How to Master the Complex Sale

How to Master the Complex Sale

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1. Mastering the Complex Sale

Selling in a Business to Business environment can be challenging at the best of times, but throw in a pandemic and a recession and you have the perfect storm.

Despite the fact it’s Business to Business sales, we must never forget people buy from people, so in reality it’s person to person, or to be more exact, it is person to persons.

Yes, multiple persons, because according to research by Gartner, in a typical 100-500 employee business an average of 7 employees are involved in most buying decisions.

We have moved from the old command and control leadership whereby one person would make most purchasing decisions to buying by committee.

Buying by committee is in effect the complex sale. Who should I talk to, who has influence and who has the power are just some questions you will be asking yourself.

Whether you are a start up or a team of experienced sales professionals mastering the complex sale is one of the most challenging areas of sales. It’s difficult enough to get to speak with any President and CEO, however, selling to the c-suite can sometimes be the easy part. In many cases with high stake sales you will also need to win over the hearts and minds of many others in the organisation.

It’s worth also noting there will be two competitors most sales professionals should pay particular attention to:

a) The status quo – people and companies typically don’t like change and any change involves risk for them. The best sales professionals know how to mitigate that risk and turn it on it’s head by focussing the conversation around the cost of not taking action.

b) Internal politics – even the best of companies can suffer from internal politics which can turn influencers and decision makers against perfectly good suppliers. In order to compete and win we need to seek out the internal politics and not avoid or ignore them.

How to Master the Complex Sale
How to Master the Complex Sale

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2. Resources for Mastering the Complex Sale

There are two great resources for understanding the sales process that we would advocate. We have based our own teachings on mastering the complex sales process on these two resources and wanted to acknowledge and give credit to each of them.

2.1 Selling to VITO by Anthony Parinello

Tony Parinello is the creator of the highly successful Selling to VITO books which to summarise advocate finding and targeting the VITO (Very Important Top Officer) in the executive suite of the organisation.

Where VITO differs from the traditional sales approach is by positioning the Sales person as an equal to the buying executive and focusing on value not price.

The book provides a complete process from setting the initial call up with a personalised intro letter, through to what to say on the actual telephone call with VITO and how to leverage that call to further the sales process.

Master the complex sale
How to Master the Complex Sale

It’s a great book and contains lots of common sense and timeless sales tactics.

2.2 Successful Large Account Management by Miller Heiman

Miller Heiman is so tried and proven, it has become almost the default for Key Account Management across the globe.

It’s success lies simply in that it works, in fact it’s so widely used many buyers expect the Miller Heiman level of professional account management from their suppliers.

Again to summarise Miller Heiman advocates segmenting the different people involved in the buying process into four categories, namely the Economic, Technical, User and the Coach.

how to master the complex sale
How to Master the Complex Sale

After identifying the different buyer roles salespeople set about understanding the level of influence, their selling strengths and any potential deal breakers or Red Flags in Miller Heiman terms.

From this sales people can work out their action plans to move forward. We really like the Miller Heiman system because of the structured approach to managing both a Sales Opportunity and the account as a whole.

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3. Understanding the Complex Sale.

A complex sale is where more than one person is where more than one person and department is involved in the buying process and is complex because they have competing needs, priorities, budgets and timescales.

Where the complex sales differs in most instances is that they are in some way strategic to the buying organisation which introduces “risk”, and as buyers look to avoid risk they research, consult others internally and externally and delays ensue.

The different elements together elongate the sales cycle and that time delay alone defeats many salespeople who switch focus to deals that “will happen” in order to hit their sales targets.

However, for those Salespeople that have the patience and skills to work through the complex sale, there are huge contracts on offer as rewards. When stakes are high, in order for you to compete and win, you will need to master the complex sale.

Like everything though, there needs to be a balance between short term wins to keep the business moving forward, and the long term complex sales that provide a consistent flow of revenue over multiple years, in the way a complex sale does.

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4. Which Sales Opportunities involve a Complex Sale

As explained the model we use heavily references the VITO and Miller Heiman model and is in fact an amalgamation of them.

In essence when an organisation sets off on the path of making a strategic purchase they are creating the complex sale which in reality is a project.

The collective group of individuals that are involved in the purchase are a project team and each have roles within the team.

