Are we a match? Are we a match

A 4 Part System to Mastering the Complex Sale

Table of contents

Your sales team must assume the customer either understands their own problems fully, partially, or not at all. The question is, are those assumptions correct? Jeff Thull, in his best-selling book Mastering the Complex Sale, talks about the evolution of B2B selling over the years, from a product-oriented approach to today’s full diagnosis of the customer’s problem.

If we take a minute to follow his historical outline, you’ll be able to see whether your sales process is stuck in the past— or ready to address the modern customer’s needs.

3 eras of the evolution of sales

Era 1: Sales as a presentation (mid-1950s-1970s)

Obviously, sales have been around longer than the 1950s, but that’s when corporate America first started treating it as a process and formally teaching it. In those early days, the salesperson’s main tool was a script. He knew where to go and what to say; the whole process was regimented and almost mindless.

Era 1 was product-oriented: present and defend. Companies assumed that the customer would understand the value of the solution. All they had to do was present and clarify it.

Era 2: Counselor selling/Solution selling (beginning in the 1970s)

In the ‘70s, the lightbulb went off and companies thought, “Gee, maybe we should listen to the customer.” That’s when sales became more of a conversation than a presentation.

The aim was clear: listen to the customer, build a relationship, understand what they’re experiencing as a problem, and find out what they’ve pictured as a solution.

The assumption during Era 2 was that the customer understood the problem they had and exactly what they needed. The role of the salesperson was to listen, and then shape the solution to match the customer.

The intent was wonderful: why not tailor a solution straight from the mouth of the person with the problem?

Era 3: The sales professional as a business advisor (today)

The question today is whether or not your customer really understands the problem they have. If they don’t, they will be unable to self-diagnose.

Era 3 reflects the strategy of the most successful companies today. In it, the sales professional acts more as a business process analyst who can come in and diagnose the customer’s problem.

The overwhelming majority of organizations are probably still using an Era 1 or Era 2 process, but it’s time to move on. The customer needs outside expertise.

The 4 D’s of mastering the complex sale

Mastering the Complex Sale centers around 4 “D’s” that can help your business enter Era 3.

1. Discover

Selling is a profession just like any other. Therefore, it should follow similar characteristics. Let’s look at the legal profession. As an attorney prepares for a case, he or she does extensive research and takes depositions before ever seeing a trial judge.

There’s no excuse for salespeople to show up on a sales call without doing similar research. They should create a value hypothesis, that is, “I’ve been doing research on your company, I’ve made some assumptions, I’ve compared it to things we’ve done with other clients, and it looks as if with the absence of [our product or service] your business could be at risk of [a certain financial impact].”

2. Diagnose

Let’s grab another professional: the doctor. Doctors look for the presence of disease or health in a patient. In the same way, salespeople should look for specific symptoms or evidence that the solution they have is missing from the customer’s business, and explain that that’s what is causing these negative symptoms (e.g., poor quality, poor yield, poor throughput).

The idea is to ask questions the customer has not thought to ask themselves. Doctors always take the patient’s self-diagnosis further, because they have more expertise.

3. Design

Once your sales team has a situation to resolve, the next step is to figure out how to do so. In Era 2, the salesperson typically left, put a proposal together, and came back for a reveal. But in Era 3, the top professionals are including the customer in the design of the solution.

You probably have a combination of products and services. The mix you offer will be determined by how soon the customer wants the issue resolved, and to what level. The proposal that follows the design merely rationalizes the decisions that the salesperson and the customer have already made, as opposed to providing something new to think about.

4. Deliver

The customer has accepted the proposition, and you are now ready to install the solution and make sure the customer achieves the value. Your sales rep has already presented the solution, explaining what can be achieved. Now they’re doing the reverse: tracking and measuring the indicators proving the value has been achieved.


55% of people in sales are not suited for the job. Statistically, that means over half of your sales team members aren’t able to handle complex sales. Using Jeff Thull’s 4-part system, you can direct their efforts toward more work on the front end so they’ll have more closing success—whoever they are.

This post is based on an interview with Jeff Thull, President and CEO of Prime Resource Group. A 4 Part System to Mastering the Complex Sale originally appeared on and was written by James Carbary. You can find this interview, and many more, by subscribing to the B2B Growth Show on iTunes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


The CRM you’ve been looking for

Try Free
No credit card required • 21-day free trial