Jeff Thull, First Interview by Bob Morris

Jeff Thull

Thull is a leading-edge strategist and valued advisor for executive teams of major companies worldwide. As President and CEO of Prime Resource Group, he has designed and implemented business transformation and professional development programs for several dozen global corporations. He is also the author of three best selling books: Mastering the Complex Sale: How to Compete and Win When the Stakes are High, The Prime Solution: Close the Value Gap, Increase Margins, and Win the Complex Sale, and most recently, Exceptional Selling: How the Best Connect and Win in High Stakes Sales.

Morris: How do you define a “complex” sale?

Thull: We define the complex sale as one in which the customer requires outside expertise to make a quality, informed decision. Customers need assistance in one or more of three key areas: diagnosing and calibrating the problem or risk they are facing without the solution, designing the optimal solution, and finally delivering the results or maximizing the value potential inherent in the solution. Basically a complex sale involves multiple people with multiple perspectives, often from more than one organization, involves significant risk as well as gain and will require a long-term relationship between and among the organizations involved.

Morris: What are the most common mistakes made when attempting to close a complex sale?

Thull: Most have to do with the activities leading up to the close. If the process is done well, is collaborative and the customer has ownership of the outcomes of the process, the traditional close is unnecessary because it is just the next step in a well executed communication process. I’ll suggest the most common mistake is not bringing clarity to the customer during the process and this occurs do to presenting solutions too early.  This may appear as an oversimplification, but it comes right down to the core. People do not buy for two fundamental reasons: (1) They do not believe they have a problem (and that includes they have other problems bigger than the one suggested that they address) and (2) they don’t believe the solution will work. If there is insufficient clarity about either one of those, there likely won’t be a close.

Morris: Many salespersons have to compete against price. Warren Buffett once suggested something to the effect that “price is what you charge but value is what others think it’s worth.” Presumably you agree.

Thull: Absolutely. The key is that the exceptional sales professionals will guide their customers through a process by which the customer will achieve clarity on the value provided, making the price charged less than the value received. We refered to the “value gap” in the book “The Prime Solution.” One of the most complexing challenges faced by business today is that their customers are not able to quantify the value the expect to receive from a purchase and thus there is a troubling difference between what sellers think their solutions are worth and what customers are willing to pay. In addition, the second value gap is the difference between the value the customer expected to receive and the value they believe they have received. Therefore, the solution provider should provide and manage a high quality decision process that defines and measures each of these gaps and guides the customer through that process. Much as a doctor guides the patient through a diagnosis, treatment and recovery. In the absence of a quality decision process, the decision will inevitably degenerate to the lowest common denominator, price.

What is a “prime solution”?

Thull: It is a solution that assures the customer will comprehend the value of what is offered and therefore will pay the price asked for the value they expect to receive by implementing the solution. We call it going “beyond value added to value assurance.” The Prime Solution includes three elements: (1) a decision process that will allow the customer to fully understand the problem to be addressed or opportunity to be achieved, (2) a change management process and support to assure the customer will be able to maximize the value capabilities of the solution and finally, (3) a measurement process that will allow the customer to quantify the value of the solution, pre-sale, and then measure the value achieved, post-sale.
Morris: By what process can a “prime solution” be determined? Who is involved in that process?

Thull: It is a cross-functional process that includes product development completed with an eye toward the value capabilities of the product/solution, those capabilities being aligned with the value requirements of the potential customers, marketing that develops the collateral and messaging to support the sales organization in a diagnostic rather than presentation approach, and finally, sales and service that would provide the one-to-one communications and relationships with the customers.

Morris: How do you differentiate marketing from sales?

Thull: I position marketing’s responsibility as identifying the market, profiling the ideal prospect, definining and quantifying  what we refer to as the value capabilities of the solution and the value requirements of the target customer and provision the sales organization with the proper support collateral. In addition they are to develop the awareness of the solution and generate the initial leads from the market. To provide a parrallel, it is the responsibility of the pharmaceutical company to develop the drug, define the profile of the patient who would require it, specify the diagnostic protocol for the doctor to use, and portray the clinical impact of the drug. In addition, the given company needs to build the awareness of the symptoms of the disease to be treated and thereby bring potential patients to the doctors.

Morris: Many people believe that selling is both an art and a science. Your own opinion.

Thull: As implied by the medical analogy, I believe a close parallel to the sales profession is the medical profession. Practicing medicine is both an art and a science, as is sales. There are three very specific dimensions that must be in balance for a professional to be successful in both professions. They are systems (i.e. a set processes that lead to a predicitable result), skills (i.e. the knowledge and ability needed to execute the system properly), and discipline (i.e. the mind-set or stance and an emotional strength to execute in a quality manner). You are moving from science to art as you progress along the spectrum from systems to skills to discipline.

In your opinion, how important is advertising? More specifically, what is its proper role?

Thull: We focus on the complex business to business sale. Advertising in the B2C environment is expected to take the consumer from awareness to desire to purchase, if possible, without the need for the intervention and support of the salesperson. In the B2B environment, advertising should be able to accomplish what the aforemented pharmaceutical advertisement is doing: create awareness of the issue, help the audience recognize symptoms that indicate they are at risk, and invite the audience to seek professional guidance. The fundemental problem, as I see it, is the preponderence of B2C themes and approaches in B2B advertising which, in fact, reinforces sameness rather than differentiates.

Morris: Especially in recent years, much has been said and written about “customer-centric” sales. What does that term mean to you and how sound is the concept?

Thull: It is about beginning with the customer in mind, it is about checking our assumptions of value with customers as early as possible in the R&D and solution development process. The concept is sound and essential to success. Unfortunately, most organizations approach customer-centric or customer focus with the customer as a target, not as a contributor or collaborator. From what my associates and I have observed, most companies have a long way to go to achieve a true customer-centric approach. Decision-makers need to take a close look at their most recent proposals or presentations and measure the number of pages or slides that focus on their customers’ needs and how to serve those needs and they will get a quick view of how customer-centric their organization really is.

What does “exceptional selling” involve and, therefore, what does it require?

Thull: Exceptional Selling is really about the mind-set and the one-to-one communication skills required to build long-term trust and mutually beneficial relationships. The mind-set requires sales professionals to see themselves as professionals, and, to see themselves as providers of genuine value who approach potential customers with a key question: “How can I help this individual or these individuals and this company to become more successful?” They recognize and fully believe that if they can accomplish that goal, their success will be a by-product of each customer’s success. It is about the style and the substance of their communications. The style of their communications is driven greatly by their mind-set.

Morris: One last question. To what extent (if any) can the principles of “exceptional selling” be applied at all levels and in all areas of an organization, specifically in situations where there is no direct contact with customers?

Thull: “Exceptional Selling” first and foremost is about clarity of communications and creating relationships based on mutual respect. That takes it down to written and spoken communications. I am convinced that writing or the copy on a website or marketing collateral can strongly reflect exceptional characteristics. Perhaps the ultimate test is to be able to say that the given marketing efforts generate the type of prospect to do business with. Customers are coming from a like mind-set or belief system, looking for quality, value and long-term relationships. On the personal side, by supporting someone who is frequently in direct contact with customers, there is an opportunity to provide them with clear and timely communications which will  be shared with the customer in a similar fashion. Organizations must set high standards for customer-focused, indeed custoimer-centric relationships that everyone involve fully and enthusiastically supports. Respect breeds respect, trust breeds trust.

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