7 min read time
The challenger sale is the new kid on the B2B sales block, and heads are turning. Based on Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson’s recent bestselling book, the idea of “The Challenger” salesperson is shaking up the way sales teams look at their techniques and processes. Neil Rackham (author of bestseller “Spin Selling”) describes the recent work as "the most important advance in selling for many years". So what’s all the hype about? What is “the challenger sale”, what does it mean for B2B sales teams, and how can we use it to get more customers?
Conceptually, the challenger sale is broad, so we’ll start by discussing the persona of “the challenger” in B2B sales. Dixon and Adamson propose five types of sales personality ranging from the known and loved “relationship builder” through the rouge but successful “lone wolf” and on to the lesser known “challenger”. Researching over 6000 salespeople across more than 90 different B2B organizations, they concluded that the challenger is the most successful salesperson, and contrary to popular belief, the relationship builder is the least successful.
So what defines a challenger salesperson? As people, they naturally love to debate and push conversational boundaries whilst remaining polite and optimistic. In sales, they have a strong understanding of their prospect’s business, and use this knowledge to challenge their sales leads on current processes and thinking, whilst keeping control of the conversation. Happy to express controversial opinions, challengers are assertive in all communications and offer unique, relevant insights.
Differing to the relationship builder, who aims to strike an emotional connection and create a professional relationship to make a sale, challengers want the sales lead to change their business processes, instead of adding something new to it. Of the “most successful” sales people researched over 50% of them were challengers, and their techniques bring a lot of benefits that can be taught and used by others as they aim to become challengers too, closing more sales for better current and future value.
What impact can the challenger sale approach have on B2B sales teams?
Now we’re more familiar with the concept of the challenger sale, it’s time to ask the important question- how can it help our sales teams? And what impact will introducing a challenger sale approach have? Adopting new approaches and strategies can be a struggle for sales teams, especially when revenue generation is so important and risks can’t be taken lightly. So if you want to implement a challenger approach- be 100% committed to it.
Cut through the noise
A huge advantage to adopting a challenger sale model is its ability to help your sales team stand out above the crowd with a new approach to conversation. Challenging your sales leads about their current processes forces them to think deeply about how they answer questions on a call. Leads soon start analyzing what they do in a new way as the conversation unfolds. This prevents them switching off during calls, where they previously listened to over rehearsed scripts and compels them to have a discussion and decide how they truly feel about their business status quo. This in itself brings several additional benefits. It instantly makes your brand and solution memorable and also, desirable- something difficult to consistently achieve with a relationship builder approach.
As part of the challenger profile, knowledge is a must, especially for the specific business and industry in question. To fully engage in discussions with the ability to challenge the norm, you need to ensure knowledge of more than just the basics, you need facts, stats, differing opinions, influencers, the lot! They say knowledge is power, and the challenger sale is no exception; where most salespeople validate the opinions of their sales leads, challengers question it, and aim to prove other options and theories.
Your team can work together in generating knowledge and collating research, especially for broad topics like industry trends and predictions, but they’ll need to pull some individual weight when it comes to specific business knowledge. The knowledge part of challenge selling isn’t the tricky bit; utilizing that knowledge in a relevant and exciting discussion without becoming a lecturing dictator- that’s the art of being a challenger salesperson.
Get the control back
Control of the buyer journey is ultimately in the hands of the buyer, almost always. You can’t force someone to part with their money, so in the past, you’ve had to work your hardest to convince them parting with their money will be worth it, and bring them return on their investment. The challenger sale model flips this on its head, giving the control back to your sales team. You still can’t prize the money out of your prospect’s hands, but if you’ve been a true challenger, you won’t need to anyway.
Challengers remain in control of sales communications by being unpredictable. The prospect has little to no idea what the challenger will bring up on a call, and as they don’t ask the same questions about time frame, decision makers and budget as other salespeople, the prospect is left without answers to churn out. This relinquishes control from the prospect and awards it to the salesperson, whilst also allowing the challenger to truly prove their product to the point of not needing to force sales leads to spend money, because now they want to invest it.
A change of mind-set
Whilst we know the challenger sales method can benefit sale teams and help them gain more high-quality customers, it’s not the easiest thing to master. Taking on a challenger sales approach, especially across a whole team will require a large shift in the way we look at sales. A huge part of the relationship building approach, and something many sales teams currently do, is aim to understand the prospect’s current processes, slotting their solution in seamlessly to improve it. In challenger sales, you’re not selling a product/solution, you’re selling change. Challengers aim to change the lead’s current processes, using their solution or product as the hinge point of that change. It doesn’t just improve their results, it changes them (for the better of course).
This can be a difficult concept to grasp, but with enough of that vital knowledge, it starts to become clear how to build on those challenging discussions and propose a change in the system, instead of an addition to it. It’s OK to tell prospects they’re doing it wrong, and there’s a better way- especially if you have the facts to back it up. We all have respect for those who have a new idea, stand by it and prove it (even if we don’t agree with them at the beginning). All great inventors, scientists and philosophers across history had the courage to stand up and promote a change instead of an addition; use their challenger mind-set in your sales approach.
Your talent pool may change
This is where sales teams can find the challenger sale difficult to fully adopt. It’s ultimately a personality type for more successful and valuable sales, that many can learn and showcase with time, but some simply can’t. For some salespeople, the challenger persona isn’t in their blood, and they may get left behind. Some people you think have great potential now, may end up being mediocre later when those who can successful perform in challenger sales overtake, and that’s a difficult fact for team leaders to face. Challenger sales models require different skills, so the way you recruit sales teams will change; the qualities you search for when promoting team members are also up for debate when you look to adopt the challenger sale, so be prepared for a departmental shift.
This can be a positive thing however- the challenger sale focuses on closing new business, but that doesn’t mean to say those who aren’t natural challengers are bad salespeople- their skills often lie in retention and upsell, which are equally important to the overall success of your organization. When you propose an adoption of challenger sales, ensure those who struggle know they still have sales skills, they just need to be put to better use- they’ll be excited for new opportunities and still benefit your results.
The challenger sale is very different to what we all know and are currently used to. 53% of customer loyalty is a product of how the customer was sold to, not what they actually bought, so there’s a great deal to be said for a faultless sales process that is buyer centric. Whilst the challenger approach aims to put the prospect out if their comfort zone, it’s for their benefit and remains a strategy centric to the needs to the buyer, not the salesperson.
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