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The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation Hardcover – November 10, 2011
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“The history of sales has been one of steady progress interrupted by a few real breakthroughs that have changed the whole direction of the profession. These breakthroughs, marked by radical new thinking and dramatic improvements in sales results, have been rare. . . . Which brings me to The Challenger Sale and the work of the Sales Executive Council. . . . On the face of it, their research has all the initial signs that it may be game-changing. . . . My advice is this: Read it, think about it, implement it. You, and your organization, will be glad you did.”
—Professor Neil Rackham, author of SPIN Selling, from the foreword
“The amazing thing is that the Challenger sales rep has been hiding in plain sight all these years. The Challenger Sale breaks the winning elements of this powerful approach into a set of teachable skills that can take even a top sales team to a new level of results delivery.”
—Dan James, former chief sales officer, DuPont
“This is a must-read book for every sales professional. The authors’ groundbreaking research explains how the rules for selling have changed—and what to do about it. If you don’t want to be left behind, don’t miss this innovative book that provides the new formula for selling success.”
—Ken Revenaugh, vice president, sales operations, Oakwood Temporary Housing
“Groundbreaking, timely, and disciplined research—presented in a way that is both intuitive and completely actionable—that has already had an impact on our organization by creating a customer lens that enhanced our sales recruiting, hiring, training, and deployment.”
—Jeff Connor, senior vice president and chief growth officer, ARAMARK Global Food, Hospitality and Facility Services
“The Challenger Sale shows you how to maintain control of the complex sale. The output of this superbly researched body of work is that you will know how to better differentiate your organization, your offering, and yourself in the mind of the customer.”
—Adrian Norton, vice president, sales, Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals
“There is a healthy dose of constructive tension throughout this brilliant book. Tension that will bring insight and clarity into how customers buy today and how your sales team must sell. If you are seeking to raise the bar in your sales organization, The Challenger Sale is a must-read.”
—Tom Meek, vice president, sales, Henkel Adhesives Technologies
About the Author
Matthew Dixon is a managing director and Brent Adamson is a senior director with Corporate Executive Board's Sales Executive Council in Washington, D.C.
About Corporate Executive Board
By identifying and building on the proven best practices of the world's best companies, Corporate Executive Board (CEB) helps senior executives and their teams drive corporate performance. CEB tools, insights, and analysis empower clients to focus efforts, move quickly, and address emerging and enduring business challenges with confidence.
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However, they missed an opportunity to move complex sales to the next level. By complex sales, I mean to segregate commodity sales from the intangible products and services that require trust. And by the next level, I mean a salesperson who authentically has the customer’s best interest at heart and not just their own.
The subtitle of this book is “Taking control of the customer conversation.” As though to inoculate themselves from criticism, the authors state that they know some people will interpret this statement as being “arrogant” while stating that it isn't. They also speak about “educating the customer” and recognize that the same interpretation may be made about that point as well. Indeed, this reader believes that the mindset of a salesperson who takes it upon themselves to control the conversation and educate the customer/client is absolutely being arrogant. The authors seem to give short shrift to the human capacity to sense when they are being talked down to or manipulated. While you may be able to fool some of the people some of the time, most customers will sense when they are being manipulated.
Many consumers today are, for the most part, immune or at least becoming immune to advertising and sales tactics that are focused on achieving the salesperson’s goals. They are skeptical. They listen to their friends and associates and depend on organic search results (not paid results) when researching a purchase. Product, solution and consultative selling (which includes Challenger Sales) are all still focused on gaining the salesperson’s goal of selling a product. Yet, between all the self-serving tactics and training, this book does provide some nuggets of insight for the alert reader.
The authors have defined two categories of sales people, core performers and high performers as well as five major “salesperson profiles”: The Hard Worker, The Challenger, The Relationship Builder, The Lone Wolf and The Reactive Problem Solver. In their research, the authors found that The Challenger was the person who continued to make sales quotas even through tough times like the 2008 recession. “The Challengers are the debaters on the team” and have a deep understanding of the customer’s industry. [Debate: to engage in argument by discussing opposing views.] They took control of the conversation, challenged the customer’s thinking and differentiated themselves by educated the customer on things about their industry/customers that were new to the customer. The Hard Workers are just that, they show up early, stay late and are persistent. The Relationship Builder is an unfortunate profile title. A better profile title would be “The Appeaser.” In this profile, the salesperson believes the relationship is the most important aspect of their job and will do nothing to jeopardize that customer relationship. They appease the customer at any cost – including the cost of losing a sale. The Lone Wolf is the prima donna of the salesforce. They do things their way, AND, they are high performers despite being difficult if not impossible to manage. The Reactive Problem Solver is focused like a laser on solving the customer’s problem. They will sacrifice spending time generating new sales as soon as an existing customer calls with an issue or new problem.
According to the data presented by the authors, The Challengers are by far the best salespeople in terms of results with 39% of that profile in the “High Performer” category. The Lone Wolf (25%), Hard Worker (17%), Problem Solver (12%) and Relationship Builders (7%) profiles follow in order.
A clearer and, in my opinion, better model for the “new” consumer driven market is that outlined by Patrick Lencione in his book Getting Naked and Charles Green in his book, Trust Based Selling. In both of those books, the authors make it clear that the proper mindset for sales is to authentically have the customer’s best interest at heart, not just the salesperson’s best interest. Any model that incites a mindset or intention that is designed to sell rather than to let the consumer buy will eventually be a roadblock to success.
