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Sending Your Sales People Out Naked, The Problem With “Challenger Selling”

by David Brock on December 4th, 2011

Over the past month or so, there’s been a huge amount of conversation about Matthew Dixon’s and Brent Anderson’s “The Challenger Sale.”   It’s one of the best books on selling over the past few years, and should be mandatory for every sales professional.  More importantly, it should be mandatory for every CEO, marketing professional, customer service professional, product management professional.

My problem isn’t the book, the authors have articulated the necessity and a great methodology for establishing new conversations with customers.  They’ve done a great job with it.  My problem is on the implementation side.  I’ve spoken to many folks, I’m hearing people say “We’ve got to implement Challenger Selling!”  I want to ask them, “did you really read the book?”

Challenger Selling is really not a sales initiative, though the title will be misunderstood.  In the opening chapters, the authors make the point about the overall organizational impact of this approach.  It’s not Solution Selling 3.0.  Challenger Selling is really about Challenger Business Strategy.

Before an organization can be successful in implementing Challenger Selling, it has to re-examine fundamental business strategies, product, marketing, service, customer experience and positioning issues. Without this, you run the risk of sending your sales people into customers naked!  They’re prepared to be Challengers, they’ve been trained and developed the skills, but they don’t know what to challenge on, and how to tie that back to the distinctive value of your products and solutions.  It’s not sales job to figure these out, it’s the task of the organizations outlined above.

As the authors outline, Challenger Selling demands great introspection across the organization, not just in sales.  It requires asking yourself, “What do we want to stand for?”  “What meaning do we want to create for our customers?”  “Who are the customers that we can create that meaning for?” “What experience to we want to create for our customers and prospects–through the life cycle of our relationship with them?” “Do our product, service, marketing, and other strategies all align with that?”  I could go on.

The problem is, too many organizations don’t have this understanding of what drives customers–at least at the depth demanded for success in Challenger Selling.   Think about it for a moment, we build our products to satisfy our customer needs, we focus our marketing programs on content demonstrating our solutions are superior in addressing customer needs.  But Challenger Selling demands we intercept the customer in a different place.  Inherently, the issues that need to be addressed are probably known within our development and marketing teams, but we haven’t structured what we do around those issues.

The gap is not between sales and the customer, the gap is between our organizations and what we stand for to our target customers.  Until we close that gap with our own strategies and organizational capabilities, Challenger Selling will be just another initiative that will fall far short of its potential.

There’s, rightfully so, a huge rush to Challenger Selling.  But I worry, it’s starting in sales.  Sales cannot successfully sustain Challenger Selling, unless the entire organization has a “Challenger Business Strategy.”  Sales has to be quipped to have the right conversations, at the right time, with the right customers.  The book provides great advice about how sales can lead these conversations.  But first sales needs to know what conversations they should be having, and how to position those to the company’s sweet spot.  It’s not sales’ job to figure that out, it’s marketing, product management, customer service, and the business strategists that need to provide that leadership, content, and tools.

The book is a must read for all in business.  I wish the authors had been able to focus more on the Challenger Business Strategy–perhaps that’s the sequel.

  1. David

    Great post and 100% agree. Reading the book, along with CVIs latest which echoes a similar sentiment.

    The most widely used case study by CEB is the Grainger Example about provoking unrecognized pain in unplanned MRO purchases.

    I love the example because it uses research based on real world data, not hypothetical ROI scenarios.

    So they really enabled their reps to have those conversations by ARMING them with something to challenge their clients.

    Telling a rep to go “challenge” their customer without some type of research that’s been validated is just dumb.

    • Brian, thanks for the comment. It’s not just real world data and research that’s critical, it’s important the company strategies are aligned as well. Without the ability to create real differentiated value with the products and services we provide, the challenger is just an empty conversation. Thanks for the great comment and contribution to the discussion.

  2. David, you make a great point. I would add that the Challenger approach I see great value in. However, there is one major problem. If the company does not have salespeople that are mindset and the willingness to “challenge”, then the concept falls flat. If they aren’t “wired” internally with the belief system and frankly the guts to challenge, it won’t happen. This is why my clients use our assessment tool that will find this out before we even do any training of the sales team or coaching.

    • Interesting comment Gary. I don’t disagree that assessments are an important hiring tool, but that’s not the total answer—othewise the Challenger approach would be a non issue. You have to start with good sales people–but Challenger’s can be developed. My biggest fear is that most people won’t understand that Challenger Sales is not a sales issue, it’s a company wide issue. If the organization is not a challenger organization with challenger strategies, then even the “right” sales people will fail. The worst thing an executive can do is read the book, then mandate the sales management team make them Challengers. It will be doomed to failure.

  3. Ivano permalink

    Dave, I’m completely with you.
    Your article reminds me of an Italian economist, Gino Zappa, who in 1926 spoke about the need of the holistic view in business management.
    R&D, Production, Management, Logistic, Sales, can’t be bottled departments, they must be tuned to each other. There is no more room for sales department with personal interpretations and improvisations of the selling points: companies have to work with a unique, global way to do business.

    • Thanks for the great comment Ivano! You are absolutely on target–sales people are just the execution arm–without the total support and alignment with the rest of the organization, even the best in sales will fail!

  4. David, great post.
    I agree with you. Our CMO, Tim Riesterer says, “If you give salespeople the skills but not the story…what are they going to say? You need the story to make the skill come to life.”

    You need to challenge prospects to get them to do something different. But you can’t just say, “Hey, salespeople go be challengers!” In order to do this the right way you need to do 3 things, and those things are multi-departmental efforts:
    1) Create the “challenger” message. Or, as we call it at Corporate Visions, your “unique point of view.”
    2) Create sales tools that teach this new story to salespeople.
    3) Train your salespeople how to have a differentiated conversation. It’s not just about the message, the delivery of that message is just as important.

    Lilia Todorova
    Corporate Visions, Inc.

    • Thanks Lilia–you/Tim are right on target. The toughest part of Challenger is not the sales skill development, but aligning the company around understanding where they can challenge and present solutions to that challenge. Without this, and the appropriate stories/messages, the sales people have the capability but nothing to talk about. Regards, Dave

  5. Dave, You have made my week! Your great post was kindly passed to me via the Modern Selling team in the UK.

    What I took away from your post was the need to create your organisation’s proper, strategic value proposition, and create it at the organisation level, not the sales level or marketing level (you can do that once you’ve created it at the company level, but not the other way around).

    This is what I write about, talk about, am passionate about so was delighted to read your thoughts on what I call the strategic value proposition. We gave our book on the subject the snappy title of ‘Creating and Delivering Your Value Proposition’ because there are two very distinct parts – first you have to create your value proposition – a work of strategy not comms, and only then can you translate this and deliver it through your sales teams, marketing teams, product dev, internal comms, investor relations etc.

    You are spot on with your questions that need addressing such as ‘What experiences do I want to create for my customers..’ These can’t be addressed tactically by sales people or by comms people, they are at the heart of why the company is in business, therefore must be addressed as a part of strategy.

    If you don’t do this, it’s like the Emperors new clothes (which was my last blog post coincidently) – you are just making things up that aren’t necessarily there. And for sales people this is stressful and one of their biggest complaints.

    I don’t think this is an issue exclusively for the challenger model though, I think it’s an issue with all types of consultative selling.

    Cindy Barnes
    Co-author ‘Creating and Delivering Your Value Proposition’

    • Cindy, glad to have made your week! You are absolutely right, this is not just an issue of “Challenger Selling.” Frankly, it goes beyond consultative selling. Sales is just the customer facing execution arm of the organization. Without the total alignment of the organization, sales cannot deliver.

      Thanks for taking the time to provide such wonderful insight.

  6. A very good point Dave. Thanks for the though-provoking read.

  7. I wonder sometimes if presenting insights is like the emperor’s new clothes? Everyone wants to believe they have insights to deliver, but how many really do? Maybe 20% of the time? So what do you do the other 80% of the time? Maybe it comes down to whoever tells the best story wins?

    • Michael: Clearly “insight” has become the buzz word of the past few years. Too often, sales people are sent out to provide insight–which turns out to be nothing more than an updated Features/Advantages/Benefits pitch. Sometimes, we make the process of creating and delivering insight more complicated than it need be. Somehow, the statement, “I’ve been wandering around your organization and noticed you might be able to produce better results by changing a few things……” What too many miss about Insight is that it should provoke a conversation, it should start a discussion about the potential of changing. That is it’s only purpose.

      I think story telling is important, but worry the same thing will occur with story telling. I’ve seen people constructing powerful stories, but soon form starts triumphing over substance.

      Whatever mechanisms we choose, Insight, Storytelling, Whiteboarding, whatever–we cannot let the form of what we are doing overtake the substance, meaning, conversation, and customer engagement. In the end, regardless the approach, engagement wins.

      • I agree, content is key. I can see the top 20% doing it well, and the other 80%… I think it will be a struggle, and they’ll revert back to their old ways.

        Solution Selling was deductive, and many struggled. Insight is inductive, and I think that’s harder.

        Everyone is high on the research gas but I think eventually we’ll have to try to make this easy. I like stories because they are easy to remember, but I guess you could always deliver them conversationally or through questions. They key here I think is customer knowledge.

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