Many passionate discussions on the relevance of The Challenger Sale are going on.
I really like all the behavior-based research results on the challenger rep. It’s fascinating to learn, which sales behaviors are successful and why, and what those reps do differently: “Mediocrity comes in multiple flavors.” I think, the selling behaviors lead to the customers’ buying experience, not so much to their selling experience, as the Challenger Sale says. Anyway, I’m missing a conceptual foundation to get such an approach successfully integrated and implemented. Because implementation and execution are the moments of truth. That’s where the rubber meets the road – or not. Here is what I want to point out today:
First, I’m missing a link to the customer’s journey and to a buyer role map or a buyer persona framework:
- Missing link to the customer’s journey. What does a challenger conversation look like at very early stages along the customer’s journey and what does it look like later? Imagine a scenario before the customer is aware of a certain challenge, when the customer is aware but didn’t recognize the whole impact and another one, when challenge and impact are already recognized. How is the choreography changing along the customer’s journey for different selling situations? Or is the challenger sales rep only focused on a specific scenario? If so, is the relationship seller taking care of the others?
- Missing connection to a framework of buyer persona, buyer roles:
Recent challenger publications refer to specific customer profiles – Go-Getters, Teachers and Skeptics. These profiles are based on behaviors and attitudes, but they do not align with a buyer role map. Imagine a SVP on at business unit level, a VP for shared services and a SME for application management – all three have different expectations, because they are measured differently and their responsibility is different. So, they expect different outcomes, and that’s why “one-size-fits-all” value messages don’t work. They should be adjusted dynamically along the customer’s journey and tailored to different buyer roles. Which buyer roles are addressed by the challenger rep? Additionally, I’m sure that the role profiles could be a third and very important dimension. Shouldn’t we think about how to engage e.g. a skeptic SVP of a business unit and a VP application management who is a go-getter, at the different stages along their journey? Let’s bring all dimensions together.
Second, there is no integration into an account management framework, that should cover the whole cycle from account definition, account segmentation, account planning including vision, strategy and development of new business ideas, execution, measurement and review. The purpose of such a framework is value-driven: It’s about increasing the value for these accounts and a vendor’s revenue and profitability by enabling successful and effective growth strategies that are tailored to an account’s specific potential and business challenges. It’s about a win/win vision.
What I’m currently missing, in The Challenger Sale, are challenges of a named account strategy: complex sale such as outsourcing, application services, verticals, the whole area of outsourcing and cloud transformation for enterprise customers – all topics that are really crucial for a customer’s business.
Let’s focus on the most essential parts of an account framework: Based on a holistic account definition, the account segmentation is groundbreaking. Often, financial indicators dominate the segmentation. Criteria on the future growth potential and a joined sales/finance approach are missing, but they are key to success. Growth potential is driven by two dimensions, strategic relationships and the vendor’s portfolio capabilities. The roles and levels and the quality of account relationships should never be underestimated, even not for challengers. Second, it’s about the potential value, vendors could create for their customers based on their portfolio capabilities.
There is a relation between account segments and growth strategies. Growth strategies have to be mapped to account segments to define a clear objective for account managers and to optimize the resource allocation. We implemented, for instance, growth strategies called the 5 E’s: From “enlarge” existing contracts with existing budget centers to cross selling strategies as “enrich” and “extend” and new business strategies such as new services to new budget centers or to other business units (“expand” and “elevate”). The higher the growth potential of an account is, the more this account has to focus on the right skills and resources to be successful regarding the execution of new business strategies.
So, for which account segments and for which growth strategies are the challenger behaviors mandatory? For which combinations might they be optional? Are challenger behaviors focused on new business strategies only? What’s the role of challenger behaviors in extremely competitive selling situations where vendors have to invest an enormous effort in contract renewals, which is an existing business growth strategy?
There is another important relation – between account relationships and account segments/growth strategies:
- First, imagine a large account (not yet a strategic account!) with a huge volume of transactional business, e.g. telecommunication services. The next effective step could be to focus on collaboration or unified communication services. On the contrary, defining the next step as a complete outsourcing effort won’t be very successful in a given time frame, because the account’s stakeholder network has a certain perception of a vendor, which is not yet mature enough for such a project. Coming from a transactional selling strategy, an account should focus on solution selling (which isn’t that dead!) as a next step, but not immediately on outcome selling.
- Second, imagine a strategic account, which is already involved in the customer’s value chain, maybe with a vertical solution such as product life cycle management, procurement or business intelligence. Given good strategic relationships and portfolio potential, you could address a future vision on how to make a business process outsourcing a win-win vision for both partners. Coming from a solution selling strategy, an account could focus on outcome selling to be successful in a given time frame.
There is an important relation between the quality, the levels and roles of an account’s relationships and successful, effective growth strategies. So often, that’s overlooked: To win deals that are crucial for a customer’s value chain, vendors have to prove a successful track record with that customer. Trust, especially trust regarding business process involvement has to be earned, by ongoing and constant value creation, which is hard work.
So, we have dependencies between account segments, growth strategies, relationships – what we have to answer is where and how do we need challenger behaviors in a mandatory way and where do we need them on an optional basis.
Strategic account planning, tailored to account segments: Also here, what’s the challenger rep’s impact, specifically? Additionally: How do we run an account team, what’s the challenger’s role? Or do we better manage challenger reps in a solution sales team or in a business development team?
Third, it’s about the so-called “death of solution selling“. How can a behavior-based approach as The Challenger Sale lead to the death of a selling strategy that has a totally different design point? Maybe that’s only the design and system thinker in me, but I don’t feel very comfortable with that.
Let’s have a quick check on the evolution of sales:
- Product selling is focused on what a product is.
- Solution selling is focused on what a solution does to solve a problem or to master a challenge.
- Outcome selling or result selling is focused on what an approach means for the customer’s desired business outcomes.
Solution selling: Are we talking about vendor solutions (inside-out) or about customer solutions (outside-in)? Many organizations implemented solution selling the wrong way, inside-out. But as most of the time, it’s not the “dead” selling strategy or the “wrong” sales process – the root causes are bad implementation and bad execution. Is it fair to blame the whole approach for that? Of course not, but we can blame bad implementation and bad execution, missing vision and leadership.
For me, it’s pretty obvious, that we need challenger skills for different selling strategies and different selling situations – to create customer value at all levels and at all stages of the customer’s journey. Furthermore, none of these selling strategies is dead.
Even more, I truly believe that we need a portfolio of different selling strategies. Those selling strategies have to reflect different account segments and different requirements based on a vendor’s complex portfolio.
The real challenge for practitioners is to analyze different parts of the business, the transactional, the solution and the outcome related business and the different account segments, to predict their future including customer expectations to make the right decisions for a transformation journey. Other dimensions are the complexity of your portfolio and the targeted buyer roles and – the comfort zone of your sales force and the culture of your organization. All that’s much easier said than done. And there is no silver bullet to do so. Nowhere.
After having accomplished that, we should talk about how to implement the challenger skills and where, for each of the relevant framework elements and selling strategies.
That’s science and art at the same time. It’s where the rubber meets the road.
More on that, please have a look at these blog posts: