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Your "Cliff's Notes" Guide to The Challenger Sale

· Challenger,future of sales

As a big fan of The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, and as someone who has taught the Challenger content / approaches to selling many times over the past couple of years, I thought...wouldn't it be cool if there was a "Cliff's Notes" type guide it?

Although I've seen a few versions over the web, I pieced this together the below (in under 1000 words) using some of their own language along with some of my spin. I hope it can serve as a reminder to those who have read the book, and as an initial foundation for those who haven't.

(This does not excuse you from reading the book!)

Your “Cliff’s Notes” Guide to The Challenger Sale

The traditional approach to selling no longer works in today's buying environment. Our deals are increasingly complex and customers have access to more information earlier in the sale than ever before. As a result, customers are buying in new ways, delaying initial contact with suppliers and requiring greater consensus to move forward.

Because the current buying environment is outpaced by the old sales playbook, the Corporate Executive Board conducted extensive research, from both the seller and customer perspective, into what it takes to win today. Simply stated, winning organizations lead with insight and challenge customer assumptions to mobilize customers around a purchase.

The Right Seller Profile

The Challenger model is a research based approach that classifies sales representatives in the following five types:

1) The Hard Worker:

  • Always willing to go the extra mile
  • Doesn't give up easily
  • Self-motivated
  • Interested in feedback and development

2) The Relationship Builder:

  • Builds strong advocates in customer organization
  • Generous in giving time to help others
  • Gets along with everyone

3) The Lone Wolf:

  • Follows own instincts
  • Self-assured
  • Difficult to control

4) The Reactive Problem Solver:

  • Reliably responds to internal and external stakeholders
  • Ensures that all problems are solved
  • Detail oriented

One clear winner – and one clear loser: Challenger sales reps are 4X more likely to be high-performers in complex selling environments based on their ability to teach customers new insights, tailor their messages to varying customer stakeholders, and take control of the commercial conversation. These reps successfully make customers-instead of just finding them.

The least likely to be a high-performer in a complex selling environment? The Relationship Builder.

The Right Commercial Conversations

The biggest incremental opportunity for driving customer purchase and loyalty lies in the rep's ability to differentiate the sales experience. Challengers lead with insight, reframe the way customers think about their business, and offer solutions tied to the supplier's unique strengths and capabilities. This is called Commercial Teaching.

Teach: Lead To, Not With, Your Unique Differentiators

Common Rep Approach: Reps are most comfortable talking about what they know best—their organization. They typically start their pitch describing their company’s capabilities, history, or products’ features and benefits. In other words, they lead with their unique strengths.

Shortcoming: In the Challenger research they’ve found that, in the minds of customers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell one supplier from the other in terms of what they sell, brand, product quality, and even price.

What You Should Do Differently: Lead to, not with, our unique differentiators. Challengers do this by first teaching customers something new about their business and their needs.

Tailor: Modify Pitches to Account for Individual Stakeholders' Role and Function

Common Rep Approach: Reps often spend a lot of time memorizing their pitch, and then re-using that pitch with various customer stakeholders, regardless of the individual's role or function.

Shortcoming: Customer stakeholders have different functional responsibilities, goals, and day-to-day worries. As a result, their priorities and measures of success differ. Even the best insight, if positioned poorly, will have little commercial impact.

What You Should Do Differently: First focus on uncovering and understanding the outcomes each customer stakeholder is trying to accomplish. Then create a sense of urgency with each customer stakeholder by framing the implications of action vs. inaction in terms and objectives that are relevant to that individual.

Take Control: How Challengers Take Control of the Buying Process

There are three distinct ways their research has shown that Challengers take control of the buying process. These differences are highlighted in how Challengers negotiate, how they drive momentum into a deal, and which customer stakeholders they choose to engage.

1) Negotiation
Common Rep Approach: In a customer interaction, reps often err on the side of being too passive, avoiding tension at any cost to make situations more amicable and encourage collaboration.

Shortcoming: Customers control the interaction and often force price-based negotiations, or delays decision making.

What You Should Do Differently: Prepare to take charge of the buying process and focus the conversation. Customers likely focus on a limited set of negotiables—mostly driven by price—Challengers help broaden the customer perspective.

2) Stakeholder Selection
Common Rep Approach—Reps either try to find the “true” decision-maker (or economic buyer) who can overrule an indecisive group, or to find an advocate (or coach) who can guide them through the organization and champion their solution internally.

Shortcoming: CEB Sales research has documented that senior decision makers are increasingly unwilling to make a decision without broader organizational consensus. Faced with the task of building consensus, sellers often turn to advocates/coaches in the customer organization. However, CEB Sales research reveals that true advocates rarely exist.

What You Should Do Differently: Their research shows that customer stakeholders fall into one of seven distinct profiles. Not all of the profiles are equally useful—some excel at rallying their organizations around a purchase and ultimately driving consensus. These are the customer stakeholders that your high performing reps target; which are referred to as Mobilizers. Rarely are these Mobilizers supportive of a given supplier—rather, they are supportive of good ideas for their organization.

3) Driving Momentum into a Deal
Common Rep Approach—Reps tend to seek out a "coach" or advocate on the customer side to help the deal move forward and build consensus.

Shortcoming: Customers faced with new or complex purchase decisions are often unable to articulate the full set of stakeholders, timelines, decision milestones, or likely objections, and as a result, good business easily loses momentum.

What You Should Do Differently: Prepare to take control of the sale by coaching customers through the purchase process. Actively guiding customer stakeholders through the consensus building process via a mutual sequence of events document is a clear high-performer approach.

What's Next?

Transparency Sells Better Than Perfection

There's a reason why you look at reviews before making a purchase.

There's a reason why ~ 85% of us skip the 5-star reviews, and read the negatives first.

There's a reason why a product with an average review score between a 4.2-4.5 sells better than any other score - include a product with nothing but perfect 5.0 scores.

It's how we're wired.

While that may be the case when a website is acting as the salesperson, the behavioral science tells us that the exact same dynamic sells best in a human-to-human sales environment.

Leading with transparency has magical impacts on everything that matters to you in your sales results:

  • Faster sales cycles
  • Higher win rates
  • Better qualified pipeline
  • Faster qualification OUT (If you're going to lose, lose fast, right?)
And due to the proliferation of reviews and feedback on everything we buy, we now have to do it anyway!

Todd Caponi's The Transparency Sale shows you how.

2019's Best Sales Book award Winner at the American Book Awards

2020's Best Sales & Marketing Book Award Winner at the Independent Press Awards

2020's Best Sales & Marketing Book Award Winner at the National India Excellence Awards

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