Breaking the Master/Servant Sales Relationship


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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.

Mladen Kresic
Mladen Kresic is President of K&R Negotiations, a team of professional negotiators who improve profitability by providing the negotiation training and tools necessary to Win Wisely™ at the sales negotiation table. He has served as lead negotiator for numerous acquisition and divestitures, strategic alliances, licensing and strategic sales deals. Mladen has negotiated, consulted and delivered programs on six continents and in over 40 countries around the world.


  1. Great article Mladen. This advice is very helpful to sales reps and all types of negotiators who want to elevate their relative position in the buyer/seller relationship.


  2. For all the conversation about venerating salespeople as ‘trusted advisors,’ ‘consultants’, and the like, the predominant message salespeople receive internally and externally is that of servitude – to customers, to prospects, and to management. ‘Shut up and listen!’ ‘Give customers what they want.’ And ‘Stop being too sales-y’ (my personal favorite).

    I agree with your observation that many salespeople begin the buyer-seller engagement with tail-between-the-legs supplication. But I question the degree to which that attitude can be changed by the salesperson. The reason: management plays a large role in the problem. Salespeople operate under constant pressure to achieve revenue targets. Most are keenly aware that the termination hatchet is constantly suspended over their necks, and that, in the event of failure to make quota, their next job interview will immediately confront them with an unpleasant loaded question: “why didn’t things work out at ABC Company?” Little wonder that many become obsequious to customers, who, by dint of their power to approve purchases, also control the salesperson’s job security.

    Of course, there can be great benefits to organizations that engineer this performance pressure. Revenue targets can be achieved, and those who are capable of producing will win – hopefully. The others will eventually quit, or be fired. A fantastic self-correcting system – at least in theory.

    There are no easy solutions to this problem, but I want to go on record with a prediction: no matter how many motivational ‘self-help’ books salespeople read, no matter how much training and ‘performance coaching’ they get, and no matter how much ‘personality profiling’ companies undertake for their sales hires, this problem won’t go away. Not without changing sales culture.

    A positive step would be for senior sales executives to call out and eliminate demeaning messages to their sales forces each and every time they occur. And to eradicate ‘stretch goals’ when salespeople don’t have a snowball’s chance of making them. And to re-think the singular penalty of termination that salespeople face for not making a revenue goal.

    In short, having a sales force that isn’t servile requires a culture that reinforces their value and worth. For that, we have a long, long way to go.

    A related article I wrote might be of interest: Are Salespeople Too Nice?

  3. Andrew, thanks for your thoughtful comments. You are correct that a great deal of the sales rep’s supplication can be driven by management’s relentless push for quota attainment on one side as well as buyer’s leverage generated from the buyer having (a) alternatives, and (b) the money the seller needs for quota attainment. Management needs to be part of the solution (in fact it is often first line management that is under extreme pressure as well). Training aimed solely at sellers, without management participation is likely to have very limited effects. Smart companies are changing their sales culture to engender more trust between management and sales, and often smart buyers are recognizing that peer relationships are better at producing results for both buyer and seller. Of course, the world is not perfect, and some adversarial relationships with management will always exist no matter how nice, confident or knowledgeable the sales person may be, and how “trained” the management is, as long as sales people are measured and compensated by revenues, profit or sales (even if the sales people are not motivated solely by quota attainment or compensation). And adversarial buyer/seller relationships will also exist, particularly if all the seller wants to do is sell, sans illustration of impact on the buyer’s business. All we want to do as guides and advisors is provide those sellers and their management improved chances of success in their daily endeavors. That certainly comes from, among other things, demonstrating a keen knowledge of the customer’s business and challenges and how the seller provides positive impact for that customer that the buyer recognizes. In terms of behavior, a confident seller without that knowledge will seem arrogant or ignorant (take your pick), particularly if they approach the buyer with a “know-it all” attitude rather than respect. And a “thank you” never hurts!


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