Putting the swagger back in sales

SMM Staff

A Q&A from Sales & Marketing Management

SMM: There has been a lot of debate online about the theories you propose in your new book. Before we get to those, however, why did the world need another sales book?

BRENT ADAMSON: When we set out on this project, we never had any intention to write a book. At the Corporate Executive Board, we spend all of our time researching the world of sales as deeply as we can to understand what great looks like. The thing that sets this apart from a lot of sales books that are out there is that everything in it is data driven. It is driven off a huge amount of quantitative research that you rarely see in the sales industry and particularly in the sales book industry. Most of the books out there, when you read the author bios, tell you that it’s “based on my 30 years of experience of carrying a bag and running big sales accounts and bagging the elephant or winning the whale,” or whatever it is they do. I mean no disrespect, but that’s just not how we think about sales. We study sales very meticulously from a quantitative and qualitative perspective to understand what great looks like.

When we landed on this Challenger work, we talked to heads of sales at our member organizations. The thing that struck us as so different about this work is that it really was changing – radically in some cases – the way people thought about how they were currently operating. When you look at this data and all that it implies, it takes so much conventional wisdom and stands it on its head and tells us that much of what we’ve been doing is, in fact, incorrect. It was the right story for the right time.

MATTHEW DIXON: The view that sales excellence is something derived by simply making individual sellers better at what they do has been one propagated since the 1970s with very little variation on the theme. The real breakthrough that we think we bring to the table with “The Challenger Sale” is that on the surface it’s certainly a story about sales professionals themselves and about the skills required in today’s sales environment, but it’s as much a story about the organization. Our view is that companies now need to not just develop individual skills, but bring new organizational capabilities to bear to change the nature of the sales conversation. The short answer to this is for years and years, while we were focusing on making salespeople better, customers went away and became much more sophisticated in how they buy. We never really caught up to that, so what we see now is individual salespeople doing battle in the market against sophisticated customer organizations. Our view is you need capable sellers, yes, but you need sophisticated supplier organizations to level the playing field against a sophisticated customer organization. So much of what we talk about in the book is about how you identify your unique benefits and how do you surface teachable insights that you can then equip your salespeople to deliver to customers. Those things have to be done by the company. They’re not just something that individual sales reps can come up with on their own.

SMM: You interviewed more than 6,000 sales reps across nearly 100 companies in multiple business-to-business industries for this data. What were you going after?

ADAMSON: As a membership research organization, we take our marching orders from our members – the heads of sales at big B2B companies. The problem that they were all wrestling with in the late months of 2008 was “How do I save my job? Our people are missing quota left and right!” And yet, within every sales organization that was hemorrhaging with quotas being missed all over there were still a handful of salespeople in every one of our member companies that were not just hitting goals, but in many cases exceeding goals. The question as to what these people were doing became incredibly pressing for them at that moment in time. They were looking to figure out what those folks were doing differently and could they bottle it and export it to everyone else.

Originally, when we hypothesized what the answer would be, we suspected we’d get maybe a couple of skills that would emerge as really important right now. But when we ran the analysis, something fascinating happened. We found that the behavioral skills and the attitudes clustered together and moved together in five specific groups, which became easily identifiable by the profile names we use: Relationship Builders, Hard Workers, Lone Wolves, Reactive Problem Solvers and Challengers. They became proxies for actual salespeople and how they engage the customer. It was not what we were expecting to find, but oftentimes that’s where we find our best work comes from.

SMM: You state that Challengers use their deep understanding of their customers’ businesses to push their thinking and take control of the sales conversation. Your research indicates that they dominate the world of complex b2b sales. Why and how?

DIXON: We sum it up in three key behaviors: First, the challenger teaches the customer, thereby creating a differentiated sales experience. Challenger salespeople show up with customer insights. They know what the customer actually needs and they have new ideas for saving money or making money that the customer didn’t even know existed.

The second thing the challenger does is take that insight and tailor it for different stakeholders. They’re able to make the sales points resonate one way for a chief financial officer, another way for a head of marketing, and another way for a CIO. Why is that important? Gone are the days when you just bang down the C-level officer’s door and get them to agree to a contract on the spot. You have to build consensus, especially for complex solutions.

Third, Challengers assert control. This doesn’t mean they’re aggressive. But unlike a Relationship Builder, whose primary posture is one of acquiescing to what the customer wants, the Challenger actually pushes back with ideas and more tactical things. In terms of the structure of the deal, they’re not willing to cave immediately. They stand their ground.

What do you do if you live in a world where the number one thing your customer needs is to figure out what it is they need? We found through our research that customers not only are more open than ever to new ideas, they’re actually hungry for them. Challenger Reps win because challenging is the number one thing customers are looking for from a sales rep. They’re looking for a sales rep to challenge their thinking and teach them something new.

