Many sales strategies would lead you to believe that building relationships with prospects is an integral part of the sales process. However, the authors of “The Challenger Sale”, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, have different ideas, which they explain through their challenger sales model.
The authors say that when it comes to top-performing sales reps, building relationships is the least effective strategy in closing sales. Instead, they argue that sales reps who take control of a sale and teach their prospects how to solve their problem are more successful than sales people who spend long amounts of time building a relationship with their lead.
Research from Gartner highlights a growing trend in the customer buying journey. Gartner’s research found that by the time a customer contacts a sales rep, they’re roughly 57% of the way through the purchase process. The study shows that prospects, based on their own research and learning, are coming into a selling environment with preconceived ideas about what features they want and how much they’re willing to pay.
It’s in this environment where the Challenger sales model shines. The prospects aren’t as interested in being told about the product features and benefits, as they already know about them from their own research. Buyers are inundated with and have access to high-quality information readily available on the internet. Because of this power, most prospects already know what's out there.
Yet, rather than feeling confident in their purchase path forward, buyers are becoming overwhelmed by the seemingly endless good choices and need help making a decision. If they reach out to a sales rep, they are most interested in their purchase experience and the answer to ‘why’ they should buy—rather than ‘what’ they should buy.
So, is the Challenger sales methodology the answer to these new buying behaviors?
To summarize, in this piece we are going to look at:
The term “Challenger sales” was coined in 2011 when Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson published the book “The Challenger Sale: How To Take Control of the Customer Conversation”.
The Challenger sales model and methodology is built around a sales process that focuses on teaching, tailoring and taking control of a sales experience. Using the Challenger sales model, Dixon and Adamson argue that with the right training and sales tools sales reps can take control of any customer conversation.
Before we look at how to take control of a sales situation, using the challenger sales methodology it’s essential to dive into what exactly it means to be a “Challenger”.
Dixon, Adamson and their colleagues researched the attitudes and behaviors of thousands of sales reps and discovered that they fall into one of five distinct profiles:
The Challenger profile allows reps to build up to a sale by creating constructive tension. Challengers intentionally dispute their customer’s way of thinking and force them to contemplate a new perspective. This creates some slight tension in the form of a casual debate. By encouraging their customers to consider new opportunities, the Challenger can begin to offer an alternative way forward.
The Challenger sales method relies on delivering insight about an unknown problem or opportunity in the customer’s business that the supplier is uniquely positioned to solve.
It captures a prospect’s assumptions or beliefs, pinpoints flaws or untruths in them, and then makes room for a sales rep to offer a better solution.
Research has found that challenging customer assumptions, disrupting their thinking and teaching them something new can help boost sales. Here’s a relevant quote from the Challenger sales book.
"Challengers aren’t so much world-class investigators as they are world-class teachers. They win not by understanding their customers’ world as well as the customers know it themselves, but by actually knowing their customers’ world better than their customers know it themselves, teaching them what they don’t know but should.”
As modern-day products and services become more complex, so do the sales processes behind them.
Customers now have more access to information than ever before. A quick search online can uncover endless details on a product and customers’ experiences with it.
As a result, customers are delaying contact with salespeople while they do their own research, and by the time they’re speaking to you or your sales team, they already have a pretty clear idea of what they want, and what you offer.
It’s in this complex sales process where businesses can use the Challenger sales model to their advantage. Studies have found that the Challenger sale approach is the best solution to complex sales conditions. While other methods stagnate, the Challenger methodology is a winning sales formula when it comes to complex selling.
It’s these figures that make it worthwhile to pay attention to the Challenger approach.
A further study that involved interviewing more than 6,000 sales reps uncovered some interesting findings:
These statistics tell us that the success of a chosen sales methodology is directly dependent on the customer’s buying experience. If sales reps are using relationship-building methodologies for complex scenarios, they may not have success, and vice versa.
By adopting a Challenger sales approach, companies can empower their top-performing reps to close even the most complex deals in their funnel.
“Challengers are most effective at selling in the complex world of buying today and tomorrow because they take control of the purchase conversation in a way that leads customers back to the unique strengths of their organization."
