If you read one sales book this year, The Challenger Sale should be the one. Actually, if you don’t generally read sales books at all, you should make an exception in this case and read this one.
The Challenger Sale comes from Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson of the Sales Executive Council, part of the Corporate Executive Board. The hypothesis it sets out flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that suggests that complex B2B selling is all about relationships. Instead it describes a new kind of B2B sales winner – the Challenger – who has six specific attributes.
The Challenger …
- 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, and
- Can pressure the customer
Now, this hypothesis is not conjured up in a vacuum. It is based on original research with 700 sales people, followed by a global analysis of 6,000 sales professionals involved in large-scale, complex, B2B sales. This is not trivial work, and the conclusions drawn from the data are not to be ignored. Challengers are able to teach for differentiation, tailor for resonance, and take control of the sale.
When the analysis was completed by Dixon, Adamson and their colleagues, five different types of sales reps emerged: the hard worker, the challenger, the relationship builder, the lone wolf and the reactive problem solver. The results of the analysis are striking, and some may be surprised by the main thesis, viz., When selling complex solutions the highest-performing reps were challengers and the lowest-performing reps were relationship builders.
I wrote a blog post back in August 2010 called Why Customers and Suppliers collide. It opens with the following:
You’d be forgiven for thinking that being a customer is easier than being a sales person. All the customer’s got to do is pick a supplier, right? But when the customer makes that buying decision, the risk shifts from the supplier to the customer, and the impact on the customer of a poor buying decision is usually greater that the impact on the salesperson of a lost sale.
The core premise in that post is that the customer does not always know the best decisions to make for their own business, and it is the salesperson’s job to point the way. The Challenger Sale gives really pragmatic advice on how to navigate that journey.
I had an opportunity to discuss the book in detail with one of the authors, Matt Dixon, and the attention to detail he exhibited, the passion shown for the topic, and the care taken in drawing conclusions, are uncommon in the sales world. Many other publications on this matter are based on anecdote and war stories, whereas the research behind The Challenger Sale gives depth to the unassailable inferences that are clearly drawn.
As I reflected on the excellent points in this book, I looked to other references that might bring additional measurable insight to its core hypothesis.
As you can see from this chart here – quota achievement can be directly correlated to the extent to which sales organizations can effectively design customer focused solutions aligned with the real needs of the customer. The source of this data is the Dealmaker Index – a free global sales benchmarking service that is free to all, where you can score your sales effectiveness. The correlation between this and the findings from the Sales Executive Council’s research is not a linear one, but it further supports the hypothesis.
The book itself is extremely well written and it is very consumable. The ideas are presented cogently, and it is replete with though-provoking and prescriptive advice. Interestingly, the foreword of the book is written by Neil Rackham, a fact that proponents of SPIN Selling might find surprising. In fact Rackham suggests that this is “The most important advance in selling for many years.” The challenge (pun intended) for those who wish to adopt the principles in this valuable book will be how to embed the Challenger discipline in the daily operation of the sales organization. Perhaps there will be an app for that.
As I said at the outset, this is book well worth reading. If you’ve been focused on hiring relationship sellers, or trying to develop your own relationship skills, you will find that The Challenger Sale gives you pause for thought, and that is always a good thing.