What Is A Complex Sale?
On the one hand you’ve got the simple sale, in which the customer knows exactly what they want, understands the market value, and is willing to pay it. In this scenario, the sales process is really about making buying quick and easy (i.e. order taking). On the other hand you’ve got the complex sale, in which the customer does not know exactly what they want and they may not understand the market value, which mean’s that they may not be willing to pay it.
The complex sale is often characterized by a combination of the following:
- A product or service that has many moving parts and/or broad implications for the buyer.
- A product or service that is difficult to compare to competitors in an apples to apples context because it does not offer standard dimensions of comparison (i.e. selling custom solutions NOT generic products and services)
- An involved buyer with multiple internal stakeholders who are interested in different aspects of the purchase and who must be in alignment to complete the sale.
- A phased process that may include a request for information and/or a request for proposals.
As would be expected, the more complex a sale is the longer it usually takes to complete.
A Selling Philosophy
I’ve got a pretty straight forward philosophy when it comes to selling, which is that the seller and the buyer should be on equal terms. Neither is doing the other a favor by choosing to work together, it’s a mutually beneficial agreement. Of course, the value of work is constantly changing as markets fluctuate, which can cause some friction. But, the bigger concern is businesses that take advantage of uninformed or unprepared buyers. For the purpose of this post, I’m going to assume you’re not one of those businesses. If you’re in it for the long run, honesty and credibility offer much greater benefit, especially when it comes to the complex sale.
The concept of mutual benefit and transparency in the relationship is important because they support the development of trust. In the end, humans are emotional beings that rely on trust to make decisions much more than hard facts. Therefore, my philosophy supports the idea that communicating that you understand the problem is less important than communicating that you understand the client. In the end, problems can be solved but people rarely change.
Think of it as “consultative selling“, when it comes to selling complex solutions, telling prospective clients about your products and services isn’t as effective as listening to them. Talking about “you” gives the impression that you’re just interested in selling something whether they benefit or not; not a great way to start building trust. That fact is that you’re starting from the reality that most people don’t trust sales people. So, don’t start by talking like one, try listening.
Listening is something that you’ll need to do throughout the sales process, not just during the initial phase. Here are some general rules that are worth having in front of you:
- Have questions ready, and organized, before starting the conversation.
- Take notes on what you’ve heard.
- Summarize what you’ve heard as a confirmation before asking additional questions.
- Empathize and make eye contact if possible to show that you understand the challenge/problem.
- Enjoy the process. Be willing to laugh and smile when appropriate.
- Listen beyond just what you can hear by noticing posture and body language.
- Wait for it …. don’t be afraid of a little silence, this often leads to deeper explanations.
- Be balanced. Be prepared but don’t act like you know it all.
- Let them talk more than half the time.
The Art Of The Start
Starting the conversation right is important for several reasons, including the fact that your first impression has a lasting impact on your relationship. You can start a conversation in many ways, from an informal conversation to a qualified lead call. If it’s informal you might use your short elevator pitch to introduce yourself and what you do. If you’re pursuing a qualified lead you’ll probably start with who you are and ask a question. Either way, there can be some innate tension when starting any business conversation because people are afraid of being pressured into something.
One way to immediately relieve this pressure, and earn some trust right out of the gate, is simply to say:
I’m interested in learning about your business and if there might be an opportunity to work together, but if not perhaps I may be able to introduce you to someone who can help you.
Now that the pressure is released, let them know that:
I can quickly determine what makes the most sense based on a few questions.
And then, ask permission to as ask your first general question about what kinds of challenges they are facing in your area of expertise:
May I ask a question about such and such ….
Going back to the underlying philosophy, don’t forget that being on equal footing means that you are selecting them as much as they are selecting you. As you get better at starting the conversation you’ll get faster at identifying the characteristics of a buyer that’s a good fit for your product or service, which will save everyone time and energy. Next let’s take a look at the kinds of questions you might ask.
During a sales conversation there should be a clear order to the questions you ask, moving from more general background questions to a focus on the foreground opportunity. Balancing this transition is important so that prospective clients don’t get the impression that you haven’t done your homework (too many background questions) or that you’re in rush to find a solution (too many foreground questions). In the latter case, it’s also important to remember that your foreground questions are not about identifying solutions at this point, but only about defining the problem.
There are three kinds of foreground questions that generally work in the following order:
- Challenge Questions – These questions are used to identify the challenges or problems that have caused the prospective client to have a conversation with you. (i.e. what’s the problem you’re having?)
- Impact Questions – These questions are used to define the consequences of the challenge (i.e. how does this challenge affect your business?)
- Value Questions – These questions are about defining the value that is lost in relation to the consequences (i.e. how much revenue does this cost you?)
As you move from one conversation to another, make sure to review what you’ve covered so far to insure you’re on the same page. When starting a new conversation, make sure to state the purpose of the meeting after reviewing what you’ve already covered. There are a finite number of barriers to making a sale, so make sure you know what they are, how many you’ve overcome, and how many more you have to overcome when you set the meeting agenda.
It’s also worth mentioning here that you should keep track of how much time it takes to get through the questioning process. Your ability to move through the process is a key indicator of how likely you are to make the sale and what the post-sale relationship will be like. Sometimes creating some time constraints can benefit the process by creating a sense of urgency. Here are some red flags to keep an eye out for:
- Abnormally slow progress compared to your normal experience.
- Buyers who are using the sales process to educate themselves enough to attempt the project on their own.
- Barriers that prevent you from interacting all the relevant stakeholders (I’ll talk about them next).
There are four buyer roles involved in the complex sale; sometimes one person plays more than one role. When you’re going through the sales process you’ll want to know who plays each role and how they fit into the organizational structure of the prospective client (i.e. you’ll want to create s simple organization chart).
- The User Buyer – This is the role that will be using the product or service that results from your engagement.
- The Financial Buyer – The role that has the financial authority to pay for your product or services.
- The Detail Buyer – The role that will be focused on the details of how your product, service, or the result of your engagement, will work.
- The Sponsor Buyer – This role may have introduced you to the prospective client from the inside or outside of the company. They have no direct relationship to the work, but will benefit from goodwill if your engagement goes well.
At some point in the sales process you may have the opportunity to create a presentation on your solution for the buyers. This often takes the form of a proposal in response to an RFP. I’ve written about creating proposals in detail in an earlier post so I won’t cover that here. I think the one message to emphasize is that your presentation must respond directly to the buyer’s stated needs and the value associated with those needs.
Your presentation may stimulate additional conversations about specific concerns (or objections) the buyer may have about your solution. This is a sign that the buyer is engaged and that the process is moving forward. If they’re asking questions about your proposal, it’s likely that you’re seriously in the running.
Thanks for reading and please comment on this post to share your experience managing the complex sale.