Turn Your Sales Reps Into Challengers

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It's no secret that a significant amount of selling occurs as a result of relationships. Developing a rapport with your client is often what closes the deal. But what happens when this tried-and-true approach no longer works? The recession may technically be over, but companies and consumers are keeping a tight hold on their purse strings, making it necessary for sales representatives to "step up their game." In their new book, The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation (Portfolio, 2011), Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson of Corporate Executive Board, a research and consulting firm, argue that classic relationship building is no longer enough. Associate Editor Judith Aquino spoke with Dixon about why companies need to fill the gap with Challengers.

CRM: What inspired you and Brent to write this book?
Matthew Dixon:
In 2008, the economy was hitting the skids. Sales reps were missing their goals by wide margins, and our members came to us for help. What's interesting is that every single sales organization had a small group of people who were consistently hitting their figures or even exceeding them. What were these people doing that was enabling them to be so successful, and can others learn from them? We set out to find the answers to these questions and shared the results in our book.

CRM: What did you discover?
What we found, based on factor analysis and statistical methodology, was that certain skills fit into five profiles: the Hard Worker, the Challenger, the Relationship Builder, the Lone Wolf, and the Reactive Problem Solver. They're definitely not mutually exclusive profiles, since most salespeople have a bit of all of these qualities. Think of it as being like your major in college. These profiles are primary spikes in how sales reps engage with a customer. And when we compared all of them, the Challenger came out on top.

CRM: So what is a Challenger mentality and why is it the best one?
Challengers are defined by the ability to do three things: teach by bringing new insights into the conversation with the customer, tailor the message to fit the client's needs, and take control of the sales conversation.

By teaching, the Challenger shows up in the customer's office and leads with compelling information on ways the customer can save money and break barriers. The goal is to talk about things the customer doesn't already know; the Challenger does not start by talking about the ins and outs of the company. Customers are looking for people who can bring value to a meeting, which is what a Challenger does.

Second, the Challenger will take that insight and spin it according to whom they're meeting with. This is important in an environment where sales reps are selling complex solutions and need the common consensus of different department heads.

Third, taking control means not acquiescing if the customer pushes back. If the customer seems unconvinced, instead of buckling, say "Hold on, let me walk you through this insight first." If it's about price, don't cave in to a discount. Instead, say, "Let's take the conversation back to value. The cost savings are actually far in excess of a discount." Combining these qualities makes Challengers very compelling as sales reps.

CRM: What are the drawbacks to being a Challenger, and do companies want all their sales reps to be Challengers?
One drawback is that Challengers are opinionated people. They bring insight, but they are also willing to get into debates. Culturally, many companies have told us that it's a punch in the gut to know that the Challenger often wins, but they're not always easy to work with.

You also don't need Challengers in every part of the business. When you're dealing with a simple transactional environment, the Hard Worker is a better fit. On the other hand, companies that are transitioning from just pushing products to selling complex solutions need Challengers to help them with that journey.

CRM: What are some tips for adding Challengers to your office?
It's important to remember that the manager is the lynchpin. You need to get the managers on board before you can start coaching. We provided a hiring guide to help readers identify and hire Challengers, as well as tips on training their employees. Our view is that Challengers aren't born—they can be made.

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