There are many positives to adopting the challenger sales model within your sales force. However, there are also a few downsides. While reps who choose the Challenger sales methodology can help push sales through constructive tension, the method isn’t as useful for average performing reps or when a product has a simple sales cycle. It might be best to start your high performers training on this sales method first.
Your qualified reps should first evaluate their prospect’s needs and background, and then decide if the Challenger sales methodology is the right fit.
Getting your team to adopt the Challenger sales methodology is easier said than done. It can mean breaking down everything they thought they knew about selling and putting them into a teaching role instead, this is a great way to go about Challenger training.
Sales leaders can use a “Reframe” method to help sales reps start to think like teachers, instead of relationship builders.
To start the exercise off, gather up anything you can find in the sales room (we’re talking pens, notepads, staplers, etc.) and put them all into a bag. Then split your reps into teams and have each one grab an item out of the bag. This item becomes the product they’ll try to sell to their (imaginary) prospect. If you want to keep track of the ideas throughout the exercise, you can use worksheets such as this.
For example, one group may have picked an energy-saving light bulb out of the bag. The typical, product-centric approach to selling this would be to position it as a “perfect way to save money on your power bill”. Yet, you can teach your sales reps to take on the Challenger methodology through a scenario that might look something like this:
If the prospect uses traditional light bulbs, this teaching point will pique their curiosity.
Asking this will help validate the prospect and, at the same time, encourages them to talk about their energy-saving problems at home.
Now, your rep can use that last question to build an emotional connection.
Once the prospect realizes that your rep can empathize with them about their energy costs, it’s the perfect moment to offer a solution.
Then all your sales rep has to do is introduce your product.
The last step of this exercise is to get your entire sales team to give feedback on how each team did.
Once you’ve done this with objects from around the office, you’ve shown your sales team how the Challenger sales methodology can benefit them in complex selling scenarios. Now, you can take them through each approach in detail to get them ready to use it when selling one of your products.
The backbone of the Challenger sales methodology is teaching prospects as opposed to building a relationship with them.
Your sales reps must be equipped to take control of the sale and nudge customers into making purchase decisions. If done right, the selling style mirrors a ride on a rollercoaster. It taps into a prospect’s fears by showing them what will happen if they don’t act and eventually raises their hopes by positioning your product as the solution to these alarming scenarios. This emotional rollercoaster ends on a high—with the prospect eager to purchase your product.
The methodology can be adopted using a five-step process.
Step 1: The warm-Up
The first step of the Challenger sales process is to build credibility with prospects using intelligent communication skills. It’s crucial that your sales reps show their prospects that they understand the challenges they’re facing. To do this, your reps need to thoroughly research and investigate the prospect’s pain points, challenges and needs.
While other selling techniques require reps to talk about what your product does, the Challenger sale method demands reps talk about their prospect’s needs instead. Your product is never mentioned at this stage, but rather the entire discussion should focus on the prospect’s problem.
Sales reps should:
Sales reps should aim to have nothing more than a thought-provoking conversation with their prospect at this point. The groundwork put into these early conversations helps to lay the foundation for selling further down the track.
Step 2: Reframe the conversation
During the warm-up, the prospect might’ve said that their biggest problem is landing customers. Or, that their marketing costs are too high. This next step focuses on finding the root of the prospect’s problems and reframing them as growth opportunities.
Once the sales rep digs a little deeper, they can begin to break down any misconceptions the prospect has about how they will solve the prospect's problems. By forcing a new perspective into the conversation, the prospect should slowly begin to shift their mindset away from what they perceived to be the answer to their problems.
By the end of the conversation, the sales rep is essentially telling the prospect that the problem-solving solution they had in mind isn’t going to work. After challenging the prospect to accept this, even only hypothetically at this point, they can begin to reframe the conversation around better solutions. They can do this by:
Once again, the goal of this step isn’t to sell. All the rep should be trying to do is evoke a sense of curiosity in the prospect and get them to think in new ways.
Step 3: Use emotions
No matter how good your product is or how many features it has, emotions will still play a key role in B2B sales. Up to 95% of our decision-making is subconscious and usually driven by our emotional reaction, according to professor Gerald Zaltman.
“One firm with a very ‘tired’ brand explored consumers’ hidden thoughts and feelings and discovered a relevant, basic emotion that had been overlooked by all brands in the category. They were able to connect this emotion with their brand giving it a major sales boost.”
