Time to be a Challenger


Several weeks ago, while on “Spring Break” at the beach, I had the good fortune of having my daughter hand me the book The Challenger Sale, described by SPIN Selling author Neil Rackham as “the most important advance in selling for many years.” The authors researched approximately 6,000 sales reps and concluded that reps fall into one of five buckets:

  1. The Hard Worker

  2. The Challenger

  3. The Relationship Builder

  4. The Lone Wolf

  5. The Reactive Problem Solver

Back in 2001 I had Neil Rackham come in and speak to my sales management. He challenged us back then when he asked:

“Would your customer pay you for your sales call?”

WOW, tough question! How would you answer that question today? In my mind, that’s the litmus test for today’s B2B sales professional. Is your sales rep stopping by looking for orders (“Got any needs?”), or are they challenging customers to think about their business in new or different way?

As you can probably imagine by the title of the book, "The Challenger" was rated as the most effective type of sales representative.

So, what about the Relationship Builder?

Research show the Relationship Builder is more concerned with customer convenience, while the Challenger is focused on creating customer value.

For the Challenger, the formula is simple: teach, tailor, control.

Challengers teach their customers. Put simply, they help them to understand needs and areas of opportunity in a new or different way. They create value for the customer via insight, bringing a thought-provoking perspective on the customer’s business. They talk optimization, profitable growth and ROI. They are in the customer’s “operating reality.”

Challengers tailor their message to the customer. Because they see things via the customer’s operating reality, they effectively customize their solution to a specific set of customer critical concerns and objectives: They take the time to understand the political landscape and tailor their message accordingly.

Challengers take control of the sale. They are assertive (not aggressive), comfortable with tension—willing to push the customer when required and less likely to roll over when the customer pushes back with demands on pricing and terms. They are big-picture oriented and always bring the customer back to their critical concerns and objectives and how their solutions creates unique value for the customer.

So it was no surprise that The Challenger sales rep far and away ranked the highest of all five sales archetypes. One of the biggest eye-openers for me reading the book was how much the sales manager and coaching could influence the type of sales person they lead. I pulled some of my highlighted take-a-ways from the book for and have shared them here for your review.

Research on how the best sales reps operate:

  1. The best sales conversations present the customer with a compelling story about their business first, teach them something new, and then lead to their differentiators.

  2. Customers are looking to suppliers to challenge their thinking and teach them something they don’t know.

  3. Customers will repay you with loyalty when you teach them something they value, not just sell them something they need.

  4. 75 percent of reps believe that procurement has more power, while 75 percent of procurement officers believe that reps have more power!

  5. The single biggest incremental opportunity to drive growth isn’t in the products and services you sell, but in the quality of the insight you deliver as part of the sale itself.

  6. (Prospects are) looking to suppliers to help them identify new opportunities to cut costs, increase revenue, penetrate new markets, and mitigate risk in ways they themselves have not yet recognized.

  7. What sets the best suppliers apart is not the quality of their products, but the value of their insight—new ideas to help customers either make money or save money in ways they didn’t even know were possible.

  8. Before even talking about your capabilities, teach customers about a problem they didn’t even know they had—one that you can solve better than your competitors.

  9. One of the biggest differentiators of high-performing reps is the amount of time they spend planning.

  10. While companies have been emphatic about their customer-centricity, they’ve been equally vague with their sales organizations about how to actually do that.

  11. Sales success today is much less about getting better at what you already know and much more about creating an ability to tackle what you don’t know.

  12. A good ROI calculator calculates the ROI on solving the challenge you’ve just taught your customer they have, not the ROI on buying your solution.

On the best sales managers:

  1. Teach reps the importance of clarity of direction over quick closure, and teach them how to create real value within the sales process.

  2. The frontline sales manager in any sales organization is the fundamental link between strategy and execution—this is where change initiatives and sales force transformations live or die.

  3. Sales leadership is mostly about how innovative sales managers are.

  4. What we’re referring to here is managers collaborating with reps to understand as deeply as possible what’s holding up a deal, figuring out why and where a deal is running into trouble at the customer, and then finding innovative ways to move it forward.

  5. It is about creatively modifying deal-level sales strategy to adapt to the specific customer context—the “reality on the ground,” as it were.

  6. Coaching isn’t just a huge driver of sales performance—it’s also a major factor in employee retention and what we call “discretionary,” or extra, effort.

  7. Good coaches make people want to stay.

At Butler Street, our sales effectiveness program is designed to teach your sales rep how to see problems and opportunities as they exist through the customer’s eyes. We do a “deep dive” on your business, learn the best practices, and incorporate tools and training to ensure those best practices are scalable. We support the training with a Continuous Improvement Series to ensure the training sticks. Click CONTACT to set an appointment to speak with us today.