The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation

Some books are hard to summarize because they are jam-packed with ideas, insights, and practical applications. The Challenger Sale is one of these books. Based on empirical research conducted at the end of the last recession, this book offers sage advice for business leaders seeking to navigate the questions of how to market and sell in the post-COVID economy.

The way the book begins should get our attention:

“When we unlocked the mystery of high performance in a down econmy, the story turned out to be much bigger than anyone anticipated.”

Before I offer my favorite takeaways,  I must offer some repentance. As marketing professionals, we all have been guilty of quoting one specific piece of data from the 2012 CEB research behind the Challenger Sale: Buyers are on average 57% through the process of making a buying decision before engaging a company or sales rep. (Read The End of Solution Sales published in the Harvard Business Review.) Not only is this data now almost 10 years old, it’s a no-brainer.

We get it. Buyers do online research.The Challenger Sales offers so much more than this. I believe that this book could aptly be titled, “The Challenger Marketer” because it offers just as much insight for marketing as it does for sales. So, in the spirit of going beyond the worn-out “57%” number (and ensuing arguments between marketing and salespeople who vigorously deny this data), let’s look at some of the key takeaways from this amazing book.

The Shift To Buying Teams

Sure, buyers do research online. We get that. But the Challenger Sale highlights more key changes in how businesses buy.. I think these two changes are critical:

  1. The Rise of the Consensus-Based Sale.
  2. Increased Risk Aversion

Guess what? If you sell in the B2B space, you don’t sell to one person, you sell to a team. Later research presented in The Challenger Customer revealed that there is an average of 6.7 decision-makers and influencers on a business buying team.

Why? Businesses, and individual decision-makers, have figured out that if a team makes a decision, there is less risk.  “Customers are looking for ways to reduce both the complexity and risk that suppliers’ solutions selling efforts have foisted upon them.”

What does this mean? In Revenue Growth Engine, I talk about influencing buying teams. To be successful, salespeople, with the help of marketers, need to be able to identify and influence people with whom they may not even get a face-to-face (or Zoom) meeting.

Later in the book, Adamson and Dixon take a deep dive into how successful reps handle team buying teams. I was always taught to go straight for the C-Suite. However, the research showed that what C-level decision-makers value is buy-in from their team. “The best way you sell more stuff over time isn’t by going directly to the person that signs the deal, but by approaching him or her indirectly through stakeholders able to establish more widespread support for your solution.”

What does this mean? We may need to rethink our approach to new deals. I’m not saying we don’t go to the top, but as we do, we better also bring along the rest of the buying team. That means we have established relationships of trust and value with multiple stakeholders.

The #1 Type of Sales Representative

When we think of successful salespeople, we typically think of reps that have great relational skills. They are able to make friends and build trust. The research behind The Challenger Sale discovered the exact opposite. The most successful salespeople were the ones are Challengers.

What is a Challenger? They are the debaters “They have a deep understanding of the customer’s business and use that understanding to push the customer’s thinking and teach them something new about how their company can compete more effectively.” This type of rep outperformed the relational sales rep by a huge margin.

“In the traditional model, it’s customer-generated intelligence that is valuable to the supplier.” As salespeople would go in and do discovery first to learn about their business. “In the emerging model, it’s supplier-generated insight that is valuable to the customer.”

Today, it’s not just the buyer that does homework online before the sales process. Reps and marketers also need to do their homework, learning about the prospect’s business and industry, so they can begin the conversation by bringing valuable insights to the table.

Challenger Reps (and Marketers) Lead With Insight

What can we learn from this? Are relationships important? Absolutely. However, the type of relationship that buyers value is one that brings insight to the table.

When I talk with sales leaders, I often ask about their sales team’s level of business acumen. I think you can guess the answer.

Similarly, marketers need to look at their content. Does it provide insight? Does it demonstrate a knowledge of the buyer’s problems and the outcomes they desire?

As much as we need Challenger reps, I think we also need Challenger marketers.

Sales and marketing need to unite around understanding the real business issues faced by their ideal clients. All the way back to my solution selling training days, I’ve said, “We need less product training and more problem training.” (Buyers Do Not Buy Products… They Buy Outcomes!)

The reps that will succeed going forward will understand business problems and how the products solve these problems. Without this, reps are what my good friend and Selling From the Heart Podcast co-host, Larry Levine calls “empty suits.”

These reps need to be supported by a marketing team that also understands the problems. Branding and cute social media posts need to be replaced with substance. I believe that A Focussed Message is high octane fuel for a high-performance Revenue Growth Engine.

Perhaps this current economic downturn will thin the herd, rewarding companies, marketers, and sales reps that bring substance, ideas, insights, and solutions to the market. The question we all have to answer is, “Am I an empty suit or do I bring value?” What are you going to do today to understand more about your clients’ business?

Commercial Teaching

Challenger reps “teach, tailor, and take control.” I think the section on Commercial Teaching is brilliant. Yes, Challengers need to bring insights to their clients. But the way they bring that insight may be as important as the insights themselves.

I love this line: “Don’t lead WITH, lead TO.” Most salespeople and marketers lead WITH their products. Instead, they should do teach in a way that leads TO the solution.

The key here is to begin the conversation with an insight that “reframes the way they think about their business.” In other words, don’t just throw data at a customer and then jump to how your product resolves the issue. There is an important interim step. Reps need to reframe the issue that the data brings up. In other words, reps need to beyond insight to show the implications to that client.

Adamson and Dixon share a six-step choreography for telling your sales story that is brilliant. Rather than trying to teach it here, I recommend you flip to chapter 4 and study this in detail as a sales and marketing team.

Summary

I highly endorse this book for any company in the B2B space. There is so much value in this book for both marketers and sales professionals. In the spirit of marketing and sales alignment, this would be a fantastic team read. Salespeople would begin to see the vision for developing business acumen. Marketing professionals would get a clear understanding of the type of content they need to provide to support the sale. Business owners would see how they can add value by mentoring their marketing and salespeople in the fundamentals of business.

Originally published on Revenue Growth Engine.

About the Author

Darrell Amy: Start Your Revenue Engine

Darrell Amy

Darrell is passionate about helping generous leaders and their organizations grow revenue and impact. He’s the author of Revenue Growth Engine and the soon-to-be-released book, Exponential Growth. Darrell motivates audiences as a professional speaker, sparks ideas in growth mastermind sessions, and serves on the board of several innovative companies.

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