The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation

The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation
Publisher: Portfolio
Published: 11/10/2011
The need to understand what top-performing reps are doing that their average performing colleagues are not drove Matthew Dixon, Brent Adamson, and their colleagues at Corporate Executive Board to investigate the skills, behaviors, knowledge, and attitudes that matter most for high performance. And what they discovered may be the biggest shock to conventional sales wisdom in decades.

Book Summary - The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson

Key Insights

Today, there are many ways to make a sale, and not everything is going to work. However, in The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation, the authors offer some of the most effective ways to make a sale, and it all has to do with connecting with a customer.

Rather than trying to persuade a customer to buy from you, it is all about teaching them what they need to know. This is a chance to win sales in the right way.

Key Points

In order to be an effective seller, you need to personalize the product and engage your customer

When we think about sales, it is often the seller that comes to mind first, and not the customer. However, sales is not a one-man show. This is a two-way street, where there are two parties involved in a transaction.

In many cases, the most effective sales techniques require putting the customer first.

One technique that allows you to put the customer first is called solution selling. In this technique, a seller is offering a solution to a specific problem by offering products that are customizable.

The reason this approach is effective in selling is because it allows the seller to set themselves apart from their competition. This also allows for the seller to have control over their pricing.

While solution selling may have its advantages, there are also some disadvantages. Customers can be more demanding because they are looking for something specific. As a salesperson, you sometimes need to be more creative in order to make the sale happen.

Solution selling is so much more than pitching a product and making a sale. It requires working with the customer to find a solution.

The sales reps that are closing deals are “challengers”

While solution selling is effective in making a deal happen, it is not always the technique that works depending on what the customer is looking for.

It is important to note that there are five different types of sales representatives.

There are the hard workers. These reps are often highly motivated overachievers. They will do whatever they need to, and work twice as hard as everyone else.

Then there are the relationship builders. These are the reps who build success based on the relationships they are able to make. Whether we are talking about their coworkers or their customers, these reps are seen as the “nice guys.”

Next we have the lone wolves. Lone wolf reps are the type to not follow protocols. They tend not to be part of the team spirit and they don’t really write up the reports they may need to. These are the people who are so good at what they do that if they weren’t they would have been fired at this point.

Another type of rep is the reactive problem solver. While these reps are more customer-oriented than they are focused on the sales themselves, they are not people pleasers like the relationship builders.

The final rep is the challenger. These reps have a deep understanding of who their customers are. They have no problem when it comes to debating ideas and details. These reps are also the ones who have no problem pushing the proverbial envelope when it comes to being innovative and insightful.

When looking at the five different types of sales representatives, it is the challenger who is the most likely to not only survive but also thrive, in the world of solution selling.

While all five types of reps can have average performers, almost 40 percent of the people who are considered top sellers are considered challengers. And when it comes to solution selling, that number rises to over 50 percent.

Challengers are all about teaching and they look to make solutions obvious for their customers

For most customers, it can be hard to tell the difference between different brands and products. And this is something that many companies are unaware of.

Often, the deciding factor in making a purchase is the sales experience.

Customer loyalty is often dependent on the way they were treated when they were making their initial purchase.

Although many sales reps might believe that it is important to know all about their customers' business, that is only a small portion of what is needed. You must also be able to teach them more about the product and service offered.

If you know enough about the customer’s business that you can then take that knowledge and teach them something new, that can be invaluable. It also shows the customer that while you empathize with them, you also know how to help them.

Challenger reps are able to control a conversation and give it a structure that guides the customer to the solution they need

A challenger's success is their ability to teach their customers more about their business. And while this may sound difficult, it isn’t because it is all about being prepared.

Your best bet is to master commercial teaching, which is about teaching the things that connect a customer’s business strength to a solution.

An effective sales conversation will typically follow six steps.

You start off by building your credibility with the company. This is typically by sharing your own hypothesis of the company you are working with.

Next you take the problem that they are dealing with and reframe it with a different perspective.

The third step is to point out why the customer’s problem is actually bigger than they believe it to be. This step includes sharing information that supports what you are telling them.

Your next step is to give a demonstration of how the problem is having an impact on their business.

This next step is what helps to separate a challenger from everyone else. Here is where the challenger offers up something new to improve the situation that the customer finds themselves in.

While you may have a solution on hand already, you wait until the end of the conversation to bring it up and make it known. This is because at this point in the conversation, the customer is already convinced that you know what you are talking about.

