Demystifying the Complex Sale

by Britton Manasco | Nov 18, 2006 | Sales Messaging

Can’t we all just get along? Sales and Marketing, I mean.

The problem is they just don’t understand each other -– and it’s a problem that few companies have truly solved. Sales is a black box to marketers and marketing is a black box to sales people.

So how do we get a better understanding of what is going on within these boxes? More importantly, how do we extract ourselves from these boxes and work together to get results?

It’s not about thinking outside the box. (Run, don’t walk, for the exits if you hear that hackneyed phrase employed.) It’s about blowing the boxes apart to unify sales and marketing. In fact, once we are outside the rigid boundaries of these boxes, we can even include the customer in our newly created circle of value creation.

If that sounds like a worthy objective, I suggest you start with two new books: Brian Carroll’s Lead Generation for the Complex Sale and Jeff Thull’s Exceptional Selling. Together, these books provide a well rounded perspective on the challenges that companies now face as they strive to succeed in today’s demanding and difficult selling environments.

Let’s start with Brian’s book because, as he understands, it all starts with a lead.

Marketing has often been accused of shooting from the hip and emphasizing cleverness over results. Well, Brian doesn’t shy away from accountability. He insists it should be front and center in the marketing operation. Leads are the essential unit of measure – and marketing is responsible for generating them.

It’s troubling that so few companies understand this challenge. Indeed, they make a hash of their lead generation efforts or, worse, they expect their sales people to do their own prospecting. As a result, “a great many talented salespeople still find themselves trapped,” states Carroll. “In the end, poorly conceived and executed lead generation is a major impediment to growth.”

With a rigorous and well defined process, marketing can build credibility with sales and deliver measurable results. One critical element in this process is the “universal” lead – a lead that “has been determined to fit the profile of the ideal customer, has been qualified as sales ready, and spells out the responsibilities and accountabilities of the participants in the program, sales and marketing.”

Take the time to absorb that concept. When sales and marketing get together in a room to determine exactly what a “universal lead” means – and when the CEO drives consensus and demands accountability – we are on the road to productive collaboration.   Lg

Carroll’s book lays the essential foundations for a lead generation and development program, spells out the key tactics and then, shows you how to measure your efforts and enforce accountability.

Of particular interest to readers of this blog, Carroll recognizes the growing importance of thought leadership in the overall demand generation process. He even provides some insight into the “thought leadership toolkit” (research reports, newsletters, blogs, podcasts, articles, events, case studies, white papers) necessary to build credibility with our prospects. “To be thought of as an expert, it must be sharply apparent that your thought leadership skills reflect the potential customer’s needs, issues, and concerns,” he writes.

If I have a complaint about the book, it is that it pigeonholes thought leadership into a chapter on public relations as a lead generation tactic. I would have preferred to have seen thought leadership woven into the various tactical chapters in the book. It is a core component, after all, of successful event marketing, web marketing, email marketing and new media (such as blogs and podcasting). Even phone calls are more credible when they are preceded by a work of thought leadership that has generated interest and established relevance.

As I see it, thought leadership is often the factor that captures the attention of prospects at the very early stages of a decision cycle. You can think of it as the gravitational force that draws them into the sales funnel. It can also reinforce your connection to a customer who is not yet prepared to move down the decision cycle – keeping you in their peripheral vision.

What may prove particularly valuable to readers of this book is Brian’s discussion of measurement and metrics. This goes to the heart of organizational credibility – and trust building. He offers some valuable insights into what can – and should – be measured.

Lead management, as he points out, is the key vehicle for making marketing measurable.

“From it, everyone can obtain a clear assessment of marketing contribution to new sales. Lead management is in effect a sales-marketing bridge that connects the beginning and middle of the customer acquisition process. Without solid lead management practice, marketing ROI-based reporting will at best be a game of educated guesses.”

Where Brian’s book leaves off is where Jeff’s book picks up. Jeff Thull originally broke new ground in the sales arena with his best-selling book Mastering the Complex Sale. In that book, he outlined the essential challenges that sales people now face in our third “era” of selling.

If the first era was about pitching and persuading and the second era was about listening and solving problems, this third era is about conducting a thorough diagnosis and guiding the customer through a difficult decision and change process. Successful sales people act more like doctors than pitchmen. Indeed, today’s aspiring sales professionals can learn more from an episode of House than by watching Glengarry Glen Ross

In Exceptional Selling, Thull explains that both adversarial and compliant relationships are destructive to the career of a sales person in our era. Confrontational communication styles erode trust and create tension. Such behaviors have given the sales profession a bad name. But passive compliance isn’t much better. We don’t build credibility these days by saying to the customer in essence, “I don't know. What do you think? I'll do whatever you say.” C'mon, nobody wants to do business with a doormat.

