Book reviews - Sales

Book Recommendation: The Challenger Sale

This book, by Brent Adamson and Matthew Dixon, comes very highly touted, especially by Neil Rackham himself, who calls it “the most important advance in selling for many years.”I’d restrain my enthusiasm a little short of that description, but overall it is an excellent book, with provocative insights and useful information for salespeople looking for ways to break out of the pack, especially in difficult economic times.

The key to a really good book is that it makes you say, “I never thought of that before,” and to use that insight to improve your life in some way. Interestingly, that’s also the key to a really good salesperson, as well.

The book is based on extensive research by the Sales Executive Council into the attributes of successful sales professionals. They found that salespeople tend to cluster into five different types, based on their behaviors: Hard Workers, Challengers, Relationship Builders, Lone Wolves, and Reactive Problem Solvers. Research is great when it generates new and unexpected insights, and three are central to the book.

Key insight #1: Salespeople matter—a lot!

One of the surprising insights generated by their research was that the Sales Experience accounted for 53% of the contribution to customer loyalty, more than company and brand impact, product and service delivery, and value-to-price ratio combined! In other words, the latter three are just tickets to be able to play; how you sell is more important than what you sell. In complex solution sales, star performers outperform core performers by 200%, as opposed to 59% in transactional selling, so it’s a critical insight.

If how you sell is so important, the next critical insight is about what the most effective reps out of the 6,000 that they surveyed do differently.

Key insight #2: They don’t care how much you care until they know how much you know

Of the five types, relationship builders are the least effective performers. The old saying, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” is better said, “they don’t care how much you care until they know how much you know.” Relationships are important, but they are the result of successful selling and not the cause (as Rackham says in the Foreword).

In other words, what customers value most today is a rep who teaches them something, who challenges their insights and their view of the world. These reps are the Challengers and they comprise the largest component of top performers. Unlike relationship builders who focus on resolving tension and keeping everyone happy, challengers like to produce constructive tension, because major sales are about creating change and change generally requires discomfort.

The key is not in discovering the customer’s needs and being able to express them, it’s in being able to create the need that they didn’t even have by getting them to look at their world in a way they had not before. As they say, if your customer’s reaction to your pitch is, “That’s exactly what’s keeping me up at night. You really understand our needs”, you’ve actually failed. What you want them to say is, “Huh, I never thought of it that way before.”

Of course, if you do this and then they go ahead and solve their problem with a cheaper competitor, all you’ve done is sold for someone else. So, the other critical piece is to answer the most important question: “Why should our customers buy from us over all competitors?” This question is surprisingly difficult for reps to answer, as I personally have observed in my own training classes. But, with enough thinking and refining, you can answer the question. The thought process then becomes:

  • What are our strengths?
  • How do those strengths give the customer the capability to solve a problem or take advantage of an opportunity they don’t know they have?
  • What do we need to teach the customer so they will value that capability?

As the book says, “The sweet spot of customer loyalty is outperforming your competitors on those things you’ve taught your customers are important.”

In order to achieve this sweet spot, Challengers do three things very well: teach, tailor, and take control. The middle section of the book explains how to build the teaching conversation, tailor your strengths to individual stakeholders, and take control of the sale. The teaching phase is the most expensive part of the book and appropriately enough, by far the most insightful and most innovative. Just this part of the book would make it worthwhile.

Key insight #3: Focus on the core 60%

The final two chapters focus on how to implement the approach in the sales organization. Here their most important insight is that the focus should be on equipping the 60% of the sales force who are core performers to be able to follow the Challenger Selling model. The top 20% won’t need it, and the bottom 20% won’t get it.

The only quibble I have with The Challenger Sale is that many ideas which are relatively well-known already are treated as if they are startling new discoveries. I read some of the passages with the same irritation that Native Americans must feel when told Columbus “discovered” America. For example, they introduce the idea of tailoring your insight to the specific individual needs of the different stakeholders, which all good sales methodologies have incorporated for years. (In fairness, though, so many of these ideas that are common knowledge are still not common practice.)

I would strongly recommend this book to sales executives, sales managers, and most of all, to sales professionals; I challenge you to read it and apply it.

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