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Relationship Selling

Furniture World Magazine


Customers don't want to be treated equally. They want to be treated individually.

In "Enterprise One to One, Tools for Competing in the Interactive Age," authors Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, make a statement that manufacturers, and their reps, retail stores and their salespeople would be well advised to ponder; "Customers don't want to be treated equally. They want to be treated individually. In the long run, treating customers individually will pay much higher dividends than treating products individually."

The virtues called for in successful selling cannot be compared to the sprinter's fast, short, bursts. Successful selling is more like the distance runner's long paced relentless speed. This is the virtue implied in the title to Michael Le Boeuf's book, "How to Win Customers and Keep Them for Life." Relationship marketing must go hand-in-hand with relationship selling.

In an age in which, as one author on marketing put it, "the free enterprise system has nearly choked us with choice," providing a "one on one relationship-selling" service for customers that can help them to make the best choice, should be the goal of every salesperson. This goal has been made more urgent for those of us whose customers have caught on to using our showrooms as the basis for ordering their furniture directly through a catalogue distributor.

True, forward thinking marketing experts have been proposing mass customization, that is, goods and services produced in lot series of one. Companies like Starbuck Coffee and Greet Sheet, a company that sells greeting cards have already successfully applied mass customization. Until mass customization becomes the norm (if it ever does) in the retail furniture world, owners would be well advised to train and educate their salespeople to practice relationship selling within our industry's present framework.

While relationship selling may be defined in various ways, I believe it boils down to successfully practicing interpersonal communication skills. These skills were most eloquently discussed by the philosopher and religious scholar Martin Buber (1878 - 1965), especially as he expressed his thoughts and ideas on genuine dialogue in his works, "I and Thou" and "Between Man and Man."

Let me state at the outset that I am not an expert on Martin Buber's insights into dialogue. It is less than a year ago that during a casual conversation with a friend over a cup of coffee that I was motivated to find out who this man was.

What I have learned about Buber's ideas on what he termed "the interhuman elements of dialogue" have left me fascinated. If selling can be defined as a focused dialogue meant to lead to a mutually beneficial decision, then Buber's ideas are directly relevant to selling.

Martin Buber, referred to as "a landmark of twentieth century intellectual history and as Judaism's most renowned religious scholar, philosopher, and writer," was born in Vienna. He studied philosophy and art at the universities of his native city as well as in Zurich and Berlin. He spent his last 27 years in Israel where he worked zealously to promote harmony and peace between Arabs and Jews through dialogue. Upon his death, a delegation of Palestinian Arabs placed a wreath on his grave as a sign of their deep appreciation of his valiant efforts for peace and conciliation.

Key to understanding Martin Buber's ideas on dialogue are two kinds of relationships he poses: I - Thou, and I - It. Maurice Friedman, one of Buber's foremost English translators and commentators, states the difference between the two: "The difference between these two relationships is not the nature of the object to which one relates, as is often thought. The difference, rather, is in the relationship itself."

Friedman goes on to explain that the I- Thou relationship is one of openness, directness, mutuality, and presence and that it can occur between two persons or between a person and a cat or between a person and a work of art. For an I-Thou relationship to take place, there must be meeting, unfolding, and mutuality. Only in the mutuality of an I-Thou relationship can one get to know first hand the uniqueness that exists within each being. In the case of an I-Thou relationship between person and person, not only must the dialogue be mutual; it must also be free.

All attempts to violate the other's uniqueness in order to obtain one's egocentric ends (Buber calls such a violation objectifying) end up making the relationship one of I-It. Each time the It rises to block the Thou, genuine dialogue fails. The result, to quote Friedman's paraphrase of Buber's sentiments is that "man's existence becomes unhealthy, his personal and social life unauthentic."

