What is a complex sale?

By George Brontén - Jun 07, 2017

George Brontén

We all talk about complex sales, but how do we define it? After asking around, I discovered that everyone has an opinion, but nobody really agrees on a definition.

One thing that makes a definition difficult is that complexity lies on a scale. At one end are pure transactional sales that operate in the thousands or millions per minute, such as day trading stocks. At the other end are massively complex sales that take years to develop, such as major government contracts for region-wide telecom infrastructure.

In the middle is a wide spectrum of sales types. Where on this spectrum, exactly, is the line between simple and complex? Some sources will tell you that a sale crosses into “complex” territory the moment it involves more than one decision maker. I find this definition to be rather extreme. After all, it’s not unusual for a buyer to inquire with their spouse prior to making a purchase on Amazon, but that is hardly a complex sale.

So what, exactly, does define a complex sale?

How do you define a complex sale?

A complex sale involves multiple stakeholders, a longer sales cycle, and a high degree of perceived risk on the part of the buyer.
George Brontén

I define complex sales based on three key factors:

  • Number of decision makers
  • Length of sales cycle
  • Buyer’s perceived risk

A complex sale involves multiple stakeholders, a longer sales cycle, and a high degree of perceived risk on the part of the buyer.

A complex sale can involve a number of other features that are often included in the definition, such as being business-to-business (b2b) and/or involving a high dollar amount. But these features do not have to be present for the sale to be complex. For instance:

  • A consumer (b2c) sale can be complex. Home buying usually involves at least a few decision makers (the buyer(s) themselves, the bank that will lend the money, and often a collection of additional decision makers and influencers that may include children, parents, inspectors, and/or friends). It generally takes a minimum of one month (if the buyer makes a decision right away), but more often several months to complete the sale. And the buyer generally perceives their risk as high. As a result, the seller must engage in a somewhat complex sales process to guide the buyer to and through the purchase.
  • A low dollar amount sale can be complex. For instance, the per-user cost of a CRM system isn't huge, but the impact of its implementation on the organization can be great. As a result, the buyer usually takes a long time to make a decision (long sales cycle), involves multiple decision makers and influencers, and perceives their risk as high.

It’s important to note that within the category of “complex sales,” there are additional levels of complexity, such as cultural differences and corporate politics. Like complex versus simple, these distinctions lie on a spectrum, and they depend on the same three criteria, in greater degree:

  • An even larger group of buying decision makers
  • An even longer sales cycle
  • Even greater perceived buying risk

Thus, these three criteria can be used to place almost any selling environment in its position along the simple to complex to extremely complex sale spectrum.

What is the impact of complex sales on the sales organization?

The complexity of your sales environment has far-reaching consequences for how your organization should be structured and operated. Those consequences touch everything, from your people to your processes.

Impact on people

Salespeople must be skilled in detecting and reducing perceived risk, for everyone involved in the decision.
George Brontén

A complex sales environment requires a different type of salesperson and a different type of sales manager.

  • Due to the number of stakeholders, salespeople must navigate multiple relationships, and have the people-skills for building and maintaining trust.
  • Because of the length of the sales cycle, salespeople must demonstrate patience and skill in moving through the sales process, not miss important milestones or take shortcuts that jeopardize the deal or the account.
  • Because of the perceived risk to the buyer, salespeople must be skilled in detecting and reducing perceived risk, for everyone involved in the decision.

Additionally, salespeople in a complex environment often need to:

  • Have solid business acumen to understand and communicate value
  • Navigate both external as well as internal stakeholders and politics
  • Possess or be willing to learn consensus-building skills
  • Understand and communicate across a variety of cultures and belief systems
  • Be collaborative and team-oriented
  • Focus on quality rather than quantity

Sales managers must possess these same skills and characteristics, plus:

  • Measure salespeople based on ability to build relationships, communicate (differentiated) value and progress through the sales process
  • Continually coach the salespeople and improve the sales process with best practices
  • Be willing to help salespeople build the right sort of skills
  • Master technology and how to measure the right leading indicators to ensure that everyone on the team will reach their targets
  • Create incentives and corrections appropriate to the complex sales environment

Impact on sales processes and methodologies

A complex sale calls for a more granular sales process than a few stages that came pre-populated in your CRM’s drop-down list. The more complex the sales environment, the more critical the sales process - and the methodology to progress through it - becomes.

Complexity also requires:

For a complex sales team to be truly effective, their entire process and way of working must be approached as a system, and optimized for continuous improvement across the organization - very similar to how medicine and other professional fields are evolving. More structured teamwork, less individual heroism.

Find out how Membrain helps sales teams in complex environments optimize their people and processes for greatest effectiveness. Book a demo today!

George Brontén
Published June 7, 2017, written by

George Brontén

George is the founder & CEO of Membrain, the world's 1st Sales Effectiveness Platform that makes it easy to execute your sales strategy. A life-long entrepreneur with 20 years of experience in the software space and a passion for sales and marketing. With the life motto "Don't settle for mainstream", he is always looking for new ways to achieve improved business results using innovative software, skills and processes.

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