The Complex Sale: Value Your Customer and Your Expertise


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If you’re in sales, you have probably encountered this scenario. You’re trying to convince a potential customer that your great products or services will solve their most pressing problems. To prove the point, you explain precisely how your solution will work. Mr. Potential Customer listens carefully, asks many questions and takes copious notes.

Everything seems to be running smoothly. The customer nods and says all the right things, and you leave convinced that the sale is in the bag. The problem is, when you call to close the sale, Mr. PC is nowhere to be found. Later, you hear that he has decided to buy from your top (and less expensive) competitor.

Frustrated, you find yourself asking, “Where did I go wrong? Why didn’t I see it coming?” You realize you’ve fallen prey to an all-too-common trap: unpaid consulting.

Unpaid consulting potentially starts when we start defining the customer’s problem and it certainly starts when we cross the line and begin explaining the solution. When we start defining problems and designing solutions, we start delivering valuable information and we start becoming unpaid consultants.

In past decades, this was not a monumental issue. Generally, there was limited competition in complex sales. If you determined the customer’s problem and designed a unique and valuable solution, the sale was almost guaranteed and the salesperson was rewarded for his or her “free” consulting effort. Today, there is an ever-increasing proliferation of competitors in complex sales, and once a solution is designed, the customer can easily shop it to the competition.

Why the change? It is the combination of the technology explosion, expansion of communications and proliferation of competitors our world has experienced in the past decade or so. Simply put, no matter how sophisticated your products and services are, chances are there are numerous competitors offering the same thing. And because geographic location is no longer a critical factor—in large part because of the advent of the Internet—a manufacturer in New York can access a supplier in Los Angeles (or in China, for that matter) just as easily as it can the one across the street.

Systemic solution
So what’s a sales professional to do? In today’s complex business arena, there are no simple “band-aid” solutions. What is required is a systemic approach to an environment characterized by long sales cycles, multiple decision-makers and numerous perspectives that may cross national and cultural borders.

Traditional selling approaches suggest that the most important step to the sale is the presentation. In fact, presenting your solution in great detail is exactly the “unpaid consulting” we don’t want to do. The real challenge is presenting a solution to the customer’s problems before you clearly understand what those problems are—and more to the point, before the customer fully comprehends the problem.

While most salespeople devote the majority of their face-to-face time presenting and handling objections, the most successful salespeople spend the majority of their time collaborating with customers, diagnosing their situation, designing or creating a desired solution and building their resolve to actively solve the problem. That begs the questions, “How much information should you give away?” and “When should you consider charging for your advice?”

Medical model
Consider a doctor. Let me suggest that the doctor does a preliminary diagnosis at no charge. It takes 15 minutes and during the preliminary diagnosis, the doctor identifies physical symptoms. These symptoms indicate a larger condition that must be understood before an accurate diagnosis can be completed. The doctor connects the need for additional tests with these symptoms, and the potential risk of not clarifying the situation is discussed. The doctor then recommends that the patient take the tests and explains the additional fees for the tests.

This provides an excellent model for sales professionals. We can determine what our first stage or preliminary diagnosis will consist of. There will be no charge. During the preliminary diagnosis, we will determine what physical symptoms we should look for that tell us our customer is at risk without the in-depth diagnosis. One of the risks could be making the wrong decision. There is also the risk of doing nothing and having the problem still exist. Call the in-depth diagnosis Stage 2, and you can charge for the diagnosis.

Also consider that charging for the diagnosis doesn’t have to mean an exchange of currency. Charging could be an exchange of value. For example, access. You could consider that access to an executive’s time for a diagnosis is extremely valuable to your ability to create an accurate diagnosis. Therefore, an exchange of time is all that is required to “pay for” the exam.

The next question is, “What if my competitors do the exam for no charge?” That would be great. The natural perception is that if you charge for your assessment, it must be more thorough—and it is. Consider the assessment a new offering of your services. The customer who receives the results of the assessment is in a better position to make a final decision and will be highly biased toward choosing you for the final solution. Why? Because you understand the situation better than anyone else, and who better to assure the solution works?

Clearly, the role of the salesperson has changed dramatically. The often-ignored reality is that customers need outside expertise to help them understand the problems they face, design optimal solutions to those problems and implement the solutions. It is up to you to provide the help your customers need. See yourself as a project manager for your customer’s decision. That is the secret behind succeeding at the complex sale.

Jeff Thull
Jeff Thull, author of the bestselling Mastering the Complex Sale, is a leading-edge strategist and advisor for executive teams of major companies. As president and CEO of Prime Resource Group, he has designed and implemented business transformation and professional development programs for companies like Shell Global Solutions, 3M and Microsoft.


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