If you’ve recently lost a sale to a large account you’d thought you had in the bag, you’re likely reviewing every aspect of the deal. What happened? If it wasn’t your lack of selling skills that killed the deal, or a familiar reason like price, maybe it was a poor functional fit, or someone else had an inside track you didn’t see. Those reasons are appealing because you know how to address them, whether through a pricing change, new capabilities in the product, or better competitive positioning.
So what now? Maybe you’re thinking about putting it in the loss column and moving on.
Hold it. Before you do that, think about this. Losing a big sale is often none of those things. Instead, it may be a struggle within and across your customer’s organization.
Put simply it may be complexity, but on the customer’s side. And, although it may not be obvious at first glance, that is something where you can have a positive impact – and maybe land a future sale.
Complicated vs. Complex
When your customers’ problems are merely complicated, that means there are relatively straightforward solutions you can offer. You’ve got standard argumentation, you can play with pricing or sell customized functional tweaks, and you can guide them with insights into what’s worked in similar situations in the past.
The complicated problems are solvable. They’re in your wheelhouse as a skilled and experienced salesperson who can help your customers get over these hurdles so they can buy your solution. “Complicated” means familiar and solvable.
More often, however, your customers are struggling with complexity – and that’s a whole different ballgame. There are no known solutions. What works in one place doesn’t work in another. There can be many hidden factors and moving parts that stand in the way of answers. There may be human dimensions that muddy everything. “Complex” equals unfamiliar and (seemingly) unsolvable.
Your customers’ complex challenges could include, for example:
Stan Papadimitriou, Director of Business Development and Product Manager at Gilmore Doculink, has something to say about the impact of his customers’ complexity on his own ability to close and deliver digitization solutions they badly want and need.
“There were far too many stuck deals in our pipeline that slowed to a crawl or just went stale where the deal should have accelerated and closed,” says Stan. My customers’ siloes and internal politics meant they couldn’t align on whether to buy my solution, or whether they needed a solution at all. I know they needed us, but their internal problems started higher up in the organization and ran across the business units – beyond the reach of my relationships. Even if I had access, how was I going to help them deal with their own power dynamics?”
Helping Customers and Prospects Reduce the Impact of Complexity
For salespeople like Stan, whose deals sometimes go sideways because of complexity, the job is to know how to beat it. Whether you are able to offer great advice to your customers or get right in there and guide them through it, helping your customers navigate complexity can elevate your relationship, push your value proposition upstream, and smooth the way to a deal.
Here are four specific ways in which you can help:
1. Acknowledge the Complexity
Your customers’ senior leaders can have a hard time acknowledging that they’re hamstrung by complexity. They need your solution, yes, but they’ve failed before and will fail again because of entrenched siloes, turf protection, misaligned goals, capability gaps, unclear accountabilities…all tangled up with their need to grow, or to digitize, or to become more customer centric or innovative, or all of the above. That’s complexity – and it’s in your way.
Help them understand the difference between complicated and complex and to recognize that any solution will become mired in their internal complexity until they get a handle on it. Make navigating the complexity part of your value proposition.
For Stan’s customers, the stall-out often happens because of insurmountable siloes, political factors, and a hesitation to yield control of important system capabilities. Stan’s task is to convince senior leaders that – until there is a shared understanding of the enormous value of digitization and what it’s going to take to realize that value – the pot at the end of the rainbow is going to remain out of reach.
2. Formulate a Really, Really Good Question
To start into the resolution of a complex challenge, you have to start by getting a handle on it – and a question is the best handle. A question is an invitation for dialogue, and dialogue is central in dealing with complexity. Make it compelling. Make it ambitious. Give it a timeframe and a call for action. Keep bias out.
A fairly standard question that Stan would help his customers articulate would go something like this: “What must we do, starting now and over the next two years, to fully realize the value of digitization across the business so that we and our customers enjoy an industry-best service experience – far faster and cheaper than in the past?”
Importantly, notice that the question is not about a particular technology choice. It also begs a lot of important business questions: What is the value of digitization across the enterprise and within each business unit? What does an industry-best service experience look like, and can we really get there? How much leaner and faster can we be?
Stan can win with his solution later, but only after his customer’s leadership team aligns on the “why.” By giving them the means to figure out the why, he earns himself the inside-track for the business.
3. Embrace Requisite Variety
Your customers will need to engage what’s called “requisite variety” – the right variety of people who collectively are as multi-dimensional as the complexity they face. This includes representation from their business units, hierarchical levels, functions, external partners (including you), their customers, and a range of demographics and personality types that cross all those other dimensions.
If they’re typical, your customers don’t resolve their problems this way, and generally leave it up to senior leadership, or each silo on its own, or outside consultants, to develop solutions that don’t engage the entire organization. With complexity, these typical approaches get you nowhere. Your customers know this and will pay special attention when you talk about a more holistic approach and getting everyone in the room to figure it out together – whether that’s 30, 40, or 50 people.
Stan says the key is to “bring everyone to the table – those with a stake, those impacted, those who will influence, and those who can and will throw up obstacles. They will initially look at you like you’ve got a third eye or something, but it’s not hard to convince them of the necessity.”
4. Put People on a Collision Course
Once the right people are involved, put them on a collision course. Connect everyone to everyone else for direct conversation. Give them great interactions where they sit together and participate in frank, honest, and well-structured dialogue.
Arrange these collisions around a series of sub-topics that the group deems key to discuss. Smaller groups meet on each sub-topic and later hear back from and contribute to the other sub-topics. Get creative about who’s meeting on what, and iterate a few times through the sub-topics, so that everybody is in the room with every other person at least once.
Stan talks about the “amazing conversations that result when a cross-section of the business and a few outsiders are all at the table. Each person is either speaking for or against a solution or asking the questions they need answered to make a choice. Each is important, and each moves the group towards alignment. As a participant in these conversations, I can answer their questions, ask my questions, share my experiences, talk about what I’ve seen work elsewhere, and do all of that without ever once pushing my product.”
Stan’s interactions and messaging with customers now include concepts like complicated versus complex, requisite variety, and collisions. He says, “I’m already into a very different conversation with customers, and they’re viewing me differently. I’m adding front-end ‘complexity’ services to my offering – even before my clients buy. This will push me into C-suite conversations that are currently beyond my reach, and elevate my firm from vendor to trusted partner. I may not close every deal after getting the customer over their complexity hump, but at least this puts me in the game with a leg up as a trusted advisor. Then it’s on me and my company’s solution to win or lose.”
Like Stan, your biggest problem – closing that elusive deal and delivering customer solutions successfully – is actually your customers’ biggest problem: complexity. Learn to help your customers deal with complexity and you’re well on your way to being a more complete salesperson, extending your reach and relationships, and enriching the overall value you add far beyond the products and services currently in your bag.
David Komlos and David Benjamin are co-authors of Cracking Complexity: The Breakthrough Formula for Solving Just About Anything Fast (Nicholas Brealey; May 7, 2019). They are CEO and Chief Architect of Syntegrity.
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