ADAMSON: Most sales reps, when they show up in front of a customer, rely pretty heavily on their product, their brand, or the service with which they deliver that product to differentiate themselves from competitors in the eyes of that customer. When you think about it, how could you not go in with a certain amount of swagger when you’ve got one of the world’s great brands behind you? What we found when we spoke with customers is they just don’t see it that way. Customers don’t see significant differences in one supplier versus another in terms of their brand, their product or their service. Yeah, they likely differentiate the top three from everybody else. But customers told us is they just don’t see as large of a difference between one company and another in terms of product, brand or service. It becomes a difficult proposition for a sale rep to differentiate themselves in the eyes of the customer based on those attributes. What we did hear again and again is where they do see the difference is in the actual interaction itself – the actual sales experience. They say, “You’ve got a great brand, they’ve got a great brand. But I’ll tell you that you just wasted my time and this other guy provided amazing insight that’s hugely valuable.” That’s what gives you a leg up today in this world – not so much the products and services you sell, but the quality of the insight that you deliver as part of the sale itself. That’s the current biggest incremental opportunity for differentiation for virtually every company and every sales rep out there.

SMM: Your messaage is for reps to know more about their customers' business than they do so they can carry that swagger and come in with new ideas. Is that realistic?

DIXON: We have animated debates with people all of the time about the need to ask questions. That goes to the root of what you’re asking. The conventional wisdom is that I as a salesperson cannot be so presumptuous as to show up in a customer’s office and teach him or deliver insight. I first have to understand his business, his problems and his pain points, and the way I do that is by asking questions. There have been millions and millions of dollars – I’d go to billions, but I’m not sure if that’s actually true – spent across industries to get salespeople to ask better questions. It’s very clear in the data that we collected that that sort of sales approach delivers no value to the customer. This is a very surprising thing for salespeople to hear. When we talk to customers, what they tell us is, “Don’t show up and ask me what keeps me awake at night. Show up in my office and tell me what should be keeping me awake at night. You should know. You work with people like me all of the time, whether it’s exact companies in this same industry or you talk to people who have the same kind of responsibilities that I have across industries. I don’t know what I don’t know. Come to my office and make me smarter about those things I am unaware about.” In other words, show up with insights from your many, many other conversations and bring those to bear. It’s something that salespeople are very hesitant to do, often in the desire to show empathy.

ADAMSON: At no point are we saying this is easy, but it does mean that you have to know your customers’ businesses better than they know it themselves. While that is absolutely hard, it’s not as hard as you might think. For instance, if you sell managed printing solutions and you’re selling it to a hospital, experience shows us that while a hospital knows a lot about making people healthy, they don’t know much about how to manage their documents and ways to save money through better printing solutions. But you do! That is a good example of where you know that part of your customer’s business better than they know it themselves. Not only is it conceivable for most sales organizations to have that sort of conversation, it is what they have to do or else they’ll fail miserably.

SMM: You’ve gotten pushback on the whole concept. Many salespeople have bristled at your suggestion that Relationship Builders, as you define them in your book, will have their lunch handed to them by Challengers. What’s your response?

DIXON: We hear from heads of sales say they don’t like the term “Challenger” because it may send the wrong message of being pushy and aggressive with your customer. We understand. But when you explain that the profile is not about being aggressive, but rather about having confidence in your knowledge of the customer’s business and your ability to deliver value, that’s very different from being pushy and being a jerk. The danger you run in changing the name is you never create a dissonance between the old way of doing things and the new way of doing things. One of the great things about the Challenger term is you can say it to just about any sales leader and they almost instantly get what you’re talking about. You’ve given language to something they’ve kind of known in their guts to be true but never had a word for.

ADAMSON: We’ve gotten pushback from day one, and for good reasons – it’s counterintuitive. We mostly hear two things: “We can’t do this” and “Customers don’t want it.” Where we land on the “we can’t do this” is the story is just as much about organizational capability as it is individual skill. It’s hard to overemphasize that point. The idea that you can bring in a sales training organization and train up your sales reps to be Challengers and call it a day is missing the broader point of what this body of work is really telling us, which is that it’s a story of commercial transformation, whether it’s sales, product development or marketing. It is transforming every aspect of anyone who is involved in creating the experience that you use to face off with customers because it means you have to answer: What are the unique benefits that we bring to market that can set us apart? What are the ways in which customers don’t understand their business that leads them to undervalue those capabilities? How do we build a story around those insights that leads to those unique insights? And how do we put those into collateral and send it out with the sales force?

SMM: Is your message to sales managers that they need to turn their reps into Challengers no matter what?

DIXON: The reality is that we’ve seen it proven over and over that most salespeople can actually be equipped through the right training, coaching and tools to at least play the role of the Challenger in front of the customer even if that’s not their natural predisposition. Because salespeople have a baseline across all of these attributes, it’s really a question of just teaching them how to flex some of these other muscles that maybe have been discouraged internally. The reason people get to the Challenger ideal is one more of will, not skill. They reject the new model because they “didn’t sign up to be that kind of salesperson.”

ADAMSON: This story isn’t really about these profiles at all. It’s about the behaviors that drive success. No matter what profile you’re put in or that you self-diagnose yourself to be in, at the end of the day, it’s about modifying your behavior – putting new tools in your toolbox, if you will – to allow you to behave in a way that is more consistent with the behaviors that our data shows are more likely to drive success.

Matthew Dixon is Managing Director of the Corporate Executive Board’s Sales and Service Practice. Brent Adamson is Senior Director of the Sales Executive Council, a division of the Sales and Service Practice. Their book “The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation” was published in November 2011 by Portfolio/Penguin.