Effective sales is not just about pitching a product. It is about offering teachable moments as well. This is about changing a customer’s perspective.

Your solution must be attractive to everyone involved in making a decision

Solution selling requires a lot more from the customer than it does the salesperson. However, this is where challengers excel because they know how to work with their customers.

This can be complicated when there are different opinions and stakeholders to satisfy. Typically there is a team involved in making these decisions, and while you may think you need to convince the “big boss” to pull the trigger, you really need to convince their team.

It is important that you are always tailoring your message to reach as many people as possible. This is where you make your solution work for the specific needs of the company, the person shopping around, and the industry as a whole.

You can’t exactly give the same pitch to everyone, it doesn’t work that way. What gets one person excited may not work on someone else.

It is a good idea to know what the economic goals are. It is also important to know what they hope to achieve.

Challengers take control of their sale from the beginning

Challengers take control of a sale right from the very beginning and they keep control all the way until the very end.

This is because these reps are comfortable with what they are offering and they have no problem standing firm. They insist that a customer sees the value in what they are offering.

All of this is important because most sales reps are not comfortable with taking control like this. In fact, most reps don’t want to discuss money or push for a decision to be made.

It is important to not wait until the end of the discussion to talk about money. This is something that should be talked about early on.

You want to see interest from the people you are working with and trying to help. This is important because you don’t want to find yourself in a position where the customer has already decided to go with someone else. The only reason they are listening at that point is curiosity and for an idea of what else is on the market.

Share solutions and knowledge with your entire team

You want your entire team to win, so it is important to share knowledge with them.

While there are some people who are naturally challenges, that doesn’t mean you can’t teach sales reps to be this way.

In order to foster conversations that teach, make sure that there is as much information as possible available to the reps. This means making sure they know as much as about different companies you work with as possible.

You can also teach tailoring to everyone. Creating what one might consider a cheat sheet of the different objectives associated with different positions.

It is important to teach the one aspect of being a challenger that might seem the most difficult - taking control. Show them how they can change the direction of a conversation when a senior executive has not gotten involved.

Share what works to make sales with everyone. This will show everyone how to be successful making a sale.

If you already have all the answers, then you should be sharing that with the people who work with you and for you, so that they can be a success as well. Think about it as their success bolsters yours.

Your managers need to be on board with whatever you do

If you want to have a team of challengers, you need to make sure that everyone is on board with this plan, particularly the managers.

While you may be the leader of your business, with a desire to implement change, there is someone else who actually has to execute your plan. That person is the manager.

Leaders need to make sure that there is someone who can be there to guide the sales team. That person is the manager. And the manager is the person who will go from rep to rep to make sure that they are getting all of the tools needed to be successful as sales reps.

Your managers need to be convinced that the strategy you want to utilize will work and is a good idea. If they are not convinced, then they may do more harm than good, especially if they end up undermining your goals.

In order to have managers that are onboard with your plan, make sure that they are good managers, to begin with. They should be more than just reliable. They should also be good at sales as well.

An effective manager doesn’t need to have years and years of experience with challenger sales, however, they do need to encourage challenger sales. At the same time, they need to know when to get out of the way of a challenger and let them do what needs to be done.

The Main Take-away

In today’s world, selling is all about offering customers solutions that are customized to their needs. It is about finding a solution that addresses the problems that they are dealing with.

Learning about your customer’s industry and what they need can be critical to success when it comes to selling what they need.

From the very beginning, you should be taking control of the conversation and tailoring what you are offering to the needs of the entire team. And when you are preparing to have a sales conversation, make sure that you are paying attention to the unique details of the company so that you can offer a teachable conversation.

About the Author

Matthew Dixon is an expert in sales, customer service, and customer experience. He works as the Chief Product & Research Officer of Tethr, an AI venture in Austin, Texas. The company helps mine customer voice data for information. He used to work as the Senior Partner and the Global Head of SalesForce Effective Solutions at Korn Ferry hay Group. He also worked as Group Leader of sales, service, and customer experience of CEB (now Gartner).

He obtained a Ph.D from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburg. His Bachelor was in International Studies from Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

He is a public speaker and has worked for many corporations. He speaks about topics such as sales effectiveness to customer service. to customer experience. He is also a renowned business author.

He is the author of the Challenger Sales, a Wall Street Journal bestseller. He also writes for the Harvard Business Review.

He currently lives in Maryland with his wife and four children.


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