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Book Review-The Challenger Sale

When I first started my career I loathed sales. I saw a used car salesman trying to take advantage of you so that he could sell one more car and get a commission. I never saw them as folks of high integrity. That was until I went to some of the sales training programs of Bill Caskey. Bill introduced me to the idea of the solution sale. That is he told me that sales should be an advocate for the client trying to make their lives easier. This aligned with my view of the world and while I would never consider myself a professional sales person, I am comfortable in sales situations.

However, my approach to sales always had an edge to it. I can remember how sales folks would bristle when in my technical role I would tell the client that what they wanted couldn’t be done or when I challenged them to think of the problem differently. I can remember one sales person yelling at me because I interrupted his close. I always considered this “edge” something that I needed to work on to be more successful at sales. However, as it turns out, it may be what fuels my success. It turns out there are five different profiles of sellers – and the challenger profile is the most successful one. That’s the story in The Challenger Sale.


Five Profiles

During the recession research from the CEB sought to explain the bright spots in the market where sales folks were still effective at selling in the down economy. (See Switch for more on bright spots.) What they found was that there are five different profiles for sales people and that one of those profiles – the challenger – was likely to outperform the other four profiles. The five profiles are:

  • The Hard Worker – Always staying late to help a client out the hard worker is convinced that working hard will yield results in the best puritan ethics tradition.
  • The Challenger – The subject of the book, the challenger isn’t primarily concerned with the feelings of the client. The challenger is most interested in creating value with the client even if that means some discomfort to get there.
  • The Relationship Builder – The traditional sales person is a relationship builder who is primarily concerned with maintaining the relationship with the customer in the mistaken belief that this will yield more sales. The primary issue of the relationship builder is that they’re unwilling to accept the discomfort necessary to push clients and as a result often have difficulty closing.
  • The Lone Wolf – Some sales folks don’t fill out their CRM trip reports or even their expense reports. They’re impossible to manage because they’re lone wolves. Sales folks in this profile that survive are more productive than any other kind of sales person (including the Challenger) likely because anyone who wasn’t successful and so blatantly challenged the rules and created problems was fired long ago.
  • The Reactive Problem Solver – Solving problems is at the core of what good sales people do and this profile is no exception. However, this profile isn’t willing to push the client when necessary. They’re not order takers because they create unique solutions for customers but they’re unlikely to push a customer into being uncomfortable for the sake of solving a problem.

The aim of The Challenger Sale isn’t to convert every sales person into a challenger. Rather the goal is to allow other profiles to leverage the same tools that challengers use naturally. Instead of relying on challengers to forge their own path, the book seeks to pave the road for all sales professionals.

Put Out the Fire

Solutions Selling

In a traditional solution sale you enter a conversation intrigued by the customer and what they need. You encourage them to talk about themselves, their problems, and proverbially what’s “keeping them up at night.” The first problem with this approach is that it takes time – valuable time – for the prospect to explain what their challenges are and for you to test solutions that your organization might be able to create to help them. Today most clients don’t feel like they have time to explain themselves and their problems to you. They’ve become burned out on the number of sales folks coming in who want to know about their problems.

Perhaps more importantly this approach works well if the prospect trusts you but it’s becoming increasingly difficult for sales folks to get prospects to share their pains with you. Sharing your problems is a vulnerable thing and you don’t want to hear the sales person laugh at you for the problems that you have. So sales professionals have to build enough trust to allow the prospect to be real. Often solutions sellers will complain that clients are lying to them. My response is typically – of course they are – why should they tell you the truth?

You have to establish why they want to share their situation with you through trusting that you may be able to help them. They have to trust your integrity but also they have to trust that you have the capability of solving their problems. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on trust and the downstream impacts.)

Because most clients are exhausted with explaining themselves they’re looking to come up with the solutions on their own – but to do that they need to have unique insight into their market or situation. This isn’t an insight that most clients have because they can’t see where they’re standing and where the market is moving.

Clients Want Insight

The State of Indiana went bankrupt. The state was selling bonds for the development of a canal system in the state that would connect Indiana to commerce. The problem is that the state leaders didn’t have the insight to realize the impact of the railroad and how it would rapidly transform transportation. The canal project would bankrupt the state because it didn’t have the insight to see the technological revolution that was coming.

In today’s globally connected, speed of the Internet business world every business faces changes and competitive pressures at a rate that would have been unheard of just a generation (or even a decade) ago. There’s an awareness – and growing anxiety – that whatever works today might be replaced next year. As a result clients are hungry for someone who can climb the tallest tree and look out on the horizon to see and understand what is coming.

Insight with Fries

One of the challenges with sharing insight with clients is that sales people don’t have the perspective to be able to generate the insight in most cases. This is where the tenuous relationship between sales and marketing really gets its test. Sales needs to rely on marketing to create a real insight that can be delivered by sales professionals to customers. Instead of sales pitching the materials from marketing out and creating their own, marketing needs to become the provider of the insight that the sales professionals need.

At some level the challenger sale is an individual skill of reading and adapting to the customer

Six Steps to Presentation Success

One of the challenges to any new methodology is how to do it. If you’re going to storyboard a sales call what should the story beats be? Luckily the challenger sale outlines an approach to presenting your solutions to a customer. The steps are as follows:

  1. The Warmer – The part of the presentation where you build connection and credibility by proactively bringing up problems that customers probably have.
  2. The Reframe – The problem is changed or reframed to reveal a different but important facet or a larger problem that it hides.
  3. Rational Drowning – You overwhelm them with rational data supporting your point of view. You overload their ability to process the data so that they’ll return to their emotions.
  4. Emotional Impact – You connect to their emotions and help them realize that this isn’t a story – it’s THEIR story.
  5. A New Way – You solve the newly reframed and explained problem for them with an approach to the solution that works.
  6. Your Solution – You explain how your solution implements the new way of solving the problem perfectly (or near perfectly.)

If you follow these steps you create the best chance for a sale – but like anything else there are no guarantees.

Free Consulting and Other Cautions

One of the constant challenges with solutions selling – and in my business of being a consultant – is how much free consulting you do and how you get the client to buy from you. It used to be called spilling the candy. In other words, you need to get them used to the fact that you do have insight and you add value and to do that you have to share some with them.

In consulting there are clients that want to ensure that you’re paid for the value that you deliver. There are also clients that will try to get as much for free from you as possible. When someone isn’t yet a client I’ve often solved their problem in an initial sales call and told them that I’m happy to continue to work with them in the future for a fee – if they’re interested. Sometimes they call back and sometimes they don’t.

In a selling situation it’s possible that you can lead the client to thinking about the problem in a better way and that you’ll spend time with them only to have them shop for the cheapest price later. In my experience this rarely happens when you establish credibility and that you’re delivering a unique value to the client. Of course, some of this is believing that you don’t really have competitors. You just have folks in similar spaces. My primary competitor is “No Action”, perhaps you’ve got them in your industry as well.

While there are other ways that The Challenger Sale can fall apart, it’s a good model when you’re willing to help your clients reach the next level.

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