From a Sales perspective we use the analogy of “Building a House” which hopefully makes the process easier to remember.

For sales opportunities that only represent a small amount of revenue it may not make sense to go into this level of detail or more often there is not enough time to go into this level of detail.

However, even in the smallest of B2B sales, buyers rarely operate in isolation.

They may have a casual conversation with a colleague, or a family member all of who may influence the final decision.

Sales Consulting Services
Sales Consulting Services

At the very least it’s always helpful to have this model at the back of your mind as a gentle reminder.

For larger revenue deals, this is an easy way to plan and brief the entire team working on the opportunity.

The model helps to quickly identify strengths and weaknesses in the opportunity, make the relevant plans to move the opportunity forward and identify any relevant action points.

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5. Influencers in the Complex Sale

Every house is built on solid foundations and so should every Sales Opportunity.

In our complex sales model the Influencers are people both internally and externally who may have an influence on the Decision Makers.

Most salespeople are familiar with the concept of internal Influencers as they are easier to identify. For example multi-national corporations may have consolidated IT and only have one “IT Director” who is based at a separate location and have a number of “IT Managers” in the different regions they operate.

External Influencers can be equally important at times for example, many CFO’s would consult the companies accountants before choosing new financial software.

Chartered Surveyors and Architects may specify certain goods or materials for construction projects.

Non Exec Directors and VC Groups may point their CEO’s in a particular direction for certain Professional Services they may require.

Influencers are everywhere and at the very least you should be building personal and business brand awareness with them.

The Salesperson should be positioned as the go-to person in their industry, a though leader that brings value above and beyond the information on the company sales brochure.

Types of sales motivation
Types of Sales Motivation

Every interaction should deliver insight and value to the prospect.

In most cases if you don’t influence the Influencers before the opportunity arises then it could be too late.

Whilst every industry and case is different we understand it might not be possible to reach every individual Influencer, it should however be part of your strategy moving forward.

Join Linkedin groups, join networking groups, join associations and organisations where these Influencers hang out.

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6. White Knight

Very much like the Coach in the Miller Heiman model your White Knight is there to coach you through the sale.

They will help you understand the buying organisations buying process and what you need to do to navigate them.

There may be hidden barriers you are unaware of for example if you are not already on their approved supplier list.

It’s possible that the Terms & Conditions simply would not be acceptable to your organisation.

Professional Salespeople uncover these Red Flags early in the process, so they can deal with them or abort.

The White Knight is not there to “sell” on your behalf, instead they need to be your Champion. They need to help you understand and navigate the political landscape within the organisation.

Your White Knight should be in a position to make introductions to other people in the buying project and more importantly where possible they need to have power as well as influence within the organisation.

The White Knight differs from the Coach in the Miller Heiman model is simple. Similarly, in chess where there’s a White Knight there is potentially a Black Knight.

In this example the Black Knight may be coaching your competitor and working against you.

In many cases the Black Knight may simply want to retain the status quo and do nothing, thus blocking your move.

Salespeople need to be aware of and have strategies in place to counter moves against them in the complex sale.

At the very least the Salesperson should have the conversation with their White Knight as to who in the organisation might not be onboard with the decision to choose them.

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7. Financial Buyer

As the name suggests the Financial buyer will be judging your product or service based on its financial attributes.

This goes past price and includes things like ROI (Return On Investment), whole life costs that would include things like warranties, support contracts, maintenance costs, cap ex versus op ex and budgeting.

Budgeting is important because in some cases there will be no budget.

In a complex sale often traditional pre-qualification methods such as BANT are not relevant as strategic initiatives are planned months if not years ahead and budgets often have to be applied for.

In many cases if Salespeople wait until budget is allocated another supplier has got in and positioned and shaped the opportunity to suit themselves and others invited to the tender are simply making up the numbers and helping the customer complete their due diligence.

Consultative Sales Process
Consultative Sales Process

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8. Technical Buyer

The role of the technical buyer is to ensure any new product or service fits “technically” with the existing environment.

Whilst this is more relevant with IT, software and application development the same principals apply with many other products and services.

For example Managed Services suppliers that use the Agile as their methodology for delivery workloads may conflict if the customers internal team use Kanban.

In nearly every case their will be some form of non-fit between the new solution and the old.