By addressing these challenges, Thull shows sales people how to perform effectively and capitalize on a qualified lead once it has been handed over by marketing. As he puts it:

“The most common forms of sales sabotage are stylistic in nature. How we talk with customers can easily undermine our ability to position ourselves to succeed and win business. No one does this intentionally, but the fact remains, if you don’t know how to effectively structure and conduct customer conversations, what you talk about doesn’t make much difference. Customers aren’t going to hear you.”

To address these challenges, Thull urges sales people not to get emotionally involved. That’s Es_1 right, just like doctors.

How confident would you be in the presence of an emotionally unstable heart surgeon? Sales people, like doctors, need to be able to conduct a professional and thorough diagnosis of the customer’s situation without taking the outcome personally. Look at it from the doctor’s perspective: Maybe the diagnosis will reveal that the patient doesn’t need heart surgery. Maybe diet and exercise would be better solutions. The sales person can’t let his or her emotional state be affected by whether a customer needs a product.

However, if heart surgery is the right solution, you expect the doctor to guide you through the final decision and clearly discuss the implications of the operation. You don’t want a doctor who is asking you what you think is the appropriate way to handle the operation. You want the doctor to make solid recommendations and then, stand behind them. You want professional guidance, not compliance. So, too, with today’s sales professional.

While Thull offers plenty of tactical advice in the book about such issues as engaging senior decision-makers and building a compelling case for your solution, he begins – as he should – with the issue of mindset. If sales people don’t get this right, the tactics won’t matter. Successful sales people, as his research suggests, “think differently than their less successful colleagues.” As he explains further:

“Our ability to execute in sales is rooted in the mindset and skill with which we understand the value of our solutions and guide our customers to a compelling understanding of that value. The more effective we become as decision process guides, the more likely customers are to support our efforts – that is, the more likely they are to grant us the privileged access and reveal the privileged insight we need to execute successfully. This creates a virtuous cycle of sales success that reinforces itself. Relevance and credibility build trust; trust builds access and insight; access and insight build relevance and credibility.”

Back to the medical analogy, Thull urges sales people to embrace a “diagnostic” mindset, which he considers the anti-thesis of the “presentation” mindset. Rather than focusing on presenting all the wonderful skills and capabilities that our companies provide, we instead focus on identifying the challenges and problems that our customers may be experiencing in the absence of our solution. We want to evaluate the “cost of the problem” and consequences of not taking action.

Thull believes the customer problem is the true undiscovered country in the era of the complex sale. He notes that most sellers rush to differentiate themselves against competitors and elucidate the wonderful benefits of a solution. They fail to guide prospective buyers through a deep exploration of the challenges they face and the hurdles that must be overcome in order to address them. By glossing over these issues, sellers lose credibility – or remain irrelevant.

The diagnosis, as Thull explains, is more effective than a presentation for several reasons:

  • It is always focused on the customer. Diagnosis is about the symptoms the customer is experiencing and the solutions that best address those symptoms. If you are diagnosing properly, you aren’t talking about your company, your solutions, or yourself.
  • It engages the customer as a collaborative partner. Instead of one-sided presentation, you and your customer are taking a journey of discovery and reaching conclusions together. Diagnosis transforms salespeople and customers into co-creators of compelling business outcomes.
  • It promotes ownership. When customers participate in the development of insights into their problems and solution alternatives, the likelihood that they will take ownership of the conclusions that it yields increases and thus, they are more likely to act on them.
  • It differentiates you from your competition. In a world where every salesperson is presenting value, using similar or even identical words, the sales professional who takes a more thoughtful, tangible, advisory-based approach to identifying and confirming value is exceptional and stands out from the pack.

The one question I have about this strategy revolves around our ability to conduct an extended diagnosis in the face of today’s demanding, empowered, time-starved customers. If you don’t already have a deep relationship with a customer, they simply may not give you the time and access necessary to conduct a thorough diagnosis. In our fast-paced era, customers may prefer to initiate buy cycles on their own and actively resist sellers’ efforts to do this.

That’s where Carroll’s work comes back in. Your investments in building a professional sales force will come to nothing if you don’t have a disciplined process for generating and managing leads. Then again, the margin of error is terribly thin once you have handed those leads off to sales. As Thull’s work demonstrates, you have to have sales people who are highly skilled and can execute every time. They need to know how to engage in a credible conversation once they have been presented with a qualified prospect.

So think about how to break open these boxes and even eliminate them. Instead of wars between marketing and sales, we need collaboration that extends outward to the customer. Carroll and Thull offer us two valuable perspectives that bring us several steps closer to the goal of a single, unified endeavor.