What is a Complex Sale?

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A complex sale is one that includes more than one decision maker. To close a complex sale, a salesperson must convince at least a majority of the decision makers, rather than needing to influence just one person. This task is made even harder by the fact that the salesperson usually isn't told just who all the decision makers are, and may not even get a chance to speak with them all!

Complex sales are especially common in large B2B sales environments but are not unknown in smaller sales as well. In consumer sales situations, the decision makers may include a husband and wife, children, roommates, etc. Usually, there will be one decision maker who is responsible for making the final decision, while the other decision makers, who have a stake in the purchase for one reason or another, will try to influence the chief decision maker.

In B2B sales the chief decision maker is usually either the executive who controls the relevant sphere of authority (for example, the CTO for technology sales) or the person in charge of all purchasing operations. Other interested parties might include the chief decision maker's assistant and gatekeeper, the product's intended users, the person or persons who will be responsible for setting up and maintaining the product, members of the company's legal team, and so on.

Complex sales of any type are further complicated by existing politics and power struggles within the decision-making team. For example, if you are selling to a husband and wife who have had an ongoing argument about what type of product to buy, their reactions to your sales pitch might be based on things they've discussed earlier and might be unexpected to you. Similarly, a company vice president engaged in a power struggle with the head of another department might either support or oppose the sale based on factors that have nothing to do with you.

The best way to make these internal struggles work for you is to get an advocate on the inside. Ideally, this advocate will be one of the decision makers, but you can make do with someone who understands what makes the decision makers tick (for example, a decision maker's assistant). An advocate can also clue you in as to who has the control of the purchasing process and who merely has influence. He can fill you in on the details of past sales and what issues will matter most to the decision makers.

Often the ideal advocate is the gatekeeper. He is the one who controls access to the various decision-makers, so he can either make it easy or impossible for you to reach them directly. He also usually knows all the actors as opposed to being familiar with just one department. Finally, the gatekeeper usually has the least to lose if your product doesn't work out, so he's probably more willing to take the risk of helping you than other decision makers whose jobs might be on the line.

Another useful advocate in a complex sale is the person who has the most to gain from your product's particular benefits. For example, let's say that you're selling a cloud-based (meaning it's hosted online) software package that takes the place of traditional on-site software. A little questioning uncovers the fact that the CTO is over budget and trying to reduce spending as much as possible. You can then point out that your cloud-based system will save lots of money by eliminating the need for on-site maintenance and for hardware to host the package. With luck, you can turn the CTO into your advocate, and you'll have an excellent chance of closing the sale.

Another major advantage in complex sales is being the first salesperson on the scene. If you are the one who initiates the buying process, you can frame the discussion in terms of your product's strengths. For example, if you sell a piece of equipment that's exceptionally reliable but not as fast as some of the other products on the market, you can stress the importance of reliability and cite figures about the costs associated with equipment failure in your presentation. When other salespeople make their presentations, the buying team will already be aware of the importance of reliability - and since your product is the best in this area, your competitors will look weak in comparison.