John O' Gorman

Sellers: Say ‘Yes To The Mess’

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How do you cope when faced with complexity and constant change in respect of winning the deal? Well, a new book has been published that recommends you do what the world’s best leaders and teams do – adapt and improvise!

Yes To The Mess

Why Buying Can Be Messy

We all know that buying can be messy. Buyers don’t always know exactly what they want. The menu of complicating (‘messiness’) factors, includes:

  1. Missing information
  2. Conflicting requirements
  3. Competing projects
  4. Shifting priorities
  5. Changing requirements
  6. Diverse stakeholders
  7. Political tensions
  8. Changing strategies
  9. Emerging technologies
  10. Changing market conditions
  11. Mergers and acquisitions
  12. Slashed budgets
  13. Compliance requirements.

Add to the list of ‘messiness factors’ the requirements of internal procurement processes and procedures and selling to large organizations is certainly not straight-forward.

How messy is your sale? Check how many of the 13 ‘messiness factors’ apply!

Use the above list to assess the messiness of the deal and how it can be managed – as the example below (click on the image to download).

Messiness Index

Why The Mess Matters

The messiness of the buying decision typically increases with the length of the time required to decide, the number of stakeholders involved, the level of novelty of the decision, the perceived level of risk and so on.

How good are you at reading, or predicting the messiness of the deal?

Messiness generally drives up the cost of the sale, lengthens the sales cycle and makes it all more unpredictable in terms of forecasting the deal. Not only can it often make the customer messy to sell to, but it can also make service and support a challenge.

The mess creates opportunities, as well as challenges. Sometimes there is money in the mess, other times there is just mess. If unmanaged it can cost the seller money, in other cases the seller may be rewarded, or even paid, for sorting the mess. A key question is – ‘is there messy stuff that can help you win the sale?’

Selling Amid The Mess

How can the seller take control of this mess, or should they even try? We suggest that salespeople, like all others in business, should seek to embrace, rather than control the mess. We took this theme a little further posing some questions in an effort to help the salesperson judge the right response to a messy buying decision.

Do you use messiness as a factor in your pre-qualification?

The level of mess is an important part of the pre-qualification of any opportunity. Sometimes the mess is a problem, and not an opportunity. The salesperson cannot advance the deal because:

  • The confusion, ambiguity and lack of clarity is too profound.
  • All the people may not be able to agree.
  • It may not be possible to accommodate all the conflicting requirements.
  • The timing may simply not be right.

There will be cases where the salesperson may need to go away and come back when some of the mess has sorted itself out.

Where is the mess?

Where is the chaos, the confusion and the mess? Is it around the strategy, the solution, or the supplier? Is the mess related to the economics, risk, strategy, compliance or politics?

The mess can be greatest at the early stages of a complex buying decision, when everything is ‘up in the air’ and there are lots of questions to be answered.

Focus on the strategy and the success in order to get around the mess. Ground the decision in a shared view of the objectives of the decision. If the objectives or benefits are compelling enough then that can break through any amount of mess.

The most obvious of the messiness factors is missing information. This can take a variety of forms, including a deficit in information, understanding, or experience. This may result in the buyer over-complicating, or over-simplifying the decision. While information gaps can be relatively easy to fill, it can be more difficult to tackle false assumptions, misconceptions, or blind spots.

How much of the mess needs to be cleaned up before you can close the deal?

Every one of the messiness factors listed above have the potential to stall a deal. Similarly, resolving any of the factors has the potential to accelerate or unlock a stalled deal. So, how the seller deals with the mess is important.

While the mess can be an obstacle to winning the sale, it can also be help the seller to win the deal. In particular, those salespeople who join the buyer in the middle of the mess can set themselves aside from their competitors.

Should you look to find the mess?

Experienced salespeople know that there is always some aspect of the buying decision that is going to be messy. So, if you cannot see any mess, then maybe you need to look a little closer.

For some sellers the more structured approach increasingly prevalent in buying is a comfort. Buying process provides a degree of predictability around what exactly the buyer is going to do next. However, as our research shows the square boxes and straight lines of the buyer’s process don’t tell the full picture.

There is often an element of messiness even in the most rigid buying process. Beneath the veneer of the ordered and structured buying decision, or behind the facade of the confident and in-control buyer, lies the messy stuff.

The degree to which the salesperson can see and appreciate the messy elements of the buying decision is a measure of the degree of interaction, engagement and even empathy between the buyer and seller.

Are you getting down and dirty with stakeholders?

The process of stakeholder engagement and collaboration is key to revealing and managing any potential messiness factors that could impact on the sale. If you are not hearing about the mess – then you are probably not talking to the right people.

Buyer’s can be reluctant to confess internal dissention, missing information, crises of confidence and so on. It is a measure of their trust in the salesperson when they are willing to discuss and share these factors.

Should you tell the buyer that he’s in a mess?

Salespeople must strike a balance between:

  • Simplifying the decision for the buyer and perhaps in the process trying to sweep some of the mess under the carpet.
  • Complicating the decision, by drawing attention to any of the messiness.

But finding the right balance is not easy.

On the one hand the seller may worry that a strategy of drawing attention to the mess may rebound by delaying the decision, or alienating the buyer who might believe that ‘ignorance is bliss’.

How do you test if the buyer sees the complicating factors?

For this reason it is important to test the buyer’s awareness of, or sensitivity to; the messiness, while at the same time taking care not to scare him, or her. The salesperson will then be heard asking questions such as:

  • How satisfied are you that you are ready to make a decision?
  • Are you happy that all factors have been considered?
  • Are there any issues that you feel need to be resolved?
  • Are there any dissenting voices, or whispers?
  • Is the decision an easy one for the organization to make at this time?

Salespeople generally find that any bliss associated with ignorance is often short lived. If complicating factors are not acknowledged and dealt with early, they are likely to surface later – often with unforeseen consequences. The competing supplier who successfully brings an unspoken or unseen risk factor into the buying decision can ‘steal a march’ on your company.

Do you use the mess to sell – to heighten buyer sensitivity?

Sellers who wish to draw buyer attention to messiness factors are often heard making statements, such as:

  • ‘It is an important decision and there are many factors to consider…’
  • ‘There are a number of possible scenarios…’
  • ‘Your business is different, your will have some specific requirements…’
  • ‘There are risks to consider and to manage…’
  • ‘This is a big job, it is important to plan it out carefully…’
  • ‘There is no magic bullet, or instant fix for this problem…’
  • ‘More information is likely to be required before being able to make a decision…’

Is the decision messy, or just the organization?

Some companies are process driven, they embrace structure and organization. Others are the opposite. They are flexible, unstructured and embrace informality. Most are somewhere between the two points on the continuum. This determines the degree of tolerance of messiness.

It is important for the salesperson to understand the decision makers style and the organizations character before considering the impact of any messiness on the sale.

Do you take time to discover the mess?

The research published in various books on the subject recommends that salespeople get comfortable with the mess. But, what specifically does that mean? Well, for instance it has implications for the speed at which salespeople pitch their solutions.

Salespeople often feel under pressure to solve the customer’s problem – that is before they have had an opportunity to discover exactly what the problem is, or at least to understand all of its nuances.

The sales factfind can easily paint the requirements as black and white, so too can the buyer’s RFP. But there is always messy stuff, even if people want to sweep it under the carpet.

What is the messy stuff that your prospect is struggling to deal with?

When the buyer says ‘tell me why we should buy your solution’ the salesperson is tempted to recite their well rehearsed sales script. They want to take control and tell the buyer what he, or she should buy and why. After all, their company and its solutions is the best solution and the right choice, regardless of any of the messy stuff.

However, salespeople who are less definitive, are less likely to be wrong. Those who take time to explore and experiment their way to the ideal solution for the buyer are less likely to be wrong too. That means getting among the mess and being comfortable there.

How comfortable are you with uncertainty, missing information and changing requirements?

Well, a new books says you need to be. In Yes To The Mess, the author, an accomplished jazz player and Management Professor, Frank Barret describes how, like skilled jazz players, leaders need to learn to embrace chaos, to improvise and adapt. Like jazz musicians we need to embrace the mess and that means mastering the art of unlearning, performing and experimenting simultaneously, and taking turns soloing as well as supporting each other.

An earlier book offers the same message. Called ‘A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder‘ the book says that crammed closets, cluttered offices, and on-the-fly planning make the world a better place. It talks about redressing the balance from order on one hand to chaos on the other to arrive at the right amount of disorder for a given system.

To help you say ‘yes to mess’ here are some points to bear in mind when you are closing a messy sale:

  1. We are not dealing with an ideal world – there is no point in idealizing the solution – slow down before presenting one – remember as the Spanish proverb says ‘it is much different to talk about bulls, than to be in the bullring’.
  2. We are not starting with a blank canvass – when it comes to the complex sale there is a legacy of past decisions and present politics, as well as a requirement that what is bought must fit with the organization’s culture, structures and systems.
  3. There will be inevitable trade-offs and compromises within the buying organization – it is best to recognize them up front. For example, inevitably buyers want all the features of the premium solution, but only want to pay budget prices. A key part of the salesperson’s job is to help the buyer to make the right tradeoffs.
  4. There is no such thing as perfect information – even if the information is available it can quickly go out of date, even if the information is completely objective the interpretation of it is not, there will always be gaps, blind spots. In this information pervasive age, the challenge for the salesperson is not to dump more information on the buyer, but to help the buyer in the evaluation, assimilation and interpretation of the right information (and by the way that is not the seller’s marketing material).
  5. Everybody does not have to agree on everything and creative tension can be welcome. Indeed, if everybody agrees then moving beyond the status quo is going to be difficult. Diversity of opinions can be a good thing, indeed it is an important ingredient of progress and innovation. So the salesperson’s job is to help the buyer manage the process of arriving at a solution. That means combining the linear thinking of a scientist, or engineer, with the creative skills of an ad agency director.
  6. Predicting the future is not easy, but where is no doubt, there is no opportunity. As Jim Collins author of ‘Good To Great; says ‘chaos and confusion are necessary precedents to breaking through to new levels of performance’. It is important for the buyer and seller to accommodate a certain amount of uncertainty. The secret is to focus not on having all the right answers, but in following a process that will arrive at the right answers.

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