The best-selling sales book, The Challenger Sale, introduces a new kind of salesperson: the Challenger Rep. Regular salespeople pound streets, pitch, and push to close sales. The Challenger Rep operates on a higher plane: teaching, tailoring, and controlling conversations.
Most sales books fatten thin ideas with bold claims, soggy writing, and bad metaphors. Distilling these books down to their essence reveals the substance of the ideas.
Is The Challenger Sale another overheated sales book? Is the Challenger Rep a practical concept for real-world salespeople? Or, a work of fantasy, designed to sell sales training courses?
Earthling salespeople: meet the Challenger Rep
Five kinds of sales people roam planet Earth, according to Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, the authors of The Challenger Sale. Only four seem human.
First, the hard worker, spinning and sweating the sale. Next, the relationship seller, customer-centric and making friends. Taking the road less traveled, the lone wolf, hunting independently and cheerfully unmanageable. Later, the reactive problem solver arrives: helpful, but a step or two off the pace.
Finally, The Challenger Rep lands, armed with super skills:
- Always has a different view of the world.
- Understands the customer's business.
- Loves to debate.
- Pushes the customer.
Like most superheroes, the Challenger Rep works alone. You won't find a significant discussion of team selling in The Challenger Sale.
Before this book, Challenger Reps lived quietly among us, hiding their talents. For complex sales, Dixon and Adamson, claim over half of the star performers practice challenger selling.
The authors beat up relationship sellers brutally. For complex sales, according to Dixon and Adamson:
"Relationship Builders nearly fall off the map entirely -- the likelihood that they achieve star status when you're selling complex solutions falls to nearly zero."
Yes, zero. So, the relationship reps need to cut customers dinners and debate them instead.
The solution crowd
Solution selling attracts a big crowd. According to Dixon and Adamson, fully three quarters of vendors say they sell solutions. Although most claiming solution selling skills don't really sell solutions. See my essay, The myth of solution selling.
Rightly, the authors note solution selling often becomes more burden than benefit for customers. To rise above the solution crowd, The Challenger Sale positions itself as the latest evolution of solution selling. Reaching for the sky, Dixon and Adamson declare that successful solutions selling now requires Challenger reps:
"If you're going to grow through solutions, you're going to need Challenger reps to do it...[and] if you're on the journey to more of a value-based or solutions-oriented sales approach, then your ability to challenge customers is absolutely vital for your success."
"I am a Challenger" updates flew across LinkedIn as a consequence.
Teacher, tailor, and choreographer
Traditional sales reps schlep the streets understanding customer needs, articulating value and, hardest of all, closing the sale.
The Challenger Rep, on the other hand, has little taste for this humble life. Instead, they teach, tailor, and control the conversation. Admiring their own creation, Dixon and Adamson, gush:
"A Challenger is defined by the ability to do three things -- teach, tailor, and take control -- and to do all this through the use of constructive tension."
Teach what exactly?
Naturally, The Challenger Rep applies: "The Commercial Teaching choreography," which has four steps:
- Identify your unique benefits.
- Develop commercial insights that challenges customers' thinking.
- Package commercial insight in compelling messages that "lead to" your offering.
- Equip reps to challenge customers.
Before the choreography, the authors do stress the importance of differentiation. They raise, but treat lightly, the one question every serious sales rep must answer. Why should our customers buy from us over anyone else?
Returning to the dance, the authors declare the Challenger Rep:
"They win not by understanding their customers' world as well as the customers know it themselves, but by actually knowing their customers' world better than their customers know it themselves, teaching them what they don't know but should."
This will bemuse customers. Vendors earn the right to a conversation with an industry-informed point of view. But an outsider is unlikely to know an industry better than a customer who spends every working hour in it.
Strange suits: tailor for resonance
Once customers have the pleasure of their unique perspective using their "strong two-way communication skills," the Challenger Rep shifts to "tailoring for resonance." Tailoring messages is a mature marketing practice. Idealistically, the authors point out that a Challenger Rep should tailor messages in layers: industry, company, role, and individual.
Surprisingly, The Challenger Sale authors don't think products matter that much. And, certainly, not as much as the sales experience:
"The entire remainder of customer loyalty -- all 53 percent -- is attributable to your ability to outperform the competition in the sales experience yourself."
Vendors rule: take control of the sale
Finally, the authors wrap up with the Challenger "taking control of the sale." This seems stretched. The modern, evolved buyer decides the pace and progress of a sale -- not the vendor. The vendor can nudge the sale along, but they can't "control." Anyway, what Dixon and Adamson call controlling the sale is traditional value-based selling dressed up with a new name:
"What we're really talking about here is the Challenger's ability to demonstrate and hold firm on value -- and the ability to maintain momentum across the sales process."
Rotten on ROI
Last, Dixon and Adamson, misdefine business cases. They mistake an ROI model for a full business case:
"It's not enough for your teaching pitch to simple convey a "compelling business case" with data, charts, and graphs. No one ever sold anything off a spreadsheet alone. Done well, a teaching pitch makes customers feel sort of sick about all the money they're wasting, or revenue they're missing, or risk they are unknowingly exposed to."
What the authors call a "teaching pitch" is, in essence, a business case laying out the business logic for a proposed product, project, solution, or service.
In summary, The Challenger Sale is a decent sales book. But the Challenger Rep is more superhero than a human salesperson. Much of the material reads like spicier versions of existing approaches, especially, solutions and value-based selling. And the "teaching pitch" is a trendy rework of the hard, earthly discipline of building a business case for your offering.
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