How to Sell Business in Complex Organizations

Most Fortune 500 organizations, and a great many others, are “complex,” in that they have formal or informal matrix structures, overlapping accountabilities, diffused decision making, and a multitude of buyers. I believe that these traits make them easier to do business with than smaller or non-complex organizations. However, you need to have a particular entry strategy.

The following considerations are probably relevant to any complex organization, despite its particular business or nature:

  1. Buying is done at lower levels.
    The buyer will often have a deceptive title, such as “coordinator” or “director” or “internal consultant.” You can’t use the old hierarchical standards, nor office size, nor business card, to qualify the buyer. In talent-rich, aggressive firms in particular, the buyer may be a relatively young, relatively new employee. My advice is the same as that followed by outstanding sales people in the real estate or auto industries: Treat everyone as if they were a buyer, no matter how they dress or how they act, until they prove to you that they’re not. It is extremely unusual for even large consulting contracts to be purchased at the CEO or COO levels in complex companies.
  2. Flexibility is crucial.
    These are generally not operations looking for a consultant’s off-the-shelf or pet approach. They want solid external expertise blended with the situational needs of the organization (and, perhaps, the varied needs of individual business units within the organization). You won’t prove your worth through a “golden, single approach,” but rather through careful listening and a design that embraces the buyer’s and the organization’s unique needs at that particular moment.
  3. Trust and integrity are essential.
    These are high-performing, professional, no-nonsense environments. The key people within them expect to deal with those possessing similar values. If you insist on extensive non-disclosure forms to protect your proprietary property, convoluted legal provisions in your contract, and strict copyright protection on your forms and reports, you are not creating a trusting environment. You must provide high value and keep the big picture in mind if you are to obtain the kind of high-fee projects these organizations can offer.
  4. Consensus building is required.
    Buyers in these organizations tend to ensure that their peers and matrix relationships are informed and pleased, to the point of extending a veto power on projects and personalities. Never assume that you’re home free because the buyer in front of you is inclined to proceed. Plan to provide detailed information and support to whomever else he or she deems necessary to be in the loop, no matter what their job title or remoteness from the project. Team support is prized in these organizations, and consultants who can help secure it are valued.
  5. Proposals must provide options and fees commensurate with value.
    Complex organizations often require complex solutions to their problems. Offer a variety of choices for the buyer to consider. Ironically, buyers believe they get what they pay for, and they are as likely to turn down an overly inexpensive project as they are an excessively expensive one. These organizations are accustomed to large fees for large value. You betray your inexperience and/or fear if you seriously underbid on a project. If you’ve successfully covered the four points above, boldly recommend your options and charge for the value that they—and you—provide.