The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation

What’s the secret to sales success? If you’re like most business leaders, you’d say it’s fundamentally about relationships-and you’d be wrong. The best salespeople don’t just build relationships with customers. They challenge them.

The need to understand what top-performing reps are doing that their average performing colleagues are not drove Matthew Dixon, Brent Adamson, and their colleagues at Corporate Executive Board to investigate the skills, behaviors, knowledge, and attitudes that matter most for high performance. And what they discovered may be the biggest shock to conventional sales wisdom in decades.

Based on an exhaustive study of thousands of sales reps across multiple industries and geographies, The Challenger Sale argues that classic relationship building is a losing approach, especially when it comes to selling complex, large-scale business-to-business solutions. The authors’ study found that every sales rep in the world falls into one of five distinct profiles, and while all of these types of reps can deliver average sales performance, only one-the Challenger- delivers consistently high performance.

Instead of bludgeoning customers with endless facts and features about their company and products, Challengers approach customers with unique insights about how they can save or make money. They tailor their sales message to the customer’s specific needs and objectives. Rather than acquiescing to the customer’s every demand or objection, they are assertive, pushing back when necessary and taking control of the sale.

The things that make Challengers unique are replicable and teachable to the average sales rep. Once you understand how to identify the Challengers in your organization, you can model their approach and embed it throughout your sales force. The authors explain how almost any average-performing rep, once equipped with the right tools, can successfully reframe customers’ expectations and deliver a distinctive purchase experience that drives higher levels of customer loyalty and, ultimately, greater growth.

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3 Responses to The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation

  1. Strong research and important sales insights This book comes very highly touted, especially by Neil Rackham himself, who calls it “the most important advance in selling for many years.”I personally don’t think it reaches quite that level, but overall it is an excellent book, with provocative insights and useful information for salespeople looking for ways to break out of the pack.The key to a really good book is that it makes you say, “I never thought of that before,” and to use that insight to improve your life in some way. Interestingly, that’s also the key to a really good salesperson, as well.The book is based on extensive research by the Sales Executive Council into the attributes of successful sales professionals. They found that salespeople tend to cluster into five different types, based on their behaviors: Hard Workers, Challengers, Relationship Builders, Lone Wolves, and Reactive Problem Solvers. Research is great when it generates new and unexpected insights, and three are central to the book.Key insight #1: Salespeople matter–a lot!One of the surprising insights generated by their research was that the Sales Experience accounted for 53% of the contribution to customer loyalty, more than company and brand impact, product and service delivery, and value-to-price ratio combined! In other words, the latter three are just tickets to be able to play; how you sell is more important than what you sell. In complex solution sales, star performers outperform core performers by 200%, as opposed to 59% in transactional selling, so it’s a critical insight.If how you sell is so important, the next critical insight is about what the most effective reps out of the 6,000 that they surveyed do differently.Key insight #2: They don’t care how much you care until they know how much you knowOf the five types, relationship builders are the least effective performers. The old saying, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” is better said, “they don’t care how much you care until they know how much you know.” Relationships are important, but they are the result of successful selling and not the cause (as Rackham says in the Foreword).In other words, what customers value most today is a rep who teaches them something, who challenges their insights and their view of the world. These reps are the Challengers and they comprise the largest component of top performers. Unlike relationship builders who focus on resolving tension and keeping everyone happy, challengers like to produce constructive tension, because major sales are about creating change and change generally requires discomfort.The key is not in discovering the customer’s needs and being able to express them, it’s in being able to create the need that they didn’t even have by getting them to look at their world in a way they had not before. As they say, if your customer’s reaction to your pitch is, “That’s exactly what’s keeping me up at night. You really understand our needs”, you’ve actually failed. What you want them to say is, “Huh, I never thought of it that way before.”Of course, if you do this and then they go ahead and solve their problem with a cheaper competitor, all you’ve done is sold for someone else. So, the other critical piece is to answer the most important question: “Why should our customers buy from us over all competitors?” This question is surprisingly difficult for reps to answer, as I personally have observed in my own training classes. But, with enough thinking and refining, you can answer the question. The thought process then becomes:* What are our strengths?* How do those strengths give the customer the capability to solve a problem or take advantage of an opportunity they don’t know they have?* What do we need to teach the customer so they will value that capability?As the book says, “The sweet spot of customer loyalty is outperforming your competitors on those things you’ve taught your customers are important.”In order to achieve this sweet spot, Challengers do three things very well: teach, tailor, and take control. The middle section of the book explains how to build the teaching conversation, tailor your strengths to individual stakeholders, and take control of the sale. The teaching phase is the most expensive part of the book and appropriately enough, by far the most insightful and most innovative. Just this part of the book would make it worthwhile.Key insight #3: Focus on the core 60%The final two chapters focus on how to implement the approach in the sales organization. Here their most important insight is that the focus should be on equipping the 60% of the sales force who are core performers to be able to follow the Challenger Selling model. The top 20% won’t need it, and the bottom 20% won’t get it.The only quibble I have with The Challenger Sale is…

