The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation


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If you’re in sales management or especially in a higher level sales executive position and you don’t know who the Sales Executive Council (“SEC”) is, you should. They’re part of the larger Corporate Executive Board, a $440 million public corporation that provides insights and tools to executives of large corporations through a participatory membership-based model. SEC is one division of that company.

SEC is involved with ongoing research among their member companies and regularly analyzes, interprets, and disseminates that information on sales effectiveness back to their members. Several years ago, SEC determined that they should form a sales performance improvement team, SEC Solutions, which would focus on improving the sales performance of organizations based on best-practices and approaches that SEC gathered over the years from their members.

In August 2010 both Brent Adamson, a co-author of The Challenger Sale and I presented separately at a sales conference. Although I was somewhat familiar with some of SEC’s research, they were in the process of launching the Challenger Model and I had the opportunity to hear about it first hand from Brent in a group setting.

The Challenger Sale asserts that there are five profiles of sales reps (click on the graphic for full-size):

  • The Hard Worker (21% of their sample)
  • The Challenger (27%)
  • The Relationship Builder (21%)
  • The Lone Wolf (18%)
  • The Problem Solver (14%)

The clear winner, from SEC’s perspective, is the Challenger. The loser, in terms of sales performance, is the Relationship Builder. Surprised?

SEC points out that the Challenger rep has six significant attributes:

  1. Offers the customer unique perspectives
  2. Has strong two-way communication skills
  3. Knows the individual customer’s value drivers
  4. Can identify economic drivers of the customer’s business
  5. Is comfortable discussing money
  6. Can pressure the customer.

Can pressure the customer? That’s certainly a behavior associated with the concept of a Challenger. In fact, SEC goes on to assert that the Challenger is really defined by their ability to do three things: teach, tailor, and take control.

Before you fire off a negative comment to me about this approach to selling, understand I’ve heard them all. SEC Solutions is an ESR sales training/consulting provider subscriber. We’ve assessed and analyzed their approach, been briefed by their principals, checked their references, and have spoken to dozens of people about this Challenger Model. Some of the more traditional sellers and sales experts were actually offended at the idea that a salesperson should pressure, challenge, and control the customer. They cited examples of how that approach would never work among their customers or anywhere in the industry into which they sell. Many of these people are Relationship builders, however quite successful in their own selling situations.

Others see this Challenger Model quite differently. Once the nomenclature is explained, some see themselves selling this way and are at once amused and appreciate that someone assigned the label of challenger to behavior that is part of their everyday practice of selling.

This is a serious book.

You know I’m not only bored with books about sales tips, tricks, silver bullets, and shortcuts. I believe they hurt, rather than help the salesreps and their managers that are in trouble. The Challenger Sale is a serious book for those serious about selling more effectively. There is enough research-based content for everyone to, at a minimum, at least consider. Adopting the model, however, involves a willingness to reorient your thinking, approach, and behaviors to what might be opposite from your present selling and management style and, in fact, your company’s entire customer-facing philosophy and orientation. One risk is that the pendulum can swing too far and your sales team can become glib and arrogant. I’ve seen it happen before. But that can be managed like many other risks associated with behavioral change.

The book’s impact on a sales manager could be significant. Authors Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson provide some real insight into management and coaching, even going so far as providing a powerful coaching guide excerpt and a Challenger Hiring Guide in the appendix. If you buy into this Challenger Model, you’ll certainly need that hiring guide. Since you can’t change people’s inherent characteristics, if you want challengers working on your team, you better have a solid process for making sure anyone you hire has the requisite challenger traits.

Aspects of the Challenger approach can work with an existing sales methodology. In fact, Huthwaite founder Neil Rackham wrote the forward to the book. ESR sees the potential for sales training/methodology firms to provide the how and the Challenger Model to provide the what so far as the customer conversation is concerned. More on that we see the Challenger model being adopted by more companies.

Here’s the bottom line

Dixon and Adamson offer here an absolutely stunning whack on the side of the head to any sales leader who is perplexed and paralyzed about how to get their whole team performing in the never-been-so-tough world of complex, B2B sales. It’s a must read. That’s M-U-S-T.

There is more information about the Challenger Sale here. And here is a preview of the book.

Graphics source: SEC Solutions

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Stein
Dave specializes in helping his clients win critical B2B sales opportunities as well as helping them hire the best sales talent.Dave is co-author of Beyond the Sales Process. He wrote the best-selling How Winners Sell in 2004.


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