Challenger Selling

The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson is a great book.  Highly recommended.  But not perfect.  Here’s my summary:

  1. Enterprise Sales Reps who constructively challenge their customers will consistently – by a wide margin - beat those aiming to be “liked.”
  2. Sell Value, not features, function, and demos
  3. Go for constructive tension and wait until almost the end to talk about your solution
  4. Consensus Selling: arm your champion
  5. The organization needs to provide benchmarks for the metrics and improvements it drives, to arm the reps.
One key reason this book appeals to me is there is some rigor of science, research, and fact-based observations and conclusions.  That makes it similar to SPIN Selling or First Break All the Rules in that important way.  The debunking of conventional wisdom is also a powerful draw.  The conclusions are provocative: Relationship based sales people are the least effective kind of sellers in complex sales.  Challengers are most effective.  As the authors rightly point out, accepting this can have profound, potentially painful, implications on managing and building an enterprise class sales team.

Customers are suffering Solutions Fatigue.  Mahan Khalsa, in Let’s Get Real, talks about the related concept of premature solutions.  Because of the increased burden on customers that is part of the typical two way dialogue required by solution sales, the authors claim customers have evolved four new behaviors to adapt:
  1. Consensus buying – basically share the work, and risk, associated with exploring and choosing solutions
  2. Risk sharing – customers are now requesting – sometime requiring – that suppliers participate directly, and financially, in the risk and reward of the vendor’s benefits.  No benefits realized?  No money.
  3. Customization – Customers are demanding more customization.  That’s what a solution is after all, a “solution” to their very specific, often unique, challenge.
  4. Third Party ecosystem – these trends have given rise to the third party consultant, adding cost and complexity to the sales process.
The implication is classic question-based solution selling is really hard to do now.  It’s hard to debate these trends, and yet, I’m not sure I agree that these things haven’t been true for some time.  Solution Selling hasn’t created this challenge.  I see it more as a consequence of the constant Darwinian back and forth of buyer and seller.  Poor sellers are still going to make customer’s eyes roll whether they’re asking questions or pitching features.

Another conclusion the data told the authors: More complex, solutions-oriented, sales tend to exacerbate the difference between the true top sellers and average sellers.  There’s a four times greater difference between top and average rep.  It’s hard to not emphatically agree with this conclusion based on anecdotal observations.  But, while the authors paint this in a negative way – implying this means it’s harder to be successful building a sales team - I wouldn’t.  You sell a complex solution?  OK.  Find talent.  Great talent.  Otherwise you’ll fail.  Period.

Throughout the book the authors tend to be a tad dismissive of the notion that there is just an innate difference between the talent level of some sales reps.  Cynically I’ll state that it’s in their interests to paint every rep as someone who can be “trained” to be a star challenger.  That’s just not true.  Use tools and process to drive some of that behavior.  But first you need to have the right talent. The better message might be to arm all reps to act more like Challengers, not necessarily to train them to be challengers, and still hire natural challengers whenever possible.  Raw talent matters.

The authors saw the data naturally dividing reps into five general types:
  1. Hard Worker
  2. Challenger
  3. Relationship Builder
  4. Lone Wolf
  5. Problem Solver (reactive)
The big, provocative – even controversial – conclusion the authors claim the data makes: Challengers are by far the best complex sellers and Relationship Builders are by far the worst.  More specifically the only attributes that really made a difference in success were:
  • Offer unique perspectives
  • Strong two-way communication
  • Knows customer’s value drivers
  • Knows economic drivers
  • Comfortable discussing money
  • Can pressure the customer
The authors boil things down into this pithy summary of actions: challengers teach, tailor and take control.  Fair enough, but I think this misses an important talent of great complex sellers – the ability to learn.  Teaching outside of learning won’t be very effective.  These three also don’t touch on quantifying value.  Most effective complex selling requires a fairly thorough discussion of value.  Reps who can’t do that won’t win.

They also draw another powerful, important, conclusion: in order to empower reps to be challengers – teachers - the organization needs to provide the data.  Specific, detailed, probably unique data about key metrics and benchmarks around their solution’s value.  How is marketing getting that?

A challenger is actually GOING FOR some constructive tension, while a relationship builder is diffusing it as quickly as possible.  This relates to the effective seller’s ability to drive a deal, including a push to agree on value.

There’s a fundamental assumption the authors hang their hat on
  1. That customers many times don’t know their challenge or opportunity
  2. The way to highlight is to tell them
  3. Asking lots of questions and uncovering needs is hard to do, and extremely hard to do well
The first assumption is pretty easy to swallow.  The combination of market insight and specific product/service value proposition gives a seller a unique perspective that should be used to get in the door, qualify, and initiate a meaningful value based conversation.  But the implication that you can just make a statement without learning something about what a prospect is trying to accomplish is flawed to me.  You earn the right to ask questions - and learn things to help you sell - by demonstrating you know your stuff and have something compelling to share and discuss.

The authors advocate Reps to teach customers something new, to challenge them, and help them see new ways to make or save money.  But I can’t help but think the ability to learn, to understand – or in the analogy of the doctor – to diagnose is key to the ability to teach or prescribe.  They boil the effective challenger as someone doing these four things well:

  • Lead to unique strengths
  • Challenge customer assumptions
  • Catalyze Action
  • Scale across organization
Make prospects feel sick about all the money they're wasting or not making before you start “selling.”  They make a great point about using benchmark data to demonstrate where you, the supplier, can help.  Use this data to teach.  It acts as a sort of hypothesis of customer needs or opportunities.  Use ROI here.

The authors make the claim that sales reps should be creating conversations that the prospect might otherwise PAY for outside of a sales call because there is so much insight shared, or opportunity revealed.  Hard to debate this goal.

You want to go for a reaction along the lines of 1 “No, I don’t believe that,” to 2 “Wow, I had no idea.”

A very profound result of the challenger approach advocated here is that you don’t really talk about your own solution until the very end of a sales conversation – literally the last step.  This is really, really hard for many folks to swallow.  Don’t lead with, lead to.

The BOLD approach to “teaching” customers advocated by Neil Rackham is recommended.  That is, talk about opportunities that are Big, Innovative, Risky and Difficult to tackle.

The authors talk about the need to cater to consensus buying.  I’ve always called this arming the champion (to sell internally).  By the way, value selling, ROI, and money is really the only language spoken across an organization.  Another element of conventional wisdom that’s busted here is that going right to the top to sell is usually the WRONG approach.  Start at the right place and build consensus 

Focus on what the buyer is trying to accomplish.  And some of this “buyer mapping” should be done by the larger organization behind the rep, not just always the individual rep.

When the sales rep sells on value, they are much more comfortable pushing back on discounts and other requested concessions.

Challengers live for the tension created by buyer skepticism and are remarkably comfortable with silence during a conversation

The best managers are likely to come from the challenger ranks and will excel at selling, coaching, and owning.  Good sales leadership is mostly about how innovative sales managers are.  The book goes on to make a case for coaching and training that’s hard not to be a little cynical about, along the lines of “we can help you coach your way to great challenger sellers and managers.”

The book ends with some “Implementation Lessons” learned in the field, including:
  1. Start recruiting Challengers yesterday
  2. Make sure you have a really good, thoughtful, answer to the question, “Why should I buy from you instead of your competitor?”  Backed by data and benchmarks
  3. First be memorable, not agreeable
  4. Bring an edgy or unique insight
Great book.  Despite a few places where I disagree with their conclusions or feel they miss an important concept, I highly recommend this for all managers and sellers of complex enterprise solutions.