“The Challenger Sale”, written by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson of CEB, and published in 2011 remains in my opinion one of the most impactful sales books from this decade. It is engaging, fact-based, and well-written. The authors manage to disentangle different sales representatives as types and bring clarity and insight into not only how people have been selling and ought to sell, but describing the explicit approach in going about doing so. It clarifies that while all sales types can be successful–and very much have been–for some types, and certainly the unwritten sales representatives, their so called “challenger” approach can help them improve and become a high performer in sales.
Being a sales “challenger”, which is what this fifth persona is referred to, is nothing new in itself per se (after all it’s a sales type identified and described), but the book is compelling in clearly defining this persona, its juxtaposition to the other four sales types, and offering a new perspective on what makes them more effective than all the others. And that’s what makes this book a winner.
The Challenger Sale impact on sales
In 1925 E.K. Strong published the “Psychology of Selling” that taught us one of the first major lessons in sales, namely “…selling isn’t an innate ability. It is a set of identifiable skills that can be learned.” The book “First, Break All the Rules” written by Don Clifton and the Gallup organization underpins this close to 90 years later, but does call out one important distinction and that is that there are so-called talents that are innate to individuals. While skills can be taught, there will always be a difference among individuals rooted in their talents (not surprisingly). Nevertheless, the main point holds that if one focuses on the right skills and adapts them, one can become a better performing sales representative.
The Challenger Sale makes a self-proclaimed statement through its foreword by Neil Rackham that it is the main innovation in sales since E.K Strong’s publication, notwithstanding sales automation, sales process, and of course the beloved CRM systems. One can debate whether it is the only thought provoking breakthrough, I would tend to disagree with him, but I would certainly agree that it is a breakthrough for the average sales professional.
To define what a Challenger representative is, before continuing:
+ Offers the customer unique perspectives
+ Has strong two-way communication skills
+ Knows the individual customer’s value drivers
+ Can identify economic drivers of the customer’s business
+ Is comfortable discussing money
+ Can pressure the customer
One caveat is that other sales personas are perhaps a bit narrowly defined such as the relationship builder, who is likely a sociable, likeable person, and if that is the case then of course it is no surprise that of all top performers only 7% fall in this category. A good Challenger is also often a good relationship builder, the difference is simply it’s not the only thing they are good at, and they have a fundamentally different approach to building that relationship.
It generally emerges that being a Challenger encompasses a relatively more complex and sophisticated sales approach, as it is more comprehensive than the traits of the others. I would argue this fact is one main reason these individuals are more successful. And so while many of us can become effective Challengers, the path is not going to be easy because it requires a much more well-rounded skill-set.
The Challenger on a company level
Firms like McKinsey & Company have a core value which they call “obligation to dissent”, which is to always tell the clients what is best for them as an organization, whether the individual client likes to hear it or not (and that can go as far as identifying that the person across from you is not suited for the role and a cause for the organization’s problem). It is often one of the most appreciated values among McKinsey hires and clients, as this challenging element differentiates the company from some other consultancies who tend to be more client serving (something this book makes very clear is not effective).
The Challenger reminded me of this, pointing to the fact that a sales representative who looks out for their customers or clients to teach them new insights and takes control will be a better thought partner going forward. You’re simply not going to hire one of the most expensive and premium consulting firms in the world otherwise, but because they have something to teach you (every time) and because they help make your organization better no matter how difficult the message. When it comes to working again with somebody, it is exactly this thought partnership and challenging ability, why they will stick with you. The success of a McKinsey & Company here speaks for itself and underpins the findings of the book.
The elements of a Challenger
I wanted to touch upon the three elements of the different aspects of the book.
First element: Teaching for Differentiation
Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson defined this best when writing “They win not by understanding their customers’ world as well as the customers know it themselves, but by actually knowing their customers’ world better than their customers know it themselves, teaching them what they don’t know but should.”
And therefore it is of no surprise that more than 50% of customer loyalty is driven by how you sell, and not what you sell. The same goes for your restaurants, people often say that you come for the food (what you sell), but that you come back for the service (how you sell).
Challengers bring new insights, a new edge to a business. That’s what is interesting and compelling. Most companies have some form of unique strength, but this may be very different from what they are currently pushing or sales people believe it is. I agree with the authors, the broader organization needs to identify their strengths first, and then build this into their sales approach. But what wasn’t emphasized, but is equally important, is to instill this in your sales force. If you asked 50 sales representatives in a company, would you get the same sales proposition? And based on this, what are the insights we are delivering?
“Challenger representatives, on the other hand, are looking for a different customer reaction altogether. Rather than, “Yes I totally agree!” they know they’re on the right track when they hear their customers say, “Huh, I never thought of it that way before”. The best indicator of a successful reframe, in other words, isn’t excited agreement but thoughtful reflection.”
This is one of the most important takeaways and what makes this approach difficult. You’re not supposed to just respond to needs, which would be easier (and reassembling a customer service approach), but you need to define their needs, based on the knowledge you have. And from there you need to have key insights that move the client.
Second element: tailoring for resonance
This was a slightly less profound chapter in my opinion, but nevertheless critical. Especially in B2B sales this can be a challenging one. This is all about navigating the stakeholders in your environment, and having a stakeholder map almost like a RACE (responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed) including where the decision power likes. And then knowing how to address each specific individual.
This is likely also one of the more difficult parts of being a good Challenger. It sounds easy in practice, but we all know due to the complexity of certainly large organizations, figuring out who all needs to be part of the decision, where the budget sits, etc. can be difficult to figure out, and moreover difficult to orchestrate. Sure, management can help bring clarity into just this, but if you’re not selling into a few key accounts where you would have this and instead are hunting new deals, this will be difficult to map and in either case time consuming. Here I would offer that key to unlocking this is having a few pre-scripted questions in the back of your head that you can ask throughout your conversations to bring clarity and insights.
“The best way you sell more stuff over time isn’t by going directly to the person who signs the deal, but by approaching him or her indirectly through stakeholders able to establish more widespread support for your solution.”
Third element: Taking control of the sale
I fundamentally agree with the principle. I also feel it is the hardest skill to learn, because it positions the sales professional vis-a-vis the customer in a completely different way. For example: “their response is to cut the sales effort short and move on to the next opportunity… Challenger representatives know their time is better spent elsewhere.”
Many sales representatives would struggle with this in a difficult sales process (well, unless you have a product flying off the shelves), because especially in B2B sales cycle can take 9 months and it will be persistence that will get one there, so it may be difficult for them to judge when to continue or stop. Either way, given the multifaceted nature of the stakeholder environment, it’s going to be complex and time taking. And this of course once again requires you to know their business better than they know it themselves, which allows you to be in this position.
How to make it happen
Learning a new skill set in many ways is no different in sales as in other functions. But one interesting finding here is the distinction between training and coaching. We too as Xtatio have learned coaching is the differentiator and most useful thing you can provide to a sales representative, as it’s personalized and actionable (in a recent pilot saw a 89% sales increase versus the control group). Training just conveys knowledge and 87% of that information is forgotten within 30 days.
“First, coaching is ongoing. Second, it involves diagnosis specific to the individual representative. And finally, coaching is behavioral–it’s not just about obtaining skills and knowledge; it’s about demonstrated application of that skill and knowledge. Training is good for sharing knowledge. Coaching is about acting upon it”
If one is on the path to become a Challenger, we would encourage them to seek coaching; this will make a significant difference in how quickly they can achieve this goal, and perhaps whether they achieve it at all.
In summary, it’s been 8 years since this book first hit the shelves in the US, and while in our digital age things evolving more than ever one thing remains true; challenging can unlock performance in you and your teams.