  2. More for Marketing than Sales 0

  3. Dave Kinnear "Executive Leader Coach"

    Challenging The Challenger Sale The good news about The Challenger Sale is that Dixon and Adamson further the concept of consultative selling. Even better, in my estimation, is that the authors seemed to use some solid data on which to base their theories. I like some of their approach such as, “Lead to your solution not with your solution,” and “Differentiate yourself by showing your customer something new about their industry that they didn’t know or provide them with a different view.” I believe the authors also get it right when they state, “In this world of dramatically changing customer buying behavior and rapidly diverging sales talent, your sales approach must evolve or you will be left behind.”However, they missed an opportunity to move complex sales to the next level. By complex sales, I mean to segregate commodity sales from the intangible products and services that require trust. And by the next level, I mean a salesperson who authentically has the customer’s best interest at heart and not just their own.The subtitle of this book is “Taking control of the customer conversation.” As though to inoculate themselves from criticism, the authors state that they know some people will interpret this statement as being “arrogant” while stating that it isn’t. They also speak about “educating the customer” and recognize that the same interpretation may be made about that point as well. Indeed, this reader believes that the mindset of a salesperson who takes it upon themselves to control the conversation and educate the customer/client is absolutely being arrogant. The authors seem to give short shrift to the human capacity to sense when they are being talked down to or manipulated. While you may be able to fool some of the people some of the time, most customers will sense when they are being manipulated.Many consumers today are, for the most part, immune or at least becoming immune to advertising and sales tactics that are focused on achieving the salesperson’s goals. They are skeptical. They listen to their friends and associates and depend on organic search results (not paid results) when researching a purchase. Product, solution and consultative selling (which includes Challenger Sales) are all still focused on gaining the salesperson’s goal of selling a product. Yet, between all the self-serving tactics and training, this book does provide some nuggets of insight for the alert reader.The authors have defined two categories of sales people, core performers and high performers as well as five major “salesperson profiles”: The Hard Worker, The Challenger, The Relationship Builder, The Lone Wolf and The Reactive Problem Solver. In their research, the authors found that The Challenger was the person who continued to make sales quotas even through tough times like the 2008 recession. “The Challengers are the debaters on the team” and have a deep understanding of the customer’s industry. [Debate: to engage in argument by discussing opposing views.] They took control of the conversation, challenged the customer’s thinking and differentiated themselves by educated the customer on things about their industry/customers that were new to the customer. The Hard Workers are just that, they show up early, stay late and are persistent. The Relationship Builder is an unfortunate profile title. A better profile title would be “The Appeaser.” In this profile, the salesperson believes the relationship is the most important aspect of their job and will do nothing to jeopardize that customer relationship. They appease the customer at any cost – including the cost of losing a sale. The Lone Wolf is the prima donna of the salesforce. They do things their way, AND, they are high performers despite being difficult if not impossible to manage. The Reactive Problem Solver is focused like a laser on solving the customer’s problem. They will sacrifice spending time generating new sales as soon as an existing customer calls with an issue or new problem.According to the data presented by the authors, The Challengers are by far the best salespeople in terms of results with 39% of that profile in the “High Performer” category. The Lone Wolf (25%), Hard Worker (17%), Problem Solver (12%) and Relationship Builders (7%) profiles follow in order.A clearer and, in my opinion, better model for the “new” consumer driven market is that outlined by Patrick Lencione in his book Getting Naked and Charles Green in his book, Trust Based Selling. In both of those books, the authors make it clear that the proper mindset for sales is to authentically have the customer’s best interest at heart, not just the salesperson’s best interest. Any model that incites a mindset or intention that is designed to sell rather than to let the…

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