping themselves getting better traction with clients when not opening up the relationships. One Salesperson covering one contact at the client rarely works. Decision processes always involve multiple persons through the hierarchy but also laterally, for example involving procurement, compliance or risk people. Best Salespersons know this and try to cover all key persons within a client, but a coordinated team approach involving management and teammates is likely to be more effective.
  • Relationships from coworkers in other parts of the company are not leveraged: there is always a high likelihood that within the company, someone has a personal or professional relationship with a key person at the client’s. This is a massive untapped potential often under estimated due to lack of appropriate tools to access the network, and lack of great mindset too. According to our research, we estimate that companies with over a few hundred employees are only using 10% of their human network. Imagine if they were using the remaining 90%!

3. Transitioning from individual relationships to institutional Clients (with a capital C)

So how do we solve the conundrum?

From experience, there seems to be a confusion between “client” and “relationship with” the client. The relationship does belong to the parties of that relationship, there is no way around it. But the Client, ie the institution, should belong to the company. In an ideal world, a Salesperson leaving a company shouldn’t endanger the company’s relationship with the client. Conversely, on the client side, if the contact person of the Salesperson was to leave the client, this shouldn’t also endanger the relationship.

From my observation, the strongest clients we had were those that were “institutionalised”: in practice this meant that multiple persons at the Client were covered by multiple people from the company, in a coordinated way. The coverage was both vertical through the hierarchy but also lateral across the various teams that might have a say in the process.

This approach created something special almost akin to « consciousness » between the client and us: their name was more often mentioned than others and it was very likely the same on their end. These clients were very unlikely to leave if one of their contact points left us, and they were also more loyal than less institutionalised clients.

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But this approach doesn’t come naturally for all the reasons mentioned above. Getting business people to that level of trust with their company requires several steps (and some time):

  • first, encourage the nurturing of relationships: building rapport builds trust which brings recurring and value-add business. It also shows that the company cares about the relationships employees are building;
  • second, bring transparency: when employees know that they will always be aware of any interaction with the client and with the persons they have a relationship with, more internal trust is being created. This builds a favorable environment for them to share more, as they will receive more in return;
  • third, objectivise the results: being part of a deal team as opposed to be the “sole” closer can create frustration as to who brought what. A transparent system that also measures the relationship intensity can only help managers to be more objective come compensation time;
  • fourth, encourage team work: providing salespersons with the right tools to analyse their clients structures and decision processes actually gives them the power to better be in control of the team effort. They will also be able to embark their hierarchy in the process, creating more visibility and more trust.
  • fifth, fully use the company’s network. If the tools also help salespersons to find colleagues with strong links with the client, it can save weeks of cold calling and relationship building. Being rightly introduced by a colleague even from a totally different area of the company can be worth a lot and demonstrates a high degree of cohesiveness within your organisation to the client.

In closing: We believe that in a company, everyone is a Salesperson and everyone owns a strong network of relationships. Leveraging this network and building trust amongst your salespersons so that they open up their relationship more willingly is the best way to institutionalise clients. This creates more recurring business and reduces the risk of losing valuable clients when employees leave the company.

At Weavit, we are here to help companies understand better their clients through collective intelligence. We build intuitive tools with the users’ needs front and center, designed to build trust and unlock the power of your network.

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We believe that your network has unlimited potential. As such it’s important to measure and make the most of it with advanced tools available today. Read more about the intelligence of sales in our blog.