Selling the way it’s usually described is a pretty simple affair. You find the prospect, research their needs and develop a proposed idea, pitch the decision maker, manage the objections, and close the sale. Straight forward, isn’t it? Nice and linear.
But selling in the real world isn’t quite that simple. The “normal” sale is about as linear as a basket of eels. You may be able to find something that looks like a beginning, but which of the squirming bodies leads you to the other end? We all operate in the world of the complex sale.
The complex sale is easy to identify but hard to complete. You know you are in the middle of one when Mr. Big says, “I really like this idea, but I have to run it by my boss.” And then his boss, Mr. Bigger, says, “Good idea. What does production have to say about it?” And then production says, “Interesting. Can we change these widgets into woudgets—if the new assembly line we’re installing next year calls for it? Better check with the vendor.” So the vendor of the new assembly line says, “We’ll set it up any way they want. Besides, what’s a widget?” Get the picture?
There is a decision maker, but there are also multiple decision influencers. There is ultimately a “yes” or “no” decision, but there are also multiple interim decisions to be made before that point is reached. Multiple decision influencers making multiple decisions. It’s a recipe for mass confusion.
The dollar size of the buying decision doesn’t necessarily dictate the number of decision influencers involved. One of the more interesting sales I ever made was a multi-million dollar communications tower to a company in Saudi Arabia. The situation had all the hallmarks of a complex sale. The purchasing company was a joint venture operated by two other companies, one French and one Saudi, and the item I was selling was a very high priced component in a much larger complete system to be operated by a ministry of the Saudi government. The construction manager was an Egyptian subcontractor to the Saudi/French joint venture.
Even the payment wasn’t linear. The customer’s funds were coming from an insurance settlement that was still in dispute. The payment to us was to be made in the form of an Irrevocable Letter of Credit, which had to be approved by the Saudi bank, our bank, and a transmitting bank in Switzerland. There was an endless chain of meetings, referrals, studies, and opinions offered, countered, and negotiated by phone, fax, and snail mail that went on for six months and involved engineers, bankers, and various functionaries on three continents. Finally, the sale was closed after a single 90-minute meeting I held with the president of the joint venture and his construction manager. That meeting was basically a formality, however, since all the details had been ironed out in the months before.
On the other hand, I once sold a small-market television advertising package worth $300 that required four weeks of study and deliberation by an advertising agency’s media planner, buyer, and account supervisor, their client’s store manager, regional manager, and advertising director, and the co-operative advertising manager of one of the store’s vendors. The Federal Express and long-distance telephone bills were greater than our profit on that sale!
Watch out, a complex sale could be lurking anywhere out there.
Successfully completing a complex sale requires tremendous patience and perseverance, two qualities often in short supply among salespeople, who often chose sales as a career in the first place because they like the instant gratification of closing a deal. If the reason you get up and go to work each morning is to see how many sales you can make that day, I suggest you find something simple to sell—like Girl Scout cookies—and a simple market to sell it in—like sole proprietorships with fewer than two employees. Selling just about anything else to larger organizations requires the ability to navigate through a complex sale.
Dave Donelson distills the experiences of hundreds of entrepreneurs into practical advice for small business owners and managers in the Dynamic Manager's Guides, a series of how-to books about marketing and advertising, sales techniques, motivating personnel, financial management, and business strategy.