Breaking the Master/Servant Sales Relationship

There is a world of difference between being a vendor that takes orders and being a valued peer or co-strategist. The former defaults to a defensive or reactive position, missing opportunities to help their client, increase the value of an account and build a more durable, mutually profitable relationship.

Moving from the master/servant paradigm isn’t about gaining the upper hand in a brute power scenario, but rather about moving to a peer-to-peer relationship where mutual benefit flows from mutual respect and acknowledgment of exchanged value. From our experience, the master/servant trap is an easy one to fall into, even with some of the world’s top-tier service organizations. After all, if the customer orders, the vendor sells and delivers.

There are organizational factors that drive the master/servant mindset, but at the root of it, this springs from the type of personality that is natural to a sales and services role: a people-pleaser. But in learning to be responsive to requests and doing “whatever it takes” to keep an account happy, a salesperson defaults to a reactive and often subservient position —falling into reflexive activity even if going over and above is not necessary or even valued.

Over the years we have developed many tools for creating leverage through preparation, assessment, articulation of value and much more. But before exploring the mechanics of better deal-making, a shift in mindset must occur.

This shift is founded on the understanding that most high-value sales relationships will be peer-to-peer in nature. Sales representatives will reach their peak not as order-takers, but as strategic consultants to the customer’s business who have taken time to understand their customer’s internal challenges and competitive landscapes. With this knowledge, they offer new insight (not just new versions of a product) that creates linkages to new outcomes — ones that improve both businesses. These insights are delivered to leaders of client organizations who are driven by those outcomes.

When this kind of relationship is established, the “run and fetch” dynamic will give way to a bilateral process where the customer becomes the client who feels equal responsibility for action items that drive valuable new outcomes. Having helped the customer understand what is to be gained, the salesperson has the positive leverage to rebalance the relationship and expect that the client will work as a partner to realize these outcomes.

We understand that this is not possible in every single sales relationship. But even sales representatives in “product” roles can elevate themselves to “trusted advisor” status — maybe not quite peer-to-peer, but still much better than being just a vendor who feels harried for quotes and specs.

Servants are useful. They get paid. But they are not peers in a bilateral relationship. Approaching an account with the mindset of being a valued co-strategist will open up new horizons and vibrant opportunities for both the seller and the buyer.