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

Part II

SMS: OK, let's take last's week's bullet points one by one. What is "discover?"

Jeff: The process of research and preparation to engage and serve customers. This is conventionally referred to a prospecting and qualification, but in our methodology we expand this process to actively look to for reasons to disqualify a prospect and thus not waste either the customer's or the salesperson's time.

SMS: "Diagnose?"

Jeff: A process we discuss in the book of asking questions designed to communicate in a non-threatening way with a client and understand their problems. We break in turn break this phase of the process into four different types of questions you can ask a client. These are:

  • A to Z. (Orientate the conversation) These are questions you ask to frame a customer's business process and pinpoint a specific area of concern.

    "As you look at your entire sales process, beginning with the generation of a new prospect and continuing on to develop that prospect into a profitable customer relationship, if you had to pick one part of that process that concerns you the most, as successful as you have been, what part of the process would make the top of your list of concerns?" The question is intentionally long and is designed to guide and pace the customer's thinking process.

  • Indicator. (Confirm physical evidence) These questions are designed to uncover observable symptoms of problems or missed opportunities. It's looking for physical evidence of the absence of the value you can provide.

    "As you look at the customer service calls coming into your help desk, are your service reps fielding calls about third party software in addition to the hardware questions you would expect?"

    The key to the indicator question is it is asking for an observation, which will be more accurate than an opinion and it is not going to mislead you like the traditional sales questions designed to create interest. For example, a doctor is not trying to create interest in open heart surgery, he or she is looking to see if you have shortness of breath.

  • Assumptive. (Introduce incremental issues) These introduce areas of concern that the customer would not have considered on their own and expands the customer's understanding and scope of the problem.

"When your department managers brought you the numbers on what this was costing you, were the numbers in the range you had expected?".

This example of the assumptive question introduces the topic of determining an exact cost of not having the solution in place as normal or expected activity. It is not likely that it has been done and it is recognized as desirable information to pursue.

  • Rule of Two: (Stop the Games and/or select alternative paths). These help identify alternative answers to a problem or alternative motives behind the customers manipulation, and allow a customer to honestly discuss the real business issues without fear of sales pressure.

    "Normally when I find a customer not wanting to discuss this area in more depth, it's for one of two reasons, and either one is OK. Either the issues aren't a priority and there really isn't any point in taking the time to sort through details right now, or they have already settled in on a specific solution and it doesn't make a lot of sense to go into great detail with another resource. Again either one is OK, but it would help me to know which one would your group be closer to.?"

    One of the best uses of the rule of two question is when you are between a rock and a hard spot. In this example, the salesperson has perceived the customer is just looking for another bid for column fodder. The question allows you to give the customer permission to be honest without retribution. It's a great way to get at sensitive information.

SMS: "Design?

Jeff: In the era two approach, the salesperson does the needs analysis or problem determination and then goes about putting together a solution on their own. The design phase is a collaborative effort that helps a client create, understand and own the solution. Design is not a presentation! It is an interactive process that includes establishing the customer's expectations from the product they purchase, quantifiable business values attached to those outcomes, the amount their willing to invest to achieve those expectations and timeframes for results.

During this process the salesperson needs to explore alternatives, including solutions offered by competitors. This is necessary if you want your customers to have faith in the integrity of the design process.

SMS: And "Deliver?"

Jeff: Wherein the sales comes to fruition. During this period, you do what you said you were going to do and demonstrate and quantify the value you have brought to the customer with a predetermined measurement process.

SMS: You discuss the concept of value a great deal in Complex Sale, but often do so in terms of the sales process itself. Tell us more about this idea.

Jeff: One of the reasons I wrote Mastering the Complex Sale was to address the issue of technology commoditization. To help your readers develop a better understanding of this issue, I recommend reading The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail by Clayton M. Christensen. It's a fascinating history of the disk drive business, and it makes point that many of the companies in these markets didn't fail because they weren't listening to their customers: they were.

In fact, they were listening so well to their customers that they innovated beyond their customers ability to comprehend the value of their solutions. They missed the opportunity to add any value through their sales efforts by helping their customers understand the real value of the new technologies they were introducing and manage the change required to implement the new technology within their organization.

When you don't do this, an interesting thing happens in the mind of the buyer. When someone doesn't understand something, they look for things they do understand and mental touch points to fall back on. If they don't have knowledge or a good decision process, they'll use the old reliables. For instance, price comparisons. Simple feature checklists. Anything they can use to make the buying process comprehensible.

