This article was originally published in 2011 and has been substantially updated.
The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon and Brent Addison was published in 2011 and remains in the top-5 business books 10-years later. The book was written following an extensive multi-year research study of 6000 salespeople across 90 companies that concluded in 2009. The period from 2007-2009 was the bottom of the great recession caused by the global financial crisis.
The "challenger seller" behavior-type identified in the survey is the most effective in complex B2B selling and was the only sales cohort from the extensive research conducted by the Corporate Executive Board, now Challenger Inc. to achieve success during the downturn.
Here we are again in 2020-21, in a global financial crisis and recession caused by the Coronavirus. Arguably selling in 2020-21 is even more difficult than in 2007-2009 because both buyers and sellers are working from home. Purchasing has been frozen in tens of thousands of companies for all but essential products and services. B2B buying is in disarray or frozen as organizations struggle to prioritize their expenditure to preserve cash.
In complex B2B technology purchases, the only deals getting done are “MUST-have” products or services to reduce cost, accelerate digital transformation or to retool the company to be more competitive as we emerge from the COVD19 era.
This article defines the behavior types identified in the book and explores the creation and dissemination of the critical conversations that “challengers” must have with buyers. It then explores a method for helping salespeople to become situationally fluent in using those conversations in role-play.
The 5 Sales Profiles
Reactive Problem Solver
The Challenger Sale is an important read for sales managers and sales professionals looking to improve sales performance, however I recommend The Challenger Customer, published in 2015 as it is more insightful than its predecessor and contains an abbreviated summary of the Challenger Selling idea.
A Widening Talent Gap
In transactional selling, the star performers outperform the core by 59%. In complex B2B selling environments, the research indicates that the star performers outperformed the core performers by almost 200%.
As the sale becomes more complex, the gap between the core and star performers widens dramatically…companies are becoming more dependent on fewer sales people to carry the day. The good news is Challenger Selling skills, methods and processes can be taught and learned and the upside in closing the gap between the core and star performer group is well worth the investment in messaging, training and individual development.
What is it that Challengers do differently that sets them apart from other sales people? From the 44 attributes in the survey, six of them were statistically significant in defining the Challenger seller:
- Offers the customer unique perspective
- Strong 2-way communication skills
- Knows customer value drivers
- Can identify economic drivers of customers business
- Is comfortable discussing money
- Can pressure the customer
Disrupt the Status Quo with an Informed Opinion
The book talks about teaching the buyer about a problem they did not know they had as a winning attribute of the Challenger. The idea of the salesperson disrupting the status quo with an informed opinion or reframe about how the buyer could improve an aspect of their business is not new.
What is new is the research and analysis of how effective the Challenger sales type is vs. the other sales profiles and the core performers in the organization during the downturn.
Figuring out what Challengers are doing differently, cloning that behavior and recruiting and training more challenger types is a priority recommendation in this book.
Sales and enablement leaders in companies selling complex B2B products that are looking to develop “Challenger-style” selling skills may find the message enablement and talent enablement ideas below useful
A messaging exercise that starts with a role-based buyer profile and creates conversations that sellers must have to engage and answer buyers “why-meet”, “why-change”, “why-change-now” and “why-me” questions is an important milestone in any growth-stage company.
The “Challenger Sale” messaging structure is in the public domain and it remains particularly useful for creating conversations that are capable of reframing the buyer's perspective and helping them appreciate the business value in a different approach to solving existing business problems.
It is also a great framework for storytelling and embedding customer “who-we’ve-helped” stories. The steps in the Challenger message structure are:
- Rational drowning
- Emotional impact,
- A new way
The core of Challenger Messaging is “commercial insight”. Commercial insight was defined by CEB in 2014 as an approach which “elevates customer conversations and re-frames their needs and the way they assign value to your points of differentiation”. Commercial insight is not obvious and requires in-depth study of causal relationships underlying specific performance problems.
Once this value messaging has been assembled, it is important to make it accessible and available in-context at the point of use by direct and channel salespeople. Digital sales playbooks like Enableocity’s Playbook Factory are essential delivery vehicles to centralize and capture this conversation content, which by its nature is granular micro-content. Instead of salespeople having to search through documents and presentations in multiple portals for the content they need, the right conversational content is delivered in context at the salesperson's point of use in Salesforce, email tools, on smartphones or in a web browser.
Crushing the status-quo
I reached out to Jeff Michaels a sales and business leader who has considerable experience in applying Challenger in the field and in simplifying it so that it becomes actionable. Jeff contributed his insight to an eBook on prospecting best practices several years ago, however his insight remains relevant and I have excerpted a copy that you can directly download here.
Once the messaging is created we recommend roleplaying various buyer scenarios and proof points in immersive workshops where sellers role-play in-person or virtually, alternating between buyer and seller up to 10-times in the space of an hour or two or three, depending on iterations, techniques used and the complexity of the story.
Customer Storyboarding is an ideal mechanism to capture “Challenger” conversations and your value creation story and convert it into a visual story that salespeople will quickly internalize and that customers will engage in, can easily understand and that they will remember.
Gamification is important to help sellers to remember the critical conversation elements and a useful way of encouraging friendly competition.
We strongly recommend certification as the end-goal of the messaging and roleplaying exercise to elevate the performance of the entire team. Certification also identifies weak players who cannot or will not adapt to the required performance standard, for coaching or managing-out.
Individual and peer coaching based on actual call records, using tools like Gong, Chorus, ExecVision is important to drive adoption of the techniques and the use of the messaging. These tools are extremely important to marketers to understand whether new messaging is being adopted.