By Nick Toman and Matt Dixon
As a research team, we’re both humbled and glad to see the huge amount of discourse about the Challenger research and what it says about the changing recipe for sales effectiveness. While not all of the commenters out there agree with our findings or our take on them, you know you’re doing something right when your work sparks debate among some of the biggest names in sales. This debate makes us all better and is ultimately necessary for moving the profession forward.
In the spirit of continuing this conversation, we wanted to flag a few of the misconceptions about Challenger that we’ve seen arise in various blog posts recently. This is the first in a short series of posts designed to address some of these.
The first misconception that we’ll focus on is that Challenger obviates the need for more “traditional” selling techniques. Such techniques include customer questioning, building relationships, and engaging in constructive dialogue with customers. For those who argue such techniques are still necessary, we are in complete agreement.
The idea of leading with insight—the core of a Challenger sales approach–is additive to these sales fundamentals. To be clear, leading with insights and challenging the customer perspective gains you access to the sales conversation – it doesn’t guarantee conversion. A lot of things still need to happen in a complex sale. But challenging the customer’s thinking positions a salesperson far more favorably, credibly, and with greater access than leading with questions alone.
Reflecting on our research methodology for a moment can help reconcile this point. Multivariate regression models highlight differentiators – the performance drivers that separate low from high performance. If nearly all salespeople exhibited a specific behavior, that behavior will not show up as a driver of higher sales performance. Since nearly all salespeople practice questioning techniques, they are unlikely to “pop” as a performance driver.
This doesn’t mean that the best reps in the world don’t rely on questioning approaches – they do. But it does suggest that they are doing something different to engage in a far meaningful commercial conversation, quickly distancing them from the competition. The data clearly indicate that challenging the customer’s thinking with unique insights is what differentiates star performers from their average-performing peers. Interviews that we’ve had with the world’s very best sales performers underscore this finding. These reps argue questioning is vital to a sale, particularly in later stages when it comes to customizing a supplier’s solution, but they also realize customers no longer have the patience or grant access to the “interrogator.” They must first earn the right to ask questions.
Let’s look at the role of questioning from the customer perspective – after all, they are the ultimate arbiter as to the effectiveness of this approach. A thorough examination of purchase and loyalty drivers we conducted across more than 5,000 B2B customers showed the most impactful drivers were (in order of impact):
- rep offers me unique perspectives
- rep helps me navigate alternative approaches for my business
- rep helps me avoid mistakes
- rep educates me on new issues and outcomes
These drivers clearly reflect the importance of sharing insight about the customer business.
Among the least impactful drivers from that analysis (in fact, these attributes are over 40% less effective than those listed above) were the following:
- rep understands my business
- rep can diagnose my needs
Customers know their business. They don’t expect reps to know their business as well they do. Nor do customers have the initial patience to “educate” a rep on the ins and outs of their business. Customers aren’t interested in validation of their preconceived notions through questioning, they’re interested in new ideas that can make them more effective. Answering questions is a privilege, not a right, and it’s one that the customer grants to the salesperson who has brought them new insights for improving their business—not reps who are searching for a way to potentially support the customer business. That distinction is critical.
Can insights be shared through smart questioning? Most certainly – just ask anyone well versed in Socratic reasoning. However, today’s customer no longer needs to be tolerant of rep questioning. They can simply hire a consultant—and in some cases, go online–to assess their needs and evaluate vendors. Today’s customer demands new insights on running their business, mitigating risk, generating growth, or reducing cost. In this respect, the salesperson’s biggest competitor today isn’t actually the competition at all—it’s the customer’s ability to learn on their own.
Irrespective of the tactic used to deliver insight, I think we can all agree that the customer must be shown that their current approach no longer works. Implicitly reps have to say “here’s what’s wrong with the status quo and here’s why you should try a new approach.”
The bottom line is this: In order to get the customer to think differently about you as a supplier, you must first get customers to think differently about themselves.
That’s our point of view. What’s yours?