The more that a prospect can personally relate to a product, the more likely they are to buy it.
A great way to get prospects to see personal value is by presenting them with relatable customer stories. By telling stories of customers that have similar problems, the prospect can begin to see themselves as the main character and feel more connected to your product. And by showing the prospect how these other customers benefited from a new solution, you’re forcing them to picture how they could benefit, too.
Once a prospect realizes that an alternate solution could, in fact, solve their problem, it’s harder for them to go back to their old ways of thinking.
Now that the prospect is happily picturing themselves using a new solution, reps can take the emotional rollercoaster a step further by showing prospects what will happen if they don’t change their outlook. They can do this by:
It’s in this step where all of the hard work starts to line up. If done right, it’s almost impossible for a prospect to see the benefits of continuing down the same path they were on before.
Step 4: The value proposition
It’s now time to show the prospect and any stakeholders the possibilities of a better future if they choose the new path laid out in front of them.
Similar to other sales approaches, like SPIN selling, reps should still not introduce your product as the solution early on. Instead, they should focus on showing the prospect that their problem can be easily solved.
Reps can frame these solutions by:
The ultimate goal in this step is to educate the prospect about what the ideal solution to their problem looks like, without ever mentioning your product. It seems counter-intuitive, but if reps do this right, their prospect will sell themselves on your solution before your rep ever has to.
Step 5: The product
The hard work is done. Reps have taken the prospect’s problem, reframed it, gained their trust and offered up a solution to solve it. The only thing left for reps to do is fill in the blank and show their prospect that they have that exact solution.
If reps follow all the steps in the process correctly, this final step should be painless and quick, because with challenger sales, the sales rep is already leading the conversation from the beginning. How they introduce your product will depend on what you’re selling. If your company is a SaaS product, reps might offer their prospects a demo. If you are a web development agency, reps may provide a detailed walkthrough of what working with your company would look like.
Let’s look at how using these five steps could play out in a fictional scenario.
For example, if a rep is talking to a business owner that is struggling to acquire customers, they may have uncovered that the root issue is misguided digital marketing efforts. By digging further, the rep may discover the prospect’s misconception that the only way to solve their problem is to spend money on social media ads to boost reach.
Armed with this knowledge, the rep can position themselves as an authority on the subject, using facts and data to present compelling reasons for why the problem exists. They can reframe the problem in a new way by explaining that paid ads work best in x, y and z scenarios so that their target’s business doesn’t fall into them.
By shocking the prospect into this realization, the rep can begin to outline several more effective methods that are better solutions to their problems. By doing this, the rep begins to shift the prospect’s mindset about how to improve their digital marketing efforts and boost curiosity in how these new solutions work.
Next, the rep can begin sharing compelling customer stories to open up the prospect’s eyes. The prospect will now begin picturing themselves using these new solutions and relating to the stories the rep is telling. In a final emotional rollercoaster, the rep can tell a story with a negative ending, forcing the prospect to picture what will happen if they do not stray from their current path.
The rep can then present case studies backed by real data that show how other people with similar problems chose a new solution. By now, the prospect is beginning to see these solutions as the only sensible next step and is eager to hear how to get started.
Finally, the rep can present her company’s solution, which is an analytics tool that captures data and provides actionable insights for how companies can save money and boost reach through digital marketing efforts other than paid social media ads. The prospect’s company is young and has not yet ramped up its content marketing, organic customer outreach through storytelling, cleverly crafted campaigns based on smart data, and so much more.
The idea is that by the time the rep presents their solution, they will have positioned it as the obvious choice and the prospect will be ready to buy.
Sales processes are becoming more complex and prospects are doing more research on their own before they make contact with a sales rep, this is where the Challenger sales model and methodology comes in handy.
Sales leaders and organizations must try to find ways to get ahead. When tackling complex sales cycles, research has proven that the Challenger sales model helps sales teams come out on top. By taking a prospect on a rollercoaster and teaching them that the solution they thought was best may not be so, sales reps can take control of the selling process.
The result? A prospect’s thought process is stripped back, and they are taught something new. If done right, your product can go from one of many options to the only plausible solution in solving their problem.
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