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The Missing Link in the Challenger Sales Training Approach

I recently read a white paper by a competitor that I’ve long known and long respected.  The paper reflected the influence of The Challenger Sale on this company’s sales methodology.

The concept of “Challenger” has captured the interest of the mainstream press and social media and sounds appealing to many sales leaders who are looking for new ways to drive business in a slow-growth economy.

Several voices in our industry have argued against the Challenger sales training approach.  My initial reaction was to recognize it as an approach that I didn’t buy into — live and let live.  But the interest in Challenger sales training that I have seen has spurred me to add my voice.

Changes in the Selling Environment Create Opportunities for New Approaches

One only has to spend a week in the field meeting with customers to know that the game has changed.  Sales strategies and tactics that worked well in the not-too-distant past are no longer enough.  There is a dearth of new models.  But in the search to replace inadequate models with new models, we can’t go backward and forget the uniqueness of each buyer or the psychology of selling.

The Challenger approach has made a contribution in underscoring the need for salespeople to take advantage of the research and data available to them. Challenger also inspired marketing to step up to the plate with relevant knowledge sharing that can be turned into insight salespeople can use to engage customers and add value.

I challenge them to move forward by recognizing that the best teaching is with smart questions. Yes, salespeople should bring ideas to customers to help them grow their businesses and solve business problems.

Challenging the Challenger Sales Training Approach

How does a salesperson presume at the outset of a customer meeting that they have unique insights to bring when their customers, who work at their businesses every day and likely have teams struggling at whiteboards to identify and solve problems are, according to all research, smarter than ever before.  The missing link is a validation of the customer’s perspective through questioning and dialogue.

Salespeople do know more than customers in many areas.  But how individual customers think is not one of them. Salespeople know what their solutions can accomplish.  They have more experience with the benefits and pitfalls.  They know the industry. They can guide the process to an efficient close. Their marketing teams may have supplied them with success stories and marketing messages.  But unless they are mind readers, salespeople don’t know what customers have or have not considered, what is unique about them, how they perceive things, and how they’d react to being “taught” what to do.

Customers want advice, and salespeople must be prepared with a portfolio of knowledge to confidently provide it at the right time.   They need the skills to validate how customers perceive the issues.  A “challenging” insight can be used to drive to the value the salesperson can provide through a consultative dialogue, not replace it.

Selling has always been about information.  But today it is not just data.  The value of data is in the interpretation.  How does it help a customer solve business challenges and achieve outcomes?    The interpreter is an important role salesperson can play.  The bar has been raised higher than anything we have seen before in what it takes for salespeople to add value.  The complex sale demands that salespeople have increased industry knowledge, business acumen and skill, and the tools to search and share and interpret data.  Sales forces need to be retooled and old systems revamped.  Salespeople must be prepared to share ideas and go into sales meetings as equals.  But not as superiors.

It’s critical not to confuse marketing with selling.  Understanding a customer persona is not the same as understanding the actual living, breathing customer and his or her perception of the world and business challenges, politics, or ego.  Challenger is backed by research.  But being in this business for many years, I would have liked to have seen the profile of a true Consultative Salesperson represented in the research not to be confused with the narrowly defined Relationship Seller.  If the Consultative category had existed, it could have done better than the seemingly triumphant Challenger category.

Adding Value for the Customer

There is a saying that to a hammer, everything is a nail.  So it was with this Challenger hammer. Customers want to know that the salesperson knows how they see the world.  Certainly, relating on a personal level with customers is important, but being friends is not what I am talking about here.  Knowing customers means understanding what solves their business challenges and what drives them to buy or not buy.

Go in armed to the gills with a full portfolio of knowledge, insights, data, and ideas.  Use that portfolio to engage customers by sharing insights and asking business challenge questions that show that you know what you are talking about and that lead to your value.

Intelligent questions provide as much insight as answers.  They give you insights into the customer’s thinking and jumpstart the collaborative process.  They also help you validate that your insight is relevant. To succeed salespeople in today’s selling environment must blend a higher portfolio of knowledge with even stronger dialogue skills to become a true thought partner with their customer and build long-term relationships and close more deals — which is still the name of the game.

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