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An Interview with Jeff Thull, Author of Mastering the Complex Sale, Part I of II

Part I


Jeff Thull, CEO and President of Prime Resource Group, has gained a reputation for expertise in the arena of sales and marketing strategies for companies involved in complex sales. His wealth of real world experience has made him a leading authority and valued advisor for executive teams of major companies world-wide.

His programs have been tested and proven across a broad range of industries. He counts among his clients household names like 3M, Microsoft, IBM, Citicorp and Georgia-Pacific, as well as many fast-track, start-up companies. He is highly regarded as an entertaining and informative keynote speaker for corporate and association audiences worldwide.

Jeff is the author of Diagnostic Selling, Prime Performance Leadership and his latest work, Mastering the Complex Sale. We've read the book and find many of the concepts and ideas he discusses intriguing and believe you will as well.

SMS: What is it about the landscape of today's selling environment that made you want to write this book? What has changed or is not being done?

Jeff: The complexity of the sales environment (and this applies to industries other than software) is steadily growing as well as the speed of change. Of course, high technology provides the underlying infrastructure for both the extent and velocity of change. As the title of the book implies, sales are becoming increasingly complex and your sales force needs to be aware of this fact.

SMS: Can you give us an example of what you mean?

Let me give you a word processing example, one that should be close to your heart. Forty years ago a company had to make the choice to move from a conventional typewriter to an IBM Selectric. This was a pretty obvious and easy choice. Thirty years ago the choice was to move from a Selectric to a dedicated word processor. This was also an easy choice, though the financial issues often required buy-in from a purchasing authority.

Twenty years ago, the choice was to move from dedicated to word processors to general-purpose machines that could do word processing as well as run spreadsheets. Now IT had to think about the loss of centralized control these machines represented, security, upgrading, LAN integration, etc, etc.

Now, when you buy a word processor you have to consider the following issues (and we're just talking about the word processing part of the purchase), security (viruses in macros), collaboration, document management and file management, document analysis and classification, file format integrity and so forth. Oh, and someone has to negotiate those site licenses you're purchasing.

Let me go a bit upscale and deal with a more esoteric market: software for cell phone simulations. Before the use of simulation software, it would take a company two to three days to set up a simulation scenario that tested a new phone's capabilities. Simulation software allows this to be done in a couple of hours. Driven by these capabilities, cell phone manufacturers are currently working on three-month platform cycles. In this situation, we're dealing with both speed and complexity.

SMS:In a previous article on SMS we interviewed Mike Bosworth about "solution" or process-based selling methodologies. Are these approaches, which seek to position the salesperson as a "consultative" resource, the right ones in your opinion? Do you think customers accept salespeople as consultants since they obviously know you are trying to sell them something?

Jeff: I need to answer this question in stages. I break down sales approaches into three "eras." The first era was that of product selling. The high tech industry as whole went through this era during the 80s and early 90s as many products sold themselves. It wasn't hard to persuade someone of the benefits of buying an Apple with AppleWriter word processor in the 1980s; the product sold itself.

For more complex software, such as the client/server database systems of the late 80s and 90s, companies began to employ the solution-oriented systems you mentioned. I characterize these as "era two" sales. These systems focus on qualifying customers, discovering what problems they face, quantifying their "pain," and then aligning your sales efforts with the customer's mindset and issues. I characterize these environments as "era two" sales.

Please note that solution systems assume that the customer has an internal high quality decision making process in place. But the truth is that as software becomes more complex and powerful and as the companies have to deal with an increasingly rapid pace of change we find that companies don't have good decision making processes in place.

In these cases, I like to position a firm's sales force as a truly consultative resource. One that helps a company develop, in collaboration with your sales group, an effective decision making capability.

SMS: OK, we've heard this claim before, but for a sales person to truly act in a consultative role they have to be willing to recommend other products.

Jeff: That's right; that's what they have to be willing to do. And that's what we train sales representatives to do. The paradigm we tend to use is that of the medical professional or doctor. When you see a doctor for a medical problem, you expect them to focus on providing an accurate diagnosis and insuring you obtain the best outcome for you.

SMS: Hmmm. This sounds an awful lot like "Miracle on 34th Street," where the guy playing Santa Clause starts recommend that people leave Macy's and go to Gimbel's to buy certain items.

Jeff: Yes, it does. And if you recall, Macy's generated a great deal of good will with this tactic. The resource that made the recommendation has more credibility than the final source of the solution. An era three sales approach means a commitment to creating an unbiased, high quality decision process (I'll be coming back to this concept later on) that lets the chips fall where they may. Top sales people have been using this approach for years. They understand that they want to ultimately own the relationship with the customer. They've learned that if you are willing to provide high quality advice that helps the customer develop an effective decision making process, you're going to do business with that customer in the future. You can't be afraid of "Going for the no."

SMS: "Going for the no?" To many sales people, this sound like heresy. The whole purpose of the sales process is to ostensibly get to yes. Some sales methodologies teach that you never "give up" on a customer; that all that stands between you and a successful sale is gaining enough knowledge about a customer's needs and objectives.

Jeff: First of all - "Going for the yes" is the source of most elements of the dubious reputation the profession of selling has collected over the years. And besides that it is simply unrealistic. The truth is that out of your pool of potential prospects (however they've been generated) only 10% are truly in need of your products or services. For the other 90%, they aren't experiencing the "symptoms" of the lack of your solutions and if they are the pain is not severe enough to support change, the timing is not right, they aren't really interested in buying, they can't afford to buy anything or your solution simply is not the right fit for their company.
That's one reason we encourage sales people to begin discussion of implementation issues early in the sales process; we think you need to know as soon as possible if the customer you're working with is ready and able to go through the change process that an enterprise software sale entails.

And getting back to our medical analogy, the sales person needs to not be thinking so much of "selling" the customer but more in line with the ancient Hippocratic principle of "first, do no harm." If your product or service is not right with the customer, if they lack the ability to implement it, then you need to step away from that sale. That's more in line with "going for the no."

And that brings me to those bullet points you were looking for earlier. Our basic sales paradigm is that the process consists of these four basic stages:

  • Discover
  • Diagnose
  • Design
  • Deliver

I'd like to emphasize that we don't think of this as a sales process so much as a decision process. Again, the role of the sales force in a complex sale is assisting the customer in developing a good decision process that allows them to make a highly decision.

SMS: And next week we'll delve more deeply into the mechanics of this process and discuss in greater detail the role of marketing in your methodology.

Jeff Thull's Best-Seller!
Mastering the Complex Sale
How to Compete and Win When the Stakes are High
Download Chapter 1
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