Sales Executive Council’s Challenger Research Provides Further Validation that CEM is Critical for B2B Sales


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We’ve cited the Sales Executive Council (SEC) a few times already in this blog. That is because their research around sales performance during the downturn (and beyond, as it turns out) really hit home for us.

Their findings are documented in an excellent book called, The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation. Withing telling the whole story, the crux of their research found that sales reps that “Teach, Tailor, and Take Control” significantly outperform other reps, particularly reps that focused primarily on building relationships with their customers (making sure that their customers “liked” them).

This links very closely to a lot of the dialog that continues to go on about Customer Experience Management. Many people think the key to a great experience is delighting the customer. If I make them happy, then I’ve won.

In reality, that is a bit short sighted. Th first thing that matters in great customer experiences is solving a need—then things like delighting the customer can help set you apart. Linda Ireland is one of the most vocal CEM experts who expresses concern about focusing on delighting the customer as the lead goal of experience efforts. Here is one of her posts where she describes 7 truths that are common across all customer experiences.

For customer experience to work, it has to be of value to both the customer and the company. One sided relationships won’t last long and are not valuable.

There was another interesting piece of research from the SEC where they have found that the B2B customer has completed 57% of their buying process before they every contact vendors. 57%! The implications of this are still being researched, but some possibilities that come to mind for me include:

  • The content about your company on Web sites (your own and others) and in social media channels needs to be clear, detailed, and compelling.
  • Sales better know what is available to customers through these channels. Contradicting this public information without a valid reason will cause customers to quickly lose trust.
  • When sales is engaged, they better quickly find out if they are simply column fodder, in the lead, or have an opportunity to guide the customer toward a solution that is better for the customer—and the selling company.

This redirection requires the core capabilities of a Challenger rep to be employed:

  • They “teach” customers about new ideas and approaches that can help their business. They don’t ask if they want/need something—they tell them why they need to think differently and what it can mean for their business. This is analagous to the the role of Web and social channels in customer efforts to learn about things that can address their needs.
  • They “tailor” their messages based on the audience. This is all about context. Tailoring messages personalize them to the particular needs and interests of that audience. This helps make them more engaged and active in listening to your ideas. There is universal agreement that context is a key element of great experiences as your tailor information to your customers, show them that you know them, and generally save them time and effort.
  • They “take control” of the conversation. This is an interesting one, but to me its all about setting up the win-win environment. If you’ve taken the time to contextually tailor ideas that are new, but high value for the customer, you’ve earned the right to guide the conversation down a path that makes it a win-win for the business. This helps change the nature of the relationship with the customer. The control element only works if you have satisfied the customer need—the baseline element of great experiences. If that has happened, then taking control with a win-win goal makes sense and is something customers accept willingly

There is a ton more to the research and the ongoing discussions around the Challenger sales rep. For folks that are worried about B2B Customer Experiences, its a great area to dive deep—as it provides new ideas that validate and guide sales efforts in the Customer Experience era.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Hank Barnes
Hank Barnes provides research and advisory services on go-to-market strategies--particularly around marketing, positioning, and customer experience--for technology providers. Hank has more than 25 years of high-technology sales and marketing experience in both field and corporate roles, both as an individual contributor and the marketing leader for several startups. He is a long-time proponent of customer-centric marketing and the use of customer experience as a key differentiator for business success. His posts here include content from his days with Adobe, SAP, and now Gartner


  1. Hank, welcome to CustomerThink, and thanks for this post.

    I think you nailed a critical issue — the sales experience. This has been missing from much of the discussion about Sales 2.0 and Social CRM.

    So far, it seems most of the “next-generation” of selling is about the latest tools — SaaS, social, analytics, etc. Hmmm, wasn’t the last generation also focused on tech? The more things change…

    My take: businesses need to keep up on the tools and have good efficient processes. But B2B sales leaders also will make sure the “art” of sales AKA the sales experience is truly outstanding. And that’s a people issue, not tech.

    As for the Challenger Sale, great book but the subtitle is troubling: “Taking Control of the Customer Conversation.” This flies in the face of the macro trend of customers taking more control.

    In fact, fighting over control is exactly the wrong thing to be doing, in my opinion. Sales leaders should engage in a real conversation, not attempt to control or manipulate the conversation. Customers are sick of being the target of a sales effort; I think they would welcome engaging in a sales experience that they found rewarding.

    So maybe we should dub Sales 3.0 a focus on the sales experience. After CRM/SFA and then Sales 2.0, it’s time!

  2. Thanks for the welcome. Happy to be posting rather than just commenting form time to time.

    I really like your idea of the next thing for sales is focusing on the sales experience, but I would say that sales should focus on being a part, while understanding the whole, of the entire customer experience–so that its not just about the sale, its about what happens afterwards.

    Also, I think control is an interesting word for the Challenger subtitle. It seems to spark the most discussion. Taken based on past history, I would agree with you 100%–if that is how you read it and you use Challenger to justify that behavior, then its bad.

    But, I read it as participating in the conversation, not just being a party to it. Something that Dave Brock and I have talked about is just because customer’s have more power, doesn’t mean they have more knowledge–they do have access to more information and more tools to get information.

    But, they still may need to be guided toward solutions and opportunities for their business that they don’t uncover through personal research. And that is what sales should be about.

    Maybe guide would have been a better word, but that nasty control word is certainly sparking discussions.


  3. Agree that sales shouldn’t just be a passive participant in the conversation. Nor should reps accept that customers have total “control,” either.

    Social CRMers are fond of saying that customers have control of the conversation. I don’t think that’s right, either.

    To me, it’s all about leading the conversation. You can’t be a leader without followers, and followers won’t follow unless they believe the leader is taking them in the right direction. A direction that is adding value to their business.

    Words matter. I think we should stop trying to control and focus more on leading and adding value.

  4. That is why I like “guide”…Its actually softer than leader (which sounds more about power.

    Think of any tours you have been on. A great guide makes all the difference in the world. Pointing out the little things that make a big difference, suggesting ways to get more value, etc.

    In any conversation, there are at least two parties to it. No one has control, because one of us can easily just walk away, or stop listening. Communication isn’t really happening unless both parties are listening and have a shared context (or frame of reference) about the discussion.

    I once got into a discussion about BPM with a younger friend. It took a few minutes of us jabbering before we figured out I was talking about workflow/business process and he was talking about music/beats per minute.

    I think, getting back to the Sales 3.0 idea that started this discussion, Sales 3.0 is about experience and engaging conversations that drive action between buyers and sellers. An expert communicator will guide or lead that conversation so that is has value for both parties.

  5. Yes, guide is probably a better word. It implies giving some direction and adding value, without trying to exert overt power or control. More collaborative.

    But in the macho sales culture, I think many will consider “guide” too soft or passive.

    For me, leadership with a customer doesn’t mean power, because you have no power over a customer. It means making a compelling case for change, and motivating the customer to follow that path.


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