“Be on the Books” is a regular series in which Braithwaite staff break down what they learned from the best business and marketing books, focusing on the ideas and stories that they find useful on a regular basis.
The Challenger Sale has definitely become part of the standard business lexicon since its first publication in 2011. In fact, if you’re in a sales function, it’s likely been required reading at some point, and we’ve seen several of our own clients distribute the books to all their sales reps.
However, the usefulness of The Challenger Sale concept goes far beyond sales. The data, arguments and examples that authors Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson make a compelling case that business people of all backgrounds need to understand and communicate compelling insights in order to be effective in a complex marketplace.
Sure, that should almost go without saying, but The Challenger Sale also offers perspectives on how to do that.
The essential breakthrough the book describes, based on surveys and the authors’ own experience, is that salespeople’s primary modes of interacting with customers tend to cluster into five general categories:
Relationship Builders focus their efforts on building strong relationships with clients.
Hard Workers focus on working longer hours, making more calls, and just doing more.
Lone Wolves are “self-confident cowboys” who bend or break the rules to be effective.
Reactive Problem Solvers are process experts who are highly reliable and detail oriented.
Challengers push their clients’ thinking into directions that yield more growth opportunities.
Based on the name of the book, you shouldn’t be surprised that reps who primarily exhibit the Challenger approach tend to be more successful. What is most controversial, however, is that they also found Relationship Builders to be the least successful.
While these findings were initially striking to us, in reading, thinking through, and practicing the ideas in the past five years, what’s most important to note is that none of these characteristics are mutually exclusive. It’s fundamental to build relationships. You can’t deliver insights without working hard. Sometimes you have to be creative in applying the rules. Solving problems is essential. And you have to push the conversation forward. It’s really a matter of what percentage of your approach you dedicate to each style.
What most of the book is dedicated to, clearly, is building the Challenger mindset and skillset, which all business people can benefit from, whether they’re interacting with customers, clients or even members of their own teams. The ability to deliver new ideas through teaching, to hone your message by tailoring it to your audience, and to reframe and take control of a conversation, is something that should be essential for all professionals.
Here