This is the nature of progress and ongoing development.

What is often more important is the strategies, plans and capabilities to work through the “change” process and take the customer from where they are now to where they want to be.

Sales Training for Consultants
Sales Training for Consultants

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9. User Buyer

User Buyers are the people at the coal face who will be using and or managing the users of the new product or service.

In many cases this will be an operational type environment and the users will have to adapt to new software, hardware, machinery, applications or systems and processes.

As you would imagine the priorities for the user buyer will be things like User adoption, user experience, cost of any downtime, training, 1st, 2nd and 3rd line support and Change Management.

All of these ultimately must lead to increases in productivity and efficiencies within the users’ environment.

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10. VITO

The VITO or Very Important Top Officer in our model is not necessarily the CEO or the MD. It’s the Head of the Project Buying Team.

It’s the person who is coordinating, steering and driving the buying project.

This could be the head of the business unit that is most affected by the project or it could be simply a senior and respected member of the management team who the organisation view as a safe pair of hands.

Where this differs slightly from the VITO concept is simply a greater acknowledgement and focus on the wider project buying team.

Getting to VITO is important not only to help you secure the sale, the length and quality of your engagement as a supplier is dictated by your relationship with VITO.

How to Master the Complex Sale
How to Master the Complex Sale

Simply put, the stronger your relationship the longer your engagement. Getting to VITO early in the sales process helps you position yourself and your business and shape and influence the buying teams requirements in a way that benefits or favours you.

Use the conversations to move the project requirements away from the crowded and price driven red seas to the blue oceans where you can win.

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11. Getting to the Decision Makers

Where many people struggle initially is understanding that one single Buyer may sit in multiple boxes or Rooms of the house as we call them. For example User are almost always Influencers. Unless your White Knight is an Influencer they are not a White Knight.

Your White Knight may even be the VITO, but that still won’t guarantee you a sale.

Once you understand the concept finding all the Decision Makers in the Complex Sale is difficult, but what’s even more difficult is getting them to talk to you. More and more Decision Makers hide behind what we call the Scout.

The Scout is the designated information gatherer and the persona the buyers deliberately use as a shield to protect them from Salespeople.

Like everything in sales there is no single strategy that works every time to get you past the Scout, however, here are five solid starting points:

  1. Positioning – if the VITO and fellow execs view your value proposition as transactional they will almost certainly not talk to you. You must position your goods and services as Strategic, this means you need to make the connection between the organisations strategic plan and you as a supplier. If they believe you can help them reach their organisational goals they are much more likely to talk to you.
  1. Start High – nothing slows the sales cycle more than calling low to make your point of entry. Call high and speak to VITO as an equal. Yes VITO may still shunt you down the organisational ladder but you can simply double back to VITO on the premise of keeping them in the loop.
  1. Refuse to Engage – when the Scout comes calling tell them you would love to help however unless you get access to VITO and others you can’t even get started. This isn’t a high risk move if you have wasted time and energy talking to Scouts previously only to get no where. Better to get a No up front then months down the line after you have invested heavily and are still going nowhere.
  1. Negotiation – in many cases the Salesperson has information that the Buying Team want. Technical documents, Specifications, Data, POC’s and Proposals. All of these are leverage that you must use as and when appropriate. In many cases when we check the CRM of clients there is an immediate drop off in communications after the buyers receive pricing or quotes. The sales is now stalled as the Sales Rep is stuck in Voice Mail Jail and can’t get out. Never give pricing out until you have everything you want.
  1. Ask – More often than nought the best strategy is too simply ask. It certainly doesn’t work all the time but it will never work if you don’t try it. Ask early on in the Sales process and use people like senior Executives in your own organisation as the reward for the Buyer.

Lastly, and as a fall back, you must have all the relevant information for each of the Buyers on your website.

If you use any form of IP tracking software you will see the 7 or more members of your customers buying team all over your website doing their own investigations throughout the length of the buying process.

Track what information they are reading and use this to start and enhance your conversations.

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Author Bio

Iain Swanston has spent over 30 years in B2B sales selling, training and leading teams both domestically and internationally.  In addition he serves as an Associate at Strathclyde University Business School where he has delivered the sales content for the Masters in Entrepreneurship since 2015.

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