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    What is the difference between complicated and complex in sales?

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    No matter how much we try to simplify, some things will never be simple. We can automate, systematize, create processes, buy software - but in the end, complex b2b sales will stay complex.

    At Membrain, this is a reality we have worked with since before our inception. We have worked hard to create simple, beautiful, supportive tools that make the complex b2b sales world easier to navigate.

    But even we can’t force complex sales to be NOT complex. There will always be multiple stakeholders, competing interests, bureaucratic layers, changing market conditions, and more. To make things worse, complexity is often interpreted as complicated, which cause us to oversimplify and kill deals.

    Here’s why the difference matters, and how to use complex selling (or buying, really) to your advantage.

    The difference between complex and complicated

    I learned about a nice analogy to explain the difference between complex and complicated from Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux, a very interesting book indeed. Here’s how he explains it, more or less:

    Many things in life are complicated, but complicated isn’t always complex. For instance, a car is complicated. It has many moving parts, and they all have to work together to make the vehicle perform as designed. If the clutch fails, you can’t switch gears. If the engine fails, you can’t make it go. If a wheel fails, you’ll likely have an accident or at least not be able to continue onward.

    But in the end, it’s not complex. Thanks to the engineers, designers, and fabricators who put cars together, when you get in a car, you know what to expect. You know that when you put the car into “drive” and press the gas pedal, it will move forward. You know if you press the brake, it will slow and stop. If you turn the wheel, the car will turn.

    Many things in life are complicated, but complicated isn’t always complex.
    Frederic Laloux

    That is the hallmark of a complicated but not complex system. Many moving parts, all interdependent, but all interacting in predictable ways.

    Not so with a complex system. In a complex system, you’re in something more like a bowl of spaghetti. There is a lot going on in a bowl of spaghetti, lots of parts making up the whole. But when you pull on one part, you really don’t know what’s going to come out the other end - and it can get rather messy.

    Selling is more like a bowl of spaghetti

    In complex b2b sales, we like to think that if we press the right pedals and pull the right levers, we’ll enjoy predictability, like a well-oiled and elegantly engineered vehicle.

    Sadly, it’s much worse than that. We’re actually in a bowl of spaghetti and we have no idea what happens when we pull on the end of a noodle.

    Not only do we not know - our buyers don’t know either.

    Complex b2b products and services can be like spaghetti

    In my previous company Upstream, we wanted to make life simpler and better for our customers. The automation platform we offered promised to do exactly that. But we quickly realized that before our product could work its magic, first it created fresh complexity.

    Customers couldn’t just buy and use the product. At least not if they wanted the best possible business outcomes. To truly get the results they wanted, they first had to change numerous business processes in the company. And in order to change those processes, they had to engage individuals within the company who had nothing to do with the purchasing decision of the automation software. And when you pull on that piece of spaghetti, then you discover more processes and systems and people who are impacted and whose impact can change the outcome.

    This is true for every complex b2b purchase, no matter how much the seller wants to believe their product is simple.

    Salesforce, for instance, pretends that they’re the easy and safe CRM choice. After all, they are the market leader. But once you introduce their product, you discover that you’ve only really purchased a car chassi and have to add plugins and customizations to get it to take somewhere. And you need to train more people to use it the way you want it to be used. And each time you pull one lever, it turns out to be a thread of spaghetti leading to more spaghetti.

    Or, as I’ve described elsewhere, more like another giant Hydra head.

    The sales process itself is also spaghetti

    When you’re selling into an organization with multiple stakeholders with a product that will touch more than one person, or function, in the company, you are by definition selling into a bowl of spaghetti, full of invisible complications.

    You may think you’ve engaged every relevant stakeholder, but in most cases even the customer doesn’t really know all of the factors and individuals involved in making the purchase.

    This is related to the issue of the one-way window I discussed in this blog post. We just really don’t know what’s happening inside the customer organization and, in many cases, neither do they.

    You pull on one stakeholder only to find out there are six others who influence them. Who don’t even realize there are six others who influence them. You may know who your direct competitors are, but you may not have full insight into the internal forces drawing the customer back toward the status quo.

    And so on.

    Platforms like Membrain can help you to untangle the strands and at least not miss critical steps and information, but even we can’t change the fact that you won’t know all the layers of complexity until you get in there and begin.

    Understanding complexity and complicatedness is the key to working with it

    Denying that the complex b2b sales world is complex doesn’t help us do something about it.

    Recognizing that complexity exists is.

    At Upstream, once we realized how many strands of spaghetti implementing our product pulled on for customers, we were able to be proactive with them. We started asking more questions up front and helping them understand all of the many ways that our product would impact them.

    This enabled them to have a more comprehensive understanding of their own internal processes and systems and culture, so that they could plan ahead and anticipate complications before they became problems. We moved from merely pushing a product to becoming much more consultative.

    Often, sales professionals are afraid to be honest about potential complications because they’re afraid it will sour the sale. But the truth is that buyers in complex b2b environments already know that purchases are never as simple as they want them to be. They’re accustomed to salespeople lying and misleading to get them to buy the product.

    When, instead, we bring the truth to their attention and help them navigate complexity and complications proactively, we earn their trust. Instead of wondering what hidden dangers our products are keeping from them, they can see that we are putting our cards on the table.

    They can see that we are on their side.

    And when they see that, then they can invite us to the other side of the mirrored glass, so we can help them make the purchase in a way that works for them.

    On the process side, it’s important that we support our sales teams in knowing and understanding and following our internal processes and systems. We can’t take the complexity out of selling, but we can make it simpler to navigate so that salespeople and buyers are free to use their intelligence and experience to navigate the complexity.

    At Membrain, we’re dedicated to making the complex simple and elegant to navigate. We’d love to show you how we work and how we can help your teams navigate complicatedness as well. Book a meeting today.

    George Brontén
    Published December 29, 2021
    By George Brontén

    George is the founder & CEO of Membrain, the Sales Enablement CRM 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. George is also the author of the book Stop Killing Deals and the host of the Stop Killing Deals webinar and podcast series.

    Find out more about George Brontén on LinkedIn