In my opinion, a closer reading of the data and parsing of the survey results will show that the so called Challenger Salesperson is someone who first builds a trusting relationship by demonstrating that they have the customer’s best interest at heart, not just their own, and then help their customer better serve the end customers. They earn the right to share insights rather than simply build credibility from a position authority. They share rather than sell, tell or educate. They listen more rather than debate. They recognize that by representing a specific company with a specific set of products and services that they are already suspected of having a self-serving and highly biased point of view. Anything they say is suspect the same way that paid results in a Google search are suspect. They work hard to gain trust to offset the natural skepticism.
If we take the author’s research and survey results to the logical conclusion and combine that with how consumers are skeptical of large companies and “vested interests,” we would wind up with the best salespeople being independent consultants and manufacturer’s representatives rather than our own direct sales employees. Our products or services would be employed only by the customers who would truly be best served by using them as determined by someone who had nothing to gain by selling one manufacturer or consulting service over another. That is, presumably, how large complex ERP systems are sold – independent consultants and the customer review the large complex software offerings, determine the most suitable fit and the selection is made by the customer with only “arm’s length” influence by the software vendor. We would be forced to recognize that the “new customer” (i.e. the consulting firm) is as knowledgeable as or perhaps even more knowledgeable than we are. We would definitely change our approach to be more based on trust and competency.
Words are important and will establish a mindset in those who are listening. The authors have chosen words that will create aggression rather than assertiveness, being didactic rather than sharing information and focusing on the salesperson rather than on the customer. It is unfortunate since the authors are exactly correct that “In this world of dramatically changing customer buying behavior and rapidly diverging sales talent, your sales approach must evolve or you will be left behind.” Sadly, their prescription will result in more of the same salesperson focused tactics. Ironically, if you want to sell more you have to stop selling. Instead, build trust, demonstrate competence, be dependable and always authentically have your customers best interest at heart, not just your own.
The key to a really good book is that it makes you say, "I never thought of that before," and to use that insight to improve your life in some way. Interestingly, that's also the key to a really good salesperson, as well.
The book is based on extensive research by the Sales Executive Council into the attributes of successful sales professionals. They found that salespeople tend to cluster into five different types, based on their behaviors: Hard Workers, Challengers, Relationship Builders, Lone Wolves, and Reactive Problem Solvers. Research is great when it generates new and unexpected insights, and three are central to the book.
Key insight #1: Salespeople matter--a lot!
One of the surprising insights generated by their research was that the Sales Experience accounted for 53% of the contribution to customer loyalty, more than company and brand impact, product and service delivery, and value-to-price ratio combined! In other words, the latter three are just tickets to be able to play; how you sell is more important than what you sell. In complex solution sales, star performers outperform core performers by 200%, as opposed to 59% in transactional selling, so it's a critical insight.
If how you sell is so important, the next critical insight is about what the most effective reps out of the 6,000 that they surveyed do differently.
Key insight #2: They don't care how much you care until they know how much you know
Of the five types, relationship builders are the least effective performers. The old saying, "They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," is better said, "they don't care how much you care until they know how much you know." Relationships are important, but they are the result of successful selling and not the cause (as Rackham says in the Foreword).
In other words, what customers value most today is a rep who teaches them something, who challenges their insights and their view of the world. These reps are the Challengers and they comprise the largest component of top performers. Unlike relationship builders who focus on resolving tension and keeping everyone happy, challengers like to produce constructive tension, because major sales are about creating change and change generally requires discomfort.
The key is not in discovering the customer's needs and being able to express them, it's in being able to create the need that they didn't even have by getting them to look at their world in a way they had not before. As they say, if your customer's reaction to your pitch is, "That's exactly what's keeping me up at night. You really understand our needs", you've actually failed. What you want them to say is, "Huh, I never thought of it that way before."
Of course, if you do this and then they go ahead and solve their problem with a cheaper competitor, all you've done is sold for someone else. So, the other critical piece is to answer the most important question: "Why should our customers buy from us over all competitors?" This question is surprisingly difficult for reps to answer, as I personally have observed in my own training classes. But, with enough thinking and refining, you can answer the question. The thought process then becomes:
* What are our strengths?
* How do those strengths give the customer the capability to solve a problem or take advantage of an opportunity they don't know they have?
* What do we need to teach the customer so they will value that capability?
As the book says, "The sweet spot of customer loyalty is outperforming your competitors on those things you've taught your customers are important."
In order to achieve this sweet spot, Challengers do three things very well: teach, tailor, and take control. The middle section of the book explains how to build the teaching conversation, tailor your strengths to individual stakeholders, and take control of the sale. The teaching phase is the most expensive part of the book and appropriately enough, by far the most insightful and most innovative. Just this part of the book would make it worthwhile.
Key insight #3: Focus on the core 60%
The final two chapters focus on how to implement the approach in the sales organization. Here their most important insight is that the focus should be on equipping the 60% of the sales force who are core performers to be able to follow the Challenger Selling model. The top 20% won't need it, and the bottom 20% won't get it.
The only quibble I have with The Challenger Sale is that many ideas which are relatively well-known already are treated as if they are startling new discoveries. I read some of the passages with the same irritation that Native Americans must feel when told Columbus "discovered" America. For example, they introduce the idea of tailoring your insight to the specific individual needs of the different stakeholders, which all good sales methodologies have incorporated for years. (In fairness, though, so many of these ideas that are common knowledge are still not common practice.)
I would strongly recommend this book to sales executives, sales managers, and most of all, to sales professionals; I challenge you to read it and apply it.