In his books on the subject of dialogue, Martin Buber described the specific barriers that block it. One of these he referred to as seeming, another as imposition. By seeming, Buber meant the common inclination of people to lean towards communicating a false or phony image by wearing a mask to hide the true self. This mask, in turn, is the cover-up that sets up a smoke screen, so to speak, that assists one or both persons to introduce selfish ends into the dialogue. Even the golden rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," is often a formula for imposition. Benjamin Franklin may have been thinking along the same lines when he wrote, "Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you. They may have different tastes."

In contrast to seeming, Buber spoke of being, which never wears the mask of seeming. Instead, being engages in dialogue with openness and trust. The result is the meeting of the I and Thou in a spirit not of imposition, but of unfolding. Unfolding allows the I to work toward the full human development of the Thou and viceversa. It is therefore always mutual in its intent, even though the I has no way of assuring that the Thou returns the favor when the Thou functions as an I to complete its side of an I - Thou relationship.

Does all this apply to selling in a practical way? I feel it does as surely as Buber's teachings applied to his personal dealings with Arabs. After all, selling too is a dialogue between salesperson and customer. The barriers to successful selling are much the same as those to genuine dialogue in general. In order to be long term, successful selling should be based on mutual truth, openness, and trust. The salesperson who wants to win customers and keep them for life must not wear the false mask of seeming, by which he pretends to be interested in the customer, when he is in fact interested only in using the customer as a means to his selfish ends. Instead, he should allow the needs of customers to unfold first by encouraging them to reveal their needs openly and freely, next by supporting those needs with relevant benefits, and then by inviting the customer to invest in those benefits. In short, true selling should never be a confrontation; it should always be a meeting.

As in Buber's genuine dialogue, salespeople should always respect the space that exists between them and their customers. As Ruthellen Josselson states in her book, "The Space Between Us," a title inspired by Martin Buber's writings, "All real living is meeting." In the same work she writes: "We try to connect what is inside one to what is inside the other, bridging the space between us in what Buber calls "genuine conversation."

Moreover, the relationship of customer to salesperson, like each I--Thou relationship cannot be frozen in time but needs constant renewal. No sooner does a genuine I--Thou relationship occur than the need to keep human dialogue going rises up as a new challenge.

And what about that which Buber referred to as "the common fruitfulness" of genuine dialogue? Is there not also a common fruitfulness in relationship selling? Here I am referring to more than the mutual benefits which customer and salesperson obtain through the process of selling. I am specifically referring to the kind of mutual fruitfulness attested to within a formula Zig Zigler has taught for years: "You can have everything in life you want if you help enough other people get what they want." In somewhat the same way the founder of Sears had the words, "Give the lady what she wants," printed in every Sears catalogue. Viewed from this principle of reciprocity, how very much on target is Learning International's definition of the goal of selling as a kind of reciprocally common fruitfulness: "The goal of selling is to arrive at a mutually beneficial decision."

One final and most important point. Martin Buber believed that our inner development as human beings rests upon the habit of genuine dialogue. If that is so, then other than meeting one's financial goals, there remains an ultimate benefit of selling --the daily opportunities it affords every salesperson to communicate with one's fellow human being in a way that brings about the common fruitfulness of living healthy and authentic lives.

Finally living this kind of life might be viewed as a salesperson's way of affirming Martin Buber himself. In his spiritual work, "Ten Rungs: Collected Hasidic Sayings," Martin Buber stresses that after their death great teachers continue to speak through the mouths of those who carry on their ideas. He quotes from the Talmud: "When a word is spoken in the name of its speaker, his lips move in the grave." I'd also like to believe that each time we apply Buber's I--Thou philosophy to selling, we add one more deserved wreath to his grave.


1. It should be added in the case of Starbuck Coffee that they have gone beyond relationship marketing and into relationship selling by creating a store atmosphere which lets patrons enjoy what John Wanamaker insisted on, "a place to feel at home in.

2. My intent is certainly not to reduce Martin Buber's ideas on dialogue to practical guidelines on selling. His ideas on the topic are too vast for that. Rather, I view selling as one more piece of the mosaic that contains some of the "interhuman elements" that lie "in the space between."

Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD at pmarino@furninfo.com.