The Relationship Mirage.

A good friend in the industry recently sent me "Selling is Not About Relationships," a Harvard Business Review blog post by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson. If the subversively counter-intuitive headline doesn't grab you, the inherent logic of the post and its supporting research surely will. And if you're hiring sales talent in the digital world, pay close attention.

Through their organization, Corporate Executive Board, Dixon and Adamson studied more than 6,000 sellers across 100 companies and multiple industries and organized them by selling style into five distinct categories: Relationship Builders, Hard Workers, Lone Wolves, Reactive Problem Solvers and Challengers. Of these five groups, Challengers -- those who "...use their deep understanding of their customers' business to push their thinking (and are) not afraid to share even potentially controversial views..." -- make up fully 40% of all effective, high performance sellers, regardless of industry. Relationship builders? They're the least represented of any group among high performers: dead last, with only 7% of all star performers.

How can this be? Sales is all about relationships, right?

The Drift is proudly underwritten this week by PulsePoint, the digital technology company that helps publishers gain deeper visibility in to audience and content, increase first party ad sales revenue and access new opportunities to drive greater business results.

Many publishers have created dual strategies to serve these environments. The CRO and sales team drive the right-brain direct sale effort. The left-brain effort is largely outsourced to a huge cast of players (it takes a village) who manage what is collectively called "the remnant strategy" or "secondary market."

The truth is that relationship sellers often cater to and support their existing relationships to the point where they begin enabling them. They'll often give the customer the short term "want" rather than exposing the deeper, long term "need." And it seems to me that relationship sellers often do best work in tight, confined spaces, where there's a well-defined buying channel: better yet, a single decision maker.

Challengers, on the other hand, use point of view and fresh thinking to positively disrupt the environment. In my mind, they'll succeed bigger and faster but -- perhaps more importantly -- when they fail, they'll fail faster too. What they won't do is tread water and be put in a subservient position out of deference to "the relationship." We're also in a world where the digital media seller (and media sellers in general) will increasingly have to embrace enterprise selling: navigating through big, complex organizations filled with people with whom you don't yet have relationships . In those kinds of environments, I'll bet on the challengers to create engagement and traction, while the relationship sellers may end up wondering why they can't get their calls returned.

For those who may be thinking, "but digital media and marketing are different," you're right. There's a ton of complexity here, lots and lots of moving parts and shifting alliances. So let's factor in "complexity of sale" into the equation. When you do, Challengers make up 54% of all high performance sellers; Relationship Builders fall to 4% of the total.

In our business, the safest move is always to hire the Rolodex, the rep with the contacts...the relationships. But with those sellers demanding huge hiring premiums today, isn't it time to break the cycle? Let's find some Challengers and give them a go.