In this type of sales environment, all products and solutions become commodities. One of our key thoughts is: In the absence of a quality decision making process, the decision degenerates to the lowest common denominator - typically price and specs.

SMS: How do you think this applies to software?

Jeff: It impacts software products big time. They are feature rich, increasingly complex, and often very close in overall functionality. Where is the opportunity for a software publisher to differentiate and add value?

SMS: I talk about value leveraging in my book and we look at three levels of value. First, we can work at the product level. Let's take accounting software, as an example. A product sale would list out features such as the product's GL, payables, receivable, and inventory management features. This is appropriate for retail products but doesn't work well with higher end and enterprise level software. After all, don't all modern accounting packages offer these features?

Next is what I define as the process level. Again using accounting as an example, a software publisher seeking to create value in the sales process would assist the customer in learning how acquire information about accounts, best practices in using the software, etc. It is impacting the various business processes that the software is used to support and enhance.

The highest level of value would be what I call the performance level. At this point, the sales person would be providing assistance to the customer on the strategic use of accounting software in, say, managing a company's supply chain management. It's looking at the combination of processes and how they impact the overall business performance.

Again, the point I want to drive home is that the role of the sales person is to create value during the process, not merely communicate value. They need to help customer's understand the business problem they face and point out issues they haven't even considered. They are taking the customer into levels of comprehension they would never reach on their own. Without this value-creation process, whatever your selling will inevitably become commoditized.

SMS: What about the hardware side of the industry?

Jeff: Well, let's look at Sun. Sun faces the grim fact that Linux is making high-priced Solaris servers not only commodities, but highly-priced commodities. Microsoft faces similar issues with desktop operating systems, office suites, even server-based products such as Exchange. Are Sun and Microsoft adding value to these products via their sales processes? Is Sun able to coherently explain to customers the differences between Solaris and Linux at the process and performance levels and are its sales people willing to recommend a lower-priced Linux/Intel solution even at the expense of a higher-ticket price Solaris/SPARC sale? And do their customers have the confidence that a Sun sales representative will do this with the customer's best interests in mind?

A fundamental problem is that many of the era 2 salespeople have grown up selling "hot boxes." They never had to understand how their box impacted the customers business processes or business performance. They just had to "communicate value" by explaining the wonders of the box. They did not have to "create value" by integrating the wonders of the box into their customers businesses.

SMS: What, in your opinion, is the role of marketing in the complex sale?

Jeff: The marketing group should be developing the diagnostic materials and tools needed to support the sales force. They should be at the forefront of the value leveraging process. We shouldn't be introducing a product that doesn't stand up to the scrutiny of creating real value at all three levels. Unfortunately, too many marketing departments focus on creating brochures and collaterals that spend about 80% to 90% of their "real estate" talking about the company and its products. More "communicating value" and leaving it up to the customer to translate that value into their world.

SMS: What do you think the correct proportion should be?

Jeff: 60% to 70% focus on the customer, their issues, the present situation and desired state. The rest on your solution, your company/products/services, the future.

SMS: Where does selling services fit into the complex sale?

Jeff: That's an interesting question. From my viewpoint, a complex sale is primarily a professional services offering even when a product is involved. I have difficult time separating the two and don't think a sales force should do so. Fortunately as an industry, software has always charged for their services and the customer is used to paying for it. Unfortunately, those services are primarily post-sale, maintenance and upgrades. Companies are giving it away on the front end and finding themselves doing a lot of "unpaid consulting" while margins and proposal rates are shrinking. That can only last so long.

SMS: In your book you state that it is often a mistake for a salesperson to move onto the next sale too quickly. What are some concrete steps a salesperson can take to reassure a customer that they are still involved in the sales process? And what do you think of the tactic of "offloading" a customer into a post sales contact management process?

Jeff: I don't object to the idea as long as there is a defined process for making sure there is a smooth transition to a new relationship being established between a customer and a post-sales specialist. But there needs to always be process to bring the sales person back into the relationship in the event of a problem or customer requirement.

Again, I take you to the medical model. There are frequent "hand-offs" between the general practitioner, (the sales person), and other care givers or delivery specialists. The main point is there is one system, one language, one patient record and everyone knows, at any given point, who is caring for the patient and who ultimately owns the relationship.

SMS: Jeff, thanks a lot and good luck with your book! We highly recommend it to our readers.

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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