4 Responses to The Challenger Sale: My Thoughts From A Sales Enablement Perspective – Part 1

  1. Brent Adamson says:

    Hi Tamara,

    Many thanks for your thoughtful post on The Challenger Sale. In many ways, your thoughts ring very true to us, as you’re experiencing something very similar to our own thinking as we’ve traveled this journey through the research across the past several years.

    One thing consistently true about the kind of research we conduct at CEB is the fact that, the more answers we find, the more questions we have. For each insight, there are implications. And you’ve identified many of them in your post. In fact, much of our work since the publication of the book, has been focused on the very questions you raise—as, we’d agree, they’re all fundamentally important.

    First things, first, however, from our perspective, the Challenger Sale isn’t so much a “selling system” (indeed it was never meant to be), as it is a way to think differently about how to approach customer interactions. In many ways, the term “system” places both too high a burden on what Challenger alone can accomplish (a point you make as well), and too limited a perspective on all the areas across the commercial organization its implementation has implications. Indeed, our most recent work on the Challenger approach isn’t written for sales at all, but marketing. It’s a deep look at how and why to create disruptive content (irrespective of channel) designed to disrupt customers’ thinking given their ability today to learn more about their needs on their own than ever before. Ultimately, the lesson there is much less about a sales system, than a commercial strategy, as alignment across sales and marketing, particularly in terms of content creation and differentiator selection will be absolutely crucial for any aspect of the Challenger approach to truly work effectively. In this work, we dive deep into everything from marketing organizational structure, to the marketer talent necessary to create disruptive commercial insights, to world-class lead management and nurturing systems designed to identify what we’ve come to call “emerging” demand (where customers are open to new ideas) vs. “established” demand (where customers have already identified their needs and possible solutions).

    That said, to return to your specific points. When we think of the Challenger approach specifically from the perspective of sales, much of our work last year (partially profiled in HBR) was specifically designed to answer a number of your questions. So, for example, we looked very closely at the criteria the best reps use to segment their pools, and qualify opportunities (turns out, customers in a state of disruption are strongly preferred by star performers over customers able to clearly articulate their needs). We looked at the timing in the purchase preferred by the best reps (which turned out to be prior to customers identifying their needs, not after—particularly as they’re learning, not so much buying (i.e., long before a typical sales process would say reps either should or could engage)). We looked at how the best sales reps think about process execution (turns out they’re less interested in selling something, as helping the customer buy something—so they focus on coaching customers through the purchase, guiding them every step of the way, rather than relying on the customer to coach them through the sale). But either way, they effectively use disruptive insight to initiate a completely new purchase process altogether, rather than simply aligning to an existing one (which, admittedly becomes both difficult and risky with purchases already in later stages (e.g., the “bakeoff” of RFP responses)—which is why stars significantly discount their value as a way to generate incremental demand (as reflected dramatically in the data).

    Finally, to the question of customer stakeholders, we find that star performers very carefully seek out stakeholders most able to build consensus and drive organizational change. Because those individuals are most likely to (1) gravitate to disruptive insight in the first place, and (2) be able to drive the organizational change necessary to realize the benefit of that insight. We’ve come to call these individuals Mobilizers, as that’s what they are, the drivers of action, the mobilizers of change. And what’s especially interesting about these Mobilizers is, the data tell us, they present in nature irrespective of role or seniority (with the exception of Procurement, where we consistently find fewer of them). In fact, when you cut the data by senior decision makers, you find that roughly a third of them are indeed Mobilizers, but another third are Blockers, and the other third are Talkers—Blockers being individuals resistant to new ideas and change (e.g., in “execution mode”), and Talkers individuals open to vendor conversations, and willing to share information, but not particularly likely or able to drive organizational change. In our more detailed treatment of the topic we discuss at length the risks of selling to senior decision maker Talkers, as they appear superficially to be helpful and well suited to our sales efforts, but ultimately prove unable to help close the deal (something our members complain of all the time). I’ve also spent a great deal of time in my travels around the world with this material working with sales leaders to think through mitigation strategies for those situations when you have no choice but to sell to a Blocker, for example. And I’m always amazed at the creativity of the world’s best sellers to find ways around that situation (and their willingness to move on, should that prove to be impossible).

    In any case, when you put it all together, we’d agree with you. When you set out to research something as complex as the behaviors most likely to drive sales success, you’re almost always guaranteed to find two things. One is answers. And two is more questions. And as these questions continue to arise, we’ll continue to study them. For example, something you mention which we also believe merits more work is the question of tailoring—modifying the delivery of an insight to various stakeholders, given their role or interests.

    That said, being sympathetic to your point about a broader account management framework (and responding to strong demand across our membership), we have taken everything we’ve learned so far and built it into an account planning/management tool, we call The Challenger Plan. The Challenger Plan combines all of the findings from all of these various research streams into a single-page point of view which maps everything we know to date from our data regarding how the best reps approach selling—opportunity identification, qualification, stakeholder analysis, process timing, alignment to purchase patters, coaching, you name it. Each with a set of tools to help sales reps and managers very tactically implement these ideas as they sell. And the reason we like The Challenger Plan is that every cell, every field on the document is built off of findings from quantitative research—tens of thousands of data points now, across at least five different major studies of both sales rep performance and customer buying behavior.

    We’ll continue to share our findings, and look forward to the ongoing healthy discussion of their implications.

    Until then, Tamara, many thanks for your thoughtful post!

    Mit freundlichen Grüßen,


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  3. Brent,

    thanks a lot for your detailed response on my post. I really like “…the more answers we find, the more questions we have”.

    An additional remark to your point with marketing. From my experience, it will be very important to map these findings to different businesses. The more complex and the more outcome focused a business is, the bigger your need to customize content. And the bigger the need to build frameworks, that help sellers to navigate complexity across the selling system and across the customer’s stakeholder system. Also, the more complex a business is, the more additional functions are important to help sales to sell, e.g. solution design, portfolio management, product management, production and delivery and legal. That’s why I’m so focused on the layer of collaboration across the selling system, defined from a busines perspective. It’s about the whole value chain – end2end – not about an isolated sales and marketing view.

    I’m looking forward to learn more about the challenger account plan. Jonathan Dietrich mentioned that in Melbourne the other day. I hope it will be tailored to a variety of different account segments, accounts you are in a collaborative strategic partnership, accounts that are just large accounts but not strategic, or young, strong growing accounts, or accounts with a number of challenges.

    Let’s drive transformation across the selling system from the outside to the inside to enable our customers along their journey to drive change and to make a valuable buying decision.

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