Never Fight Complexity With Complexity: Tim Sanders on the New Way to Succeed in Sales

Tim Sanders, author of Love Is the Killer App, former chief solutions officer at Yahoo!, and cofounder of Deeper Media, Inc., is the kind of person you should know about if you don't already.

This past February, Sanders introduced us all to "dealstorming," a new sales strategy with a 70 percent average closing ratio. If you weren't interested in Sanders before, you definitely should be now.

A couple of months ago, I had the privilege of taking to Sanders about his latest book, Dealstorming: The Secret Weapon That Can Solve Your Toughest Sales Challenges. It's an excellent book, and it's packed full of insights that can help everyone, not just salespeople. If you're a recruiter, an entrepreneur, or even a first-time intern, you'd be doing yourself a favor if you gave Dealstorming a read.

If you don't believe me, just take a look through this transcript of my interview with Sanders, minimally edited for style and clarity. It's practically enough to be it's own book. So, let's start with a basic question. If I knew nothing about this book, and I asked you to summarize it, what would you say?

Tim Sanders: This book is about sales innovation through collaboration and teamwork. It solves the problem that so many B2B companies have right now: increasing complexity throughout the sales and marketing process.

RC: Can you say a little more about what you mean by "complexity"?

TS: Today's B2B sale has at least five decision makers on the buy side, all of which come from different disciplines.

For example, in technology, there's the end user, the IT lead, the information security lead, someone from corporate finance who is trying to manage procurement, and someone from operations thinking about the impact the solution will have on the total system. Oh, and by the way, there might be several business people who have a stake in the outcome because the solution impacts their profit and loss statement. All of these people have to come to a consensus if they are going to make a change and buy.

And that's just one layer. The second layer of complexity is that the buyer or prospect is doing their own research now. They're using search engines and reading all of this content marketing that's out there. Most researchers would say the buyer is about 70 percent through their journey of finding a solution before they ever talk to the first sales rep. This means that, for the sales rep, unteaching is as important as teaching.

And here's the third thing, if I haven't made it ugly enough yet: Everything we sell today has a high degree of technology in it. In the book, I use Skillsoft, one of my my clients, as an example. They sell training and corporate development solutions. Twenty years ago, it was video tapes and notebooks. The live events were flip charts. Today, these solutions all sit in digital technology, on a learning management system, with features that would rival an SAP implementation. Even for Skillsoft, which is selling something as simple as training solutions, there's a high degree of complexity on the client side that they have to understand.

And there's a fourth thing: Because of cloud-based computing and crowdsourcing, the number of competitors we face today has blown up exponentially. They all are willing to work free or cheap to steal our best accounts. Whether we're trying to get a client to change the way they do business or keep our key accounts, there's more complication to the success process then there has ever been before, and the complication rises faster than we can adapt our sales processes. Everybody in the field – every individual salesperson – has to be innovative and very, very good at solving problems. That's the big change in business.

RC: Before we talk more about that particular change, I was hoping we could backtrack a bit. Earlier, you mentioned that "unteaching is as important as teaching" for sales reps. Can you explain what that means?

TS: If you've ever had a medical symptom and you didn't feel like going to the doctor, and you just plugged whatever it was into Google, what was the first response in the search results?

RC: In my experience, you usually end up diagnosing yourself with cancer.

TS: Exactly. You're going to die. They do that to get clicks. It's the same thing here: If you have a business problem and you say, "How can I optimize my workflow," and you Google it, you're going to get a linkbait piece of content. It was likely produced by someone who just wants to get your attention. They may misdirect you for the sake of being surprising and provocative and all the other things SEO likes.

So now you think that's the God's honest truth. You think, "Oh, the best way for me to automate my workflow is to build a database from scratch using Ruby on Rails."

Here's the poor sales rep who has to follow that. They have to undo all of that thinking before they even present what they're selling.

So it's complicating sales in the same way it's complicating the work of doctors. You go in to see your doctor and you say, "You see this skin thing? Rubyxxxx1 says this is skin cancer." Now, that guy has to pull you all the way back to sunburn.

For decades, we recruited sales talent based on the assumption that they sold a straightforward product to a single decision maker or a couple of decision makers. If they were outgoing, hardworking, charismatic, and great at closing, we assumed they would make their numbers.

Today, if we just recruit based on this assumption, our salespeople can not only fail, but they can also create relationship and brand problems for us in the space.

RC: In response to these changes in the sales process, you've proposed "dealstorming," a combination of brainstorming and deal making. Can you elaborate on what dealstorming is?

TS: Dealstorming is to arrange collective brainpower to rapidly solve problems related to making a sale or keeping a key account in place. The premise is that a win for sales is 100 or 1000 problems solved. It's not one big pitch. It's not one big close. It's 100 or 1000 little solutions to problems that get presented to you every step of the game, from selling the committee to unteaching the keys to unseating the incumbent to surviving the free cloud-based competitor.

The secret to this rapid problem solving – the assumption behind dealstorming — is that a company's competitive advantage in sales today is their ability to solve problems faster than their competition. We've confirmed this assumption through research.

Our research says no one person can do that on their own. When we are able to bring together a diverse set of perspectives and then manage them quickly to determine the next best play, that's dealstorming.

Dealstorming has 300 percent more historical success at solving big deals that are stuck than traditional sales processes have,

RC: The book presents seven steps of dealstorming. We don't have to outline each one – people should really read the book to learn about them – but can you tell us how you arrived at these seven steps?

TS: Listen: It went from three steps to five steps to seven steps to 12 steps and then back to seven steps over the course of 15 years. It's been an iterative process.

When it started out, I was working for Mark Cuban. It was a much simpler process. We organized a team, we had meetings, and then we executed the plan. When I went to Yahoo in 2000, I led the Value Lab – which was essentially the "Big Deal Team" or "Account Crisis Team." We did 60 of these dealstorms for almost a billion dollars worth of sales over four years. That's when we really refined it more. Then I was a consultant for 10 years after that. I worked on all kinds of dealstorms with all kinds of companies. That's where we arrived at the final seven.

[caption id="attachment_83910" align="alignleft" width="500"] Tim Sanders[/caption]

We were looking for something you could repeat. If there are a lot of problems in an account, then you may have to repeat the cycle several times. So we were looking for something manageable and not too complex. The last thing you want to do is fight complexity with complexity. That would be so corporate.

RC: Another important idea in the book is that many of us think we're already working in collaborative teams, but there's a good chance we're not actually working as collaboratively as we think we are. How can you tell if your collaboration isn't really collaboration at all?

TS: Collaboration is about diversity in thinking. If you're in a sales silo, you have all these constraints. If someone has an idea, your constraints say, "That won't work here." But constraints become obsolete faster than a software installation. They become obsolete because of changes in the world. Things that didn't work five years ago can work great today.

For example, when we first looked at social media at Yahoo, it wasn't even called "social media" yet. It was "user-generated content." We had an opportunity to be on the ground floor right there with Twitter. But we said, "No way. No one will ever spend time on short message services." We said that because we tried it back in '97 or '98, and no one cared.

Guess what: We were wrong. Our constraints held us back from being innovative, and that's what happens with sales.

What I discovered in my practice is something called "The Power of Four or More." When you bring together four or more perspectives – think of it as disciplines, like sales, marketing, operations, finance, customer service, etc. – that's when you triple your chance of noticing a pattern or combining two ingredients to create a solution.

All solutions at work are pattern recognition or ingredient combination. Every invention in history used either the combination of two or more ingredients or the connection of a pattern.

As you bring together multiple perspectives, you increase your odds of finding the next best play in a short period of time.

If I just have five people from sales in a room, and we have a two hour meeting to discuss a problem, I'm telling you: There's a 50-75 percent chance that the conclusion of our meeting will be to do more research and have the meeting again next week. In other words: Our conclusion won;t be a solution.

But when I bring in four – not three, but four – different perspectives, what we see is this: The chances of our conclusion being to do more research and have another meeting goes from 50-75 percent to 10-25 percent. In other words, it's much more likely that we will have enough good ideas on the table that as a group we become confident that we are going to try a specific strategy to get unstuck.

That's why for sales managers or sales talent, the ability to reach across departments and recruit people to help and keep them engaged over a long process is the new skill that makes you a great problem solver. It is a different skill set from the Glengarry Glen Ross skill set.

RC: So, is that the kind of skill set companies should be hiring for going forward? Is it time to ditch the Glengarry Glen Ross approach to sales?

TS: You're looking for a hybrid. Obviously, simple selling situations still exist. What I'm suggesting is that we now say this skill set is necessary, but not sufficient.

For example, you went to college. Great. Check the box. You're good at finishing things. Oh, and you made a lot of calls at your last place and had a high closing rate. Check that box, too. But these things aren't enough to separate you from other candidates anymore. We have to start looking for different attributes.

You know, I'm thinking of a trick question that we always use in recruiting for my consulting clients. It really helps you find that team builder, team collaborator, and team-oriented salesperson who can work across different groups.

Let's say you've applied to come work at Dell, and you're going to sell B2B technology solutions. I'll say, "Okay, at your last job at SAP, I want you to tell me about a project outside of sales that you volunteered for. Why did you volunteer, what was your role, and how did it turn out?"

Notice I didn't ask you if you've built teams before. You're going to tell me you did. Salespeople always think they operate as teams, but that's like saying factory workers work as a team. They work as a line, but they don't necessarily have a shared mission. They're not necessarily interdependent.

So, if I ask you this, it's a trick question. There is no right answer. It's like when they ask you, "What's the last great book you read?" The only right answer is that you've read a book. In this situation, what I'm trying to find out is whether you have the habit of helping other groups or you just work on your own stuff for sales.

The second thing I would look for in this interview is I would look for someone to talk to me about relationships they built outside of sales and what the foundation of those relationships were and how those relationships helped the company – not you.

I really want to understand your habits as a salesperson. I want to hear people saying, "I never ate with sales. I used the lunch room experience as a time to set my tray down at a different table with a different group, take my licks when I told them I was in sales, and then begin to listen to their problems."

The last thing I look for when recruiting salespeople is a salesperson who believes that ideas can come from anywhere. This one is harder to get at. Sometimes, I'll ask a salesperson, "When's the last time you guys got a great idea that improved the way you sell from legal, or finance, or operations, or delivery?" If they don't have an answer to that, there's a problem — and by the way, most traditional salespeople don't think there's ever been a good idea outside of sales. They'll never be successful in a dealstorm that way.

RC: Well, that covers everything I wanted to know. But this is your book. Anything else you want to talk about?

TS: I just want to mention the last chapter of the book, "Innovation at the Relationship Exchange." I introduce an idea there that doesn't just apply to sales. It applies to all workers. It's this: The only time an individual contributor's creativity equates to real business performance is when she has a strong relationship with her manager. Individually creative people don't produce jack if they don't have the loyalty and support of their manager.

They call this the "LMX theory": The "leader-member exchange theory." When leaders and team members swap – when I swap with you my competence and you give my back your support as a manager, for example – this exchange is what causes creative people to gain the confidence and the courage to try new things. It gives them the working experience and latitude to get good at innovation.

You see, creativity is a person's ability to produce unexpected work that is appropriate to the situation. The manager brings that. Creativity by itself is largely destructive. It's not creative, it's imaginative. But if a manager and an employee have a really strong relationship, then the employee has confidence and their creativity converts into game-changing innovation.

As I recruit managers and leaders for a company, I look for people who are very committed to developing individual relationships and pushing everyone to dramatically improve their competence and loyalty to company strategy.

The way I can tell if someone was great at their last job as a manger is I ask them a question. See, in every team, there are two circles: the in crowd and the out crowd. Largely, the in crowd is your top performers, the people you trust and talk to a lot. And you have an in crowd, whether or not you like to believe that you do.

And then you have an out crowd. Maybe they are unproven, or they screw up too much, or maybe they just haven't performed enough to get into the inner circle.

But here's what I ask when I'm recruiting managers and leaders: "What have you done in the last year to expand your in crowd?"

The secret to innovation success is for managers to learn how to grow that inner circle every single day, one relationship at a time.