Sales Strategy From the Inside Out: How Complex Selling Really Works

Preface – Strategy is not a knack

In my 37 years as a salesperson, sales executive and sales trainer, I have known thousands of wonderful salespeople. But in all that time I have met only a handful whom I would consider naturally excellent at sales strategy. I can literally count them on one hand.

When I say “excellent at strategy,” I mean salespeople who could think through a complex deal and maintain a clear vision of how and why the deal would happen. Thanks to what I can only call an innate ability, these five individuals could figure out the power relationships in client organizations—which people had the influence, authority, and respect necessary to move the deal forward—and determine the necessary steps to bring those people onboard.

Above all, they were perceptive about the motives of buyers and influencers at various levels and knew what they had to do to help the buyers get what they wanted.

No, they weren’t clairvoyant. Their abilities had to do with asking great questions and thereby earning the right to ask more great questions. They wound up knowing who was who, and what was what, and how various buyers stood to benefit from the deal because the buyers told them. The buyers told them because great questions build trust, and trust creates allies.

Those five people were naturals. Every other salesperson I’ve ever known had to be thoroughly trained to reach a comparable level of effectiveness.

A number of books have been written on sales strategy. Some of them are very good. A few years ago I met Steve Heiman, author of the great book, “Strategic Selling.” I hold his work in very high regard. He documents, in great detail, the different types of buyers that exist in organizations and how to approach them.

What’s lacking even in Heiman’s first-rate book, however, is a vivid sense of how salespeople who really “get” strategy actually operate, and why buyers respond to them.

This book is my attempt to fill that gap. I wanted to get inside the heads of some sellers who excel at strategy, and let them describe why and how they do what they do. Likewise, I wanted to get inside the heads of some buyers at different levels in an organization and let those buyers describe what it is about these particular salespeople that makes them stand out from the crowd. Why do the buyers find themselves wanting to do business with these folks and not somebody else?

A complex sale can involve any number of players in the buying and selling companies, but I think that three voices from each side of the fence are enough to illustrate how and why a great sales strategy works. You’re going to hear from three people at GoTeam Unlimited, a team of sellers, and from their counterparts in the corporate hierarchy at a client organization called Amstand Companies.

To imagine these characters as fully as possible, I made each of them a composite of some real people I have known. I want to make it clear, however, that no character is based on a single person, and no character is intended to represent any actual person, living or dead.

It is for the reader to judge how realistic I was able to make my characters seem. But I’d like to point out that one of them, at least, is deliberately imperfect. Carrie Overton, the GoTeam salesperson who makes the initial contact at Amstand, is not the most adorable or charismatic or customer-loving person you will ever meet.

This is because she doesn’t have to be. One lesson I hope you will take away from this book: Great strategy, and the learnable skills necessary to execute it, do not depend on any special, innate charisma of the salesperson. They depend instead on employing a systematic approach to the sales process that enables people who aren’t “naturals”—practically all of us, in other words—to do what the handful of naturals are able to do.

The system that GoTeam uses is Action Selling ®. The three sellers will describe some of its workings explicitly. But the whole point of using these characters is to let them show you, rather than just tell you, how and why the system works in a complex selling situation.

I am a teacher and trainer at heart, however, so please allow me to spell out a few other lessons that I’m trying to illustrate.

  • The GoTeam sellers are great at strategy not individually but in combination. They consult with one another about the Amstand account. They talk. It’s part of what Action Selling ® calls “leveraging your resources.” If I could find only five naturally great sales strategists in 37 years, maybe we need to put our heads together more often. (Selling happens to be more fun that way, too.)
  • Other writers, including Steve Heiman, have suggested that salespeople find a “coach” in the client organization to help them navigate through a complex sale. Basically, the coach is someone to whom you can ask questions such as, “How does the decision process work in your company?” Or, “Who should I speak to about this topic?” I think the idea is great as far as it goes, but why make just one person a coach? Why not learn how to ask great questions and earn the right to ask more questions of every single decisionmaker
    you call upon? Make them all coaches. Once you do, they will gladly give you the information you need to win.
  • A related lesson: Lower-level “influencers” are not obstacles to avoid in your quest to get to the person who makes the ultimate buying decision. They are potential allies—every one of them. They should want to take you to the ultimate buyer. Too many salespeople think they’re being “strategic” when they find a way
    over, around, or through a department head, say, to get to a senior executive. When the exec listens to their pitch for five or 10 minutes and then gives them the heave-ho, they think: “Well, at least my strategy worked. I got to the top decision-maker.” This is so tragic that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I explained in the Introduction that Action Selling ® is structured upon certain documented knowledge about every buyer’s decision-making process (the 5 Buying Decisions). The first of those decisions (“Do I buy the salesperson?”) is absolutely critical. As you read what our characters have to say, please notice how everything else flows from that first decision.

Once a decision-maker at any level “buys” the salesperson, he or she begins looking for reasons to buy the product, instead of reasons not to buy. The salesperson gains an ally who provides vital “coaching” information about how to travel the path toward a sale. In a complex sales environment, how do you know what your next step or milestone should be? How do you get the information necessary to achieve that milestone? It all comes from people who have “bought you.”

This isn’t to say that salespeople don’t need to do any homework on their own. It’s important to research a client company, and you’ll find that lesson embedded in the book too. But if the client company is a maze, it’s the buyers’ maze. When they, themselves, are leading you through it, a complex sale isn’t complex at all.

All 5 Buying Decisions are important. They all matter. But how crucial do I consider the first one: whether to buy the salesperson? You will discover that all of the characters in this book are speaking before GoTeam has presented its product—its proposed solution for Amstand’s needs. The issue of price has not yet come up. The first buyer you meet, a middle manager named Nancy Winslow, is going to marvel that “GoTeam still hasn’t tried to sell us a solitary thing.”

I would argue that Nancy is dead wrong. I think that GoTeam already has sold her the most important thing. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you think GoTeam is going to make a lot of money.