Mastering the Complex Sale: A book review by Bob Morris

Mastering the Complex Sale: How to Compete and Win When the Stakes are High! (Newly Revised and Updated)
Jeff Thull
John Wiley & Sons (2004/2010)

Note: The review below is of the first edition that Jeff Thull has since revised and updated in this second edition. In fact, the phrase “revised and updated” really should be “extensively revised and updated” because there is so much new material in this book (check out Chapters 8 and 9 in Part III) and the scope and depth of his brilliant Diagnostic Business Development (DBD) process is increased as he explains how it enables those who use it to get beyond selling to managing decisions in collaboration with the buyer; get beyond problem solving to facilitating beneficial change; get beyond meeting customers’ immediate needs to managing their near-, mid-, and long-term expectations; get beyond single transactions to managing multi-dimensional relationships; and finally, to get beyond rote talking points and “value messages” to rich, rigorous, and interactive conversations.

The second edition reflects the positive and significant influence of two books Thull published after the first edition, The Prime Solution and Exceptional Selling. He refines several of their core concepts in the second edition that also reflects substantial feedback that enlightens and strengthens the DBD process. In these and other ways, the second edition is more, much more than a sequel. As I read Thull’s Introduction, I was reminded of Ken Robinson’s explanation of the reasons for the second edition of Out of Our Minds: “…the first reason is that so much has happened since since [2000], both in [begin italics] the [end italics] world and in [begin italics] my [end italics] world…The second reason for this new edition is that I now have more to say about many of the core ideas in the book and what we should do to put them into practice…The third reason is, not only has the world moved on in the last ten years, I have too. Literally.” The same is true of Jeff Thull as well as of those such as I who found so much of value in the first edition and so much more in the second.

* * *

Complex sales are those which involve a lengthy process of cultivation and solicitation, a “circle of influence” within which the purchase or pass decision is made, a product or service whose functions/features/benefits/ etc. require technical verification, and a substantial purchase price. In this volume, Thull focuses on the process by which to “compete and win when the stakes are high.” To understand how to master the complex sale, one must first understand how and why the role of the salesperson changed throughout the last half of the 20th century. Thull respectfully but clinically explains the inadequacies today of sales strategies, processes, and skills which were effective from the early-1950s until about the early-mid 90s.

How well I recall the advice I received from various sales managers when I earned my way through college by selling automobiles and smaller trucks in the Chicago area during summer vacations. Never take “no” for an answer, for example. “Selling begins when the prospect says `no.'” Another chestnut was flattery: “You look great behind the wheel! This car was built for you!” Times change, of course. One paradigm inevitably gives way to another. I agree with Thull that, today, “It’s not about selling — it’s about managing [a prospect’s] quality decisions.” Actually, I view that approach as the purest form of selling: to serve as advisor, concierge, consigliere, consultant, etc. when collaborating with a pre-qualified prospect to make the most appropriate purchase decision.

Thull carefully organizes his material within ten chapters that range from the first, “The World in Which We Sell” (almost worth the price of the book all by itself) to the last, “A Complex Sales Future,” in which Thull agrees with Jack Welch that we must either control our destiny or someone else will. Given what I now do to earn a living, Chapter 6 (“Designing the Complex Solution”) was of special interest to me. In it, Thull suggests that “Prime professionals approach [Thull’s] solution design phase of the complex sale as an exploratory process. The aim is to equip the customer to make the best, most effective choice among the solutions competing in the marketplace.” By taking precisely the same approach, the IBM sales force was able to recapture most of the customers it had lost while improving its chances when cultivating and then soliciting prospective new customers.

As Thull explains, the process built during the Diagnosis, a precise agreement on what a customer is experiencing in the absence of the needed solution and it’s financial impact, with a collaborative discussion that determines precisely what a customer’s desired outcomes are. “The easiest way to begin to define the parameters is to ask customers how they expect their situation to look after the problem is solved.” For me, Thull then makes an especially important point when alerting his reader to the “trap” of unpaid consulting which begins “when we cross the line between defining parameters of a solution and creation of the design of the solution itself.” Please consult the book for Thull’s complete explanation of each phase of The Prime Process.

In today’s increasingly more competitive marketplace, Thull observes, “There is no Magic! — Spectacular success is always preceded by unspectacular preparation” as well as by a better system, sharper skills, and “above all” discipline. The Prime Process is not for every organization, nor does Thull make such a claim. Carefully consider what it involves and, especially, what it requires.

I presume to add a final observation of my own, that there is both “good news” and “bad news.” First the bad news: Very few organizations have as yet mastered the complex sale process. Now the good news: Very few organizations have as yet mastered the complex sale process.


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