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The Challenger Sale: Who Really Clinches the Deal?

By Burkey Belser
October 1, 2012
The Challenger Sale: Who Really Clinches the Deal?

We don’t often write book reviews but The Challenger Sale, by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, deserves your immediate attention. Based solidly in research like Jim Collin’s Good to Great, The Challenger Sale overturns everything you think you know about effective salesmanship. Relationship selling? In the dustbin. The authors’ surprising conclusion is that a relationship is earned as a result of the sale; it is not the source of the sale. If that doesn’t blow your mind, stop reading. If you want to learn how that conclusion was reached, read on.

The Challenger Sale has compiled research on salespeople who consistently win over time, and more importantly, who win in bad times and good. The authors measured the highest performers against the lowest. They subjected long-standing beliefs about good salespeople to hard data.

The History of the Salesperson is More Recent than you may Think

Forever, basically, people who sold goods and services also delivered them. Only near the turn of the 20th Century were salespeople separated from the manufacture, sale, delivery and business operations of services and products. Selling was first taken seriously as a professional discipline in the 1950s. The first dominant philosophy was the AIDA model—Attention, Interest, Desire, Action—which stressed presentation and closing skills. By the 1970s, as automation made sales more efficient, consultative selling emerged, where the emphasis was not on selling products or services but a solution to the customer’s problem. Think features and benefits. The solution sale remains the dominant sales model. In fact, the short history of sales is marked by only a small number of breakthroughs based on a single continuing shift in focus from the needs of the seller (move product, drive revenue) to the needs of the buyer (solve a problem, deliver a benefit). When the solutions are complex and intangible, the problem multiplies. Businesses like law, accounting and consulting came to believe the path to a successful sale lay through developing a personal relationship with the potential buyer. All of our efforts, therefore, have been focused on getting our professionals in front of prospects. Now the trap door opens and the bottom falls out…

The Internet Revolution Drags Purchasing to the Spotlight

Two developments have taken place in the last 10–15 years that are challenging relationship selling. The web’s promise to you, the buyer, is that if I search hard enough, I will find the perfect match for my needs. Typically, buyers of professional-type services have relied on referrals to build a short list, perhaps two or three unless the issue is earth-shaking. But as we’ve become more familiar with the Internet during the past 15 years—less distrustful, more comfortable—we are expanding our lists to include players we’ve never met or even heard of. Suddenly, existing relationships have become a lot less important.

Why? Because there has always been a nagging uncertainty that our field of referrals has not, will not or cannot deliver the right match for me or my business. Helpless to do more than consult a directory or without enough time to widen the referral process, we have settled on the short list of recommendations, hoping our experience will match that of the colleague we called. No longer. With the Internet comes shopping power.

All decisions, however, and especially big ones, require some due diligence. Leading to the rise of purchasing. Once the province of the U.S. military or large corporations, purchasing has invaded the professional services arena, further destabilizing the relationship sale. Enter Dixon and Adamson, whose comprehensive statistical analysis of successful salespeople suggests we have been focused all along on the wrong thing.

The Challenger Sale

The emergence of a formal purchasing process is the other fundamental change. It used to be that a supplier would pitch to the company bigwig. Now, suppliers receive an RFP from purchasing and respond with a detailed proposal. It is now crucial to get buy-in not just from the Managing Partner but also from all levels within the company. What will almost guarantee the sale is widespread support from the rank and file who will deal with the supplier day-to-day. Upper management buy-in is no longer enough. How do you build support on those other levels? Get to know the team right off the bat. Treat the rank and file with respect and consideration. Things get around: The decision-maker will listen to what others are saying about the supplier.

Dixon and Adamson’s research yielded five distinct categories of salespeople. Moreover, a cold look at the data proves that high performers perform three times better than the other four. Really? So, go ahead. Ask yourself which of the types below is going to be the most productive performer?

  • The Hard Worker, who arrives early and goes home late. They do all the things they need to and more.

  • The Challenger, the assertive debater who takes clients out of their comfort zone.

  • The Relationship Builder, generous with her time, smooths over difficulties, always helpful.

  • The Lone Wolf, mavericks who are not afraid to break rules and who, internally, are known to be effective and are left unimpeded.

  • The Reactive Problem Solver, great at details, responsive, always there for the client.

Most of you will choose the Relationship Builder as the one who wins consistently. Focused on resolving tension, he takes a collaborative approach, forms good relationships, builds customer advocates and is generous with his time. This is what clients want, right? And, indeed, the authors found the two top performers to be the Relationship Builder and the Challenger. However, the Relationship Builder has only a 6% success rate while the Challenger pulls down 37%. That’s a HUGE difference.

The Challenger Sale refutes our stereotypes and instead presents a very different profile of the successful closer—a risk-taker who is not afraid to give the client a reality check and offer unique insights into what they need, even when they don’t know it themselves. It’s a surprising, unintuitive model for high performance in sales that runs counter to years of devotion to relationship selling.

• The Challenger offers customer unique perspectives on their business, knows their value drivers, is good at two-way communication, comfortable talking about money and can exert pressure when it is needed. Apparently, what sets you apart from your competitors is not the quality of your service or the close relationship you’ve built, but the value of the insights you offer.

• The Challenger focuses on constructive tension and pushes the client out of their comfort zone. Picture this: a client always needs new light bulbs, since his are constantly burning out. You might expect the salesperson to say “we make the longest-lasting bulbs at the best prices.” The Challenger explains that the problem is not just bulb life but circuitry and fuses as well. She goes on to tell the client how she’s solved the same problem for other businesses. She backs this up with figures and analysis showing how much money the client is losing on electrical malfunctions, how many hours of manpower are wasted troubleshooting the current system and how much space is allocated to bulbs… just in case! She shows him a different, more effective way of doing business.

There’s more. Read the book. Understand that to sell like a Challenger, you need to follow a threefold approach—teach, tailor and take control. Teach the client something they don’t know. Tailor your ideas to their specific needs. Take control of the conversation immediately, from the very first phone call. Bear in mind you’re in it to be chosen, not to be liked.

Confucius in the Analects talks of harmony. That does not mean a chorus of Kumbaya. It means that to be in harmony with another’s business is to be in harmony with the organization’s goals. To achieve those goals might force you to stand toe to toe with your client and make a case for a solution the client may not feel they need or even want. Challenging the client requires you are ready to teach, that you have the guts to define the playing field and that you can deliver a tailored solution. But, if you take the chance, the data suggests sales will hold steady and a long and happy relationship will ensue.