Why Sorting Out Transactional and Relational Approaches Can Be Confusing

I said in a previous post that your approach to business is either fundamentally transactional or fundamentally relational, and that it couldn’t really be both.

To be more clear: the way you do business, you can orient your choices around maximizing what YOU get from the exchanges you have with other humans (with any benefit they get from the exchange being a bonus but not a primary focus of your efforts) or you can orient your choices around ensuring that the exchange between you and others through your business is balanced and benefits both parties. (A relational approach does NOT mean sacrificing your well-being or putting aside your needs as a business owner in order to benefit the client or potential client.)

When you have a transactional approach, you don’t hold people as flesh-and-blood humans with needs and desires and hearts and souls. They become targets, prospects, resources, sources of wealth that can be extracted without deep concern for how that extraction will impact them. (Sadly, I’ve heard business owners say “it’s none of my business how someone’s decision to buy from me impacts them.”) In a transactional approach, the people you are selling to are ultimately commodities. Of interest primarily for how their presence in your life will benefit you.

I am not, by the way, against self-interest. It’s necessary for survival. It is part of how we are wired as animals. In business, if you don’t make a profit, you won’t survive. But, as business owners, I believe we have a responsibility to notice the impact our words and actions and choices have on the people to whom we make our offers.

And whether we care or not about that impact, well, that’s where our personal sovereignty comes in. Be ruthless if you like. Act without concern for your impact on others. And then live with the consequences of that choice. Don’t expect a cookie or praise or approval from others for those choices.

And I get where it gets murky sometimes.

Until you have a clear distinction for yourself as to what is transactional and what is relational, you don’t know which approach you are taking. And it can be equally hard to suss out what approach other business owners are taking.

If you, as a business owner, aren’t clear on this distinction, then it is fair to say you aren’t actually choosing an approach. And so what comes out may be a mix of what you’ve been taught, what you’ve seen others do, what is normal in the circles you travel in, and what makes sense to you. But an approach that is an unconscious mix of relational and transactional will feel strange to an audience. It’s a mixed message. Incoherent. And that lack of consistency reduces trust. Slows down the movement of people towards you. (I know this one firsthand!)

When you look at the business owners around you, you may see the same confusing mix.

Worst case, you’ll see business owners white-washing their transactional approach. Using warm, loving language, but using impersonal, dehumanizing, button-pushing tactics to drive sales. Saying you’re not “salesy” but using fast-action closes (a technique where you promise a massive discount to a high-priced program if the person enrolls before the conversation ends.) Saying you are all about bringing out people’s greatness, but shaming prospective buyers not having the right mindset if they don’t sell their car or couch or empty their savings to join your high-end coaching program. Suggesting they won’t achieve their dreams without your help. Or blaming your clients for getting poor results because they weren’t “committed.” Talking about sales as service, but assuming that any sale you make is de facto a service to the person you sold it to. Talking about making money and fulfilling your mission, but saying ten times as much about making money as you do about mission.

In some cases, I think business owners have the DESIRE to be relational. To treat their clients and prospective clients with respect and honor. But fear rises up. Fear that people won’t understand (this was a big one for me), fear that people won’t buy, or not enough people will buy. Fear of going against what this training or that mentor told you was the way you had to sell. (I hear that one a lot from my clients.) And so a relational intent gets derailed by more transactional marketing and selling.

That was my journey for a while.

I had an intuitively warm and relational approach that allowed me over 10 or 11 years to build a solid but not spectacular business. But I wanted more, so I moved into trainings that promised me I could make much more money (and of course have more impact). I was like a sponge. So eager and excited to learn how I could grow more profitable while still doing the same great work I’d been doing.

I followed what I saw modeled. I was encouraged to offer a training and say it was THE LAST TIME EVER I would offer it. To raise my rates and give a tight deadline to get in at the old price before that happened. To do a live event primarily in order to offer a high-end program from the stage. To require application to my trainings before revealing the (premium) pricing.

I started to use more scarcity, more urgency, more exclusivity in my marketing to improve my sales.

And it worked. In one year, I nearly doubled my gross revenue.


I got critical emails from past clients and people in my audience. I was told “I was like all those other coaches now” or that I had “jumped the shark.” I felt like I was losing the trust of the audience I’d been cultivating for 15 years or more.

The effectiveness of my work dropped. I had fewer thrilled and delighted clients. A popular live training I offered became a home-study that no one really wanted. A new “high-end” mastermind I offered in the way I’d been guided produced less powerful results for clients than my simpler, less expensive programs. I created an expensive VIP day. But they were hard to sell to anyone who wasn’t swimming in the same “spend to earn” waters that I was. Where the work seemed to stick less than my old weekly coaching session work had done.

Everything I offered seemed to require a high-energy, high-effort launch. I would push through, offering multi-part promotional teleseminar series, only to collapse, exhausted, at the end. And then I’d stop communicating while I recovered.

I also had big, expensive flops. Things I offered that didn’t land, didn’t connect. Offers I spent months creating and developing and marketing, only to make a handful of sales.

Most of the things I did to nearly double my income created one-time bursts of sales, but weren’t repeatable (I’d announced it was “the last one ever”) or worth repeating (less than stellar results). I was phasing out my old, more modestly constructed programs, without creating new ones that I could sell reliably and consistently. That produced the impact I wanted.

And a year, a year and half in, I had a series of light-bulb moments.

At my beloved writing retreat, I realized that in order to be what I thought was more marketable, I was positioning myself as yet another whoop-de-do business coach and soft pedaling my gifts around language and expression. I knew without question I had to get back to my real work, to helping people know and name the True Spirit of their Work, to design their work around that, to express it more fully to the world, regardless of the bottom-line impact.

I started to make distinctions among mentors. To pinpoint the ones who were successful, but who also spoke a language I understood, who spoke about creating value and developing innovative content, or cultivating humility, or allowing your heart to guide you. To invest my money there.

I started dropping strategies that never quite felt right. Dropping the urgency and deadlines. Not trying so hard to establish myself as having an enviable lifestyle. To feel in my body when it felt like I was speaking truth and when I was spouting some level of bullshit.

For a long time, I thought you could have a foot in two worlds. That you could be aligned with and expressing your truth and still be “savvy” and strategic in your marketing. That you could couch the blazing truth of what you want to bring to the world in safer, softer, easier to understand language that would reach more people. That you could use these high-intensity sales strategies in support of soulful work.

But now, I am not so sure.

I think you have to choose sides. Pick your way of doing business in the world.

That when you bend over backwards to please or seduce or coax people into your world, you lose the natural curve and elegance of your own upright spine.

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