The Three Levels of Buyer-Seller Relationships

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When selling to a new and possibly difficult client, the buyer-seller relationship may seem adversarial. In these tough economic times, selling takes a lot of groundwork. Customers are aware of the many options that are often available to them. The days of a product or service that “sells itself” are pretty much history. Making that all-important customer connection is crucial in turning the initial buyer-seller relationship into a long-term partnership. 
Ed Rigsbee, CSP, CAE, author of PartnerShift, Developing Strategic Alliances and The Art of Partnering notes there are essentially three levels of buyer/seller relationships: Adversarial, Barometric and Complementary. 
The relationship encountered most often is the traditional Adversarial pairing. Here, the buyer works to gain the winning hand by pressing the seller for every possible discount and deal advantage. The cost of doing business with each other takes a back seat to the buyer coming out on top. The relationship is strictly transactional and governed by a “what’s in it for me” posture.
Then there’s the Barometric buyer/seller relationship. This pairing involves constantly monitoring one another’s “atmospheric pressure.” Both participants gauge each other’s attitude and position, driven by a lack of trust that has not yet been established. Barometric relationships are often single-source connections that have a short-length contract. While there are growth and sales opportunities in a Barometric relationship, it can nosedive quickly. The mental surveillance and monitoring involved in this relationship fosters distrust. Both parties are constantly engaging in CYA moves that breed ill will.
What most salespeople should aim for is the Complementary relationship. In this high-level buyer/seller relationship, real integral partnering can thrive. Only in a Complementary relationship can the “visions and values” of each side dovetail with the other. Here, goals and values are congruent and personalities are simpatico. Each side understands the needs of their business partner and takes the necessary “posture and plans” to help their partner achieve both his or her goals and the needs of their own organization.
Unfortunately, the current down economy has undone many hard-won Complementary relationships. According to Carlos Mena, a reader in procurement at Cranfield University School of Management, the focus has been on cost instead of value. “It has created a cost focus in procurement teams that’s essentially cascaded down to suppliers, creating more adversarial relationships,” said Mena. “Suddenly, there’s a mandate for procurement people to reduce costs. They just go back to the old way of beating the supplier and destroy some of the relationships they’ve been building. Trust takes many years to build and in a matter of one phone call, you can destroy the whole thing.”
A 2010 Huthwaite International survey found that more than three-quarters of 92 global sales executives felt they were being treated like a “commodity,” with procurement’s steadfast focus on costs inhibiting effective relationships with customers.
Today more than ever, it’s important for salespeople to establish Complementary relationships with their clients. It starts by sharing “visions and values” and proceeds by creating “posture and plans” that benefit both sides. 
Image courtesy of Ambro/

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  • Alex Kecskes
    Alex Kecskes
    A complementary relationship might be difficult to establish in the adversarial atmosphere of  vehicle purchases, but it can be done, especially   when purchasing a new vehicle. Establishing a business relationship with a salesman can help both sides. The buyer learns about a new model availability, options and financing and the salesperson learns more about the buyer's needs and wants, feeling increasingly confident that the buyer will seek him or her out when it comes time to buy. Once a relationship is established, there's the likelihood of repeat business when leases expire or someone else in the buyer's family or a friend needs a new vehicle.
  • Catherine D
    Catherine D
    Complimentary, I agree, is the best!
  • Thomas K
    Thomas K
    When the relationship is for a one time purchase like a vehicle, how do you establish the complementary relationship ?
  • Kevin C
    Kevin C
    Very nice and brief.Vision and Values.... Excellent
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