Challenger sale is about solutions sales. Thus when the objective is to move away from commodity where “the key to success is the creation of bundled offerings that not only meet broader customer needs in a unique and invaluable way, but also that competitors can’t easily replicate”.

In a solutions B2B sales or marketing leadership role, you should probably read The Challenger sale. Though it may not make it to the Curatus selection and the Curatus business book guide, it’s a short read and it contains a few interesting pieces of insight for a mindset shift to solutions selling. This shift to solutions requires:

  • To solve a real problem, not just supply a reliable product
  • To undersrtand the customer challenges as well if not better than they do
  • To customize solutions somewhat as clients perceive their problems as specific
  • To convince more stakeholders than usual at the client, including in the C-level suite
  • To convince 3rd party consultants that tend to organize tenders or advise clients

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The authors claim that good solutions B2B salespeople able to do this fall into five categories, of which one gets the lion share of star sales and is worth building an organization to foster and sustain. Here are the five categories:

  • The Lone Wolf follows own instinct and is difficult to control. They are typically good sales because their behavior would not be tolerated if they were not. The author claims they are hard to find and hard to breed.
  • The Relationship Builder gets along with everyone and is generous with his/her time. The authors believe this will not be enough to make the sale in a B2B solutions environment.
  • The Reactive Problem Solver is detailed oriented and ensures all problems are solved internally and externally. This role seems to be more ‘farmer’ than ‘hunter’ and thus closer to a customer success role in the eyes of the authors
  • The Hard Worker is self motivated, does not give up easily and is always willing to go the extra mile. Hard workers are even better if the sales process provides them with a good framework to hard work into. Thus, this framework should be geared towards the Fifth profile.
  • The Challenger. More about this profile below.

According to their analyses, a Challenger shows six characteristics:

  • Offers the customer unique perspectives
  • Has strong two-way communication skills
  • Knows the individual customer’s value drivers
  • Can identify economic drivers of the customer’s business
  • Is comfortable discussing money
  • Can pressure the customer

In particular, Challenger Sales Reps (i) teach customer for differentiation, (ii) tailor their messages for resonance, and (iii) Take control of the sale.

Tech customers for differenciation

Very few clients like spending time with sales who qualify their needs. Thus, it feels like a painful waste of time. Even if salespeople ask so called ‘great questions’. As the authors put it: ‘If your reps’ primary goal going into a sales call is to ‘discover” the customer needs, you’ve lost the battle before you’ve even begun to fight, because, frankly, your customers don’t want to have that conversation.” Though, they may enjoy spending time with someone if they learn something.  The authors claim we should strive for commercial teaching. Meaning:

  • Lead to your unique strengths. The sweet spot to customer loyalty is outperforming your competitors on those things you’ve taught your customers are important. Which means you actually have to know what your unique strengths are. Most companies can’t answer the ‘Why should our customers buy from us over anyone else?’ question. At least not in a way that’s compelling for customers. Can you?
  • Challenge customers’ assumptions. Our clients should object to what is stated and not readily say “I fully agree”. Otherwise, it is probably not challenging enough. The story should be both rational and emotional, about your customer (not you!), have an element of surprise and lead to a presentation of your strengths that answer the need.
  • Catalyze actions. Solving the problem should have a positive Return On Investment (and ROI should be about the problem rather than about the ROI of your solution), seem achievable (otherwise it’s depressing) and obviously be possible with your solution (I know it may sound manipulative, but that’s the point of this challenger sale approach…).
  • Scale across customers. It’s not realistic or fair to expect your reps to understand their customers’ business better than they do themselves. This is where marketing and sales support come into play. Messages must be prepared and scripted for client segments and customer types in order to be able to scale the approach. Thus, the marketing department should strive to (i) Identify your unique benefits, (ii) Develop commercial insight that challenges customers’ thinking, (iii) Package commercial insight in compelling messages that lead to action, and (iv) Equip reps to challenge customers.

Thus, teaching shall be bold, not safe. I don’t like methodologies with acronyms because I never remember them. I find the SAFE-BOLD one nicer than average. The authors propose that your teaching should be Big, Outperforming, Leading and Difficult. If it’s small, achievable, following and easy… Your customer will likely do it themselves or with someone cheaper.

  • Small vs. Big
  • Achievable vs. Outperforming
  • Following vs. Leading Edge
  • Easy vs. Difficult

Tailor to resonate

Widespread support seems to be the #1 criteria for a C-level to choose a solutions supplier. Along with the supplier being easily accessible and easy to work with. This means that to reach this level of consensus, we need to have approached a large number of stakeholders and have convinced each of them about the topic that matters to them individually. Implications include

  • Pursue the consensus sale instead of avoiding it
  • Tailor your messages to each type of stakeholder (easier said than done as there may be many types of stakeholder, each with their style, language and specific interests)

The authors suggest four layers to tailoring: individual, role, company and industry. It’s the marketing department job to tailor messages and script to enough segments to provide resonance, without getting lost in the infinite number of variations that theoretically exist.

Taking control of the sale

The danger of providing insightful tailored information during client interactions is to end up providing free consulting until your customers are educated enough to shop around and buy from a cheaper competitor. To avoid this, sales should strive to take control of the sales process, this means avoiding to passively react to client demands and try to influence the next steps. Authors suggests taking the control includes:

  • Press your clients to give you access to more people in the organization as the decision will most likely be taken by reaching a large consensus
  • Coach your clients about who should be involved in the decision process, don’t ask
  • Be assertive (pursuing your own goals in a constructive way), which is neither passive nor aggressive (see the relevant chapter for an interesting discussion about the nuances)
  • Welcome tension and even ‘like’ this tension in the discussion when it comes
  • Defer discussions you do not want to have now, asking the permission from your clients
  • Have a scorecard about what taking control means in your industry (probably something to be created with the marketing department)

That’s all for Challenger sale in a nutshell. One could argue that the overall point of the book is quite similar to the famous competitive advantage concept by Michael Porter: you have to know your differentiation points and have a sales organization that convey these points to the clients in a convincing way until they buy from you. Obvious? As a concept, yes. To set it up at scale within a sales organization if obviously harder. The book ends with a few interview guides and auto-assessment survey that are worth going through if the concept is useful to you.

And in case you wonder if it works, it is probable that this “challenger sale” idea inspired Nexans former head of sales and now CEO when he ran the sales transformation he shares in the good B2B sales book “La Vente Différenciée”. If you read French, you should think about reading the middle chapter of the book. It’s real life real stuff shared by a real smart head of sales (and not an Academic).  It’s too rare to let pass. And apparently, it worked for Nexans as they competed against Italian competitor Prysmian to regain cable market leadership.

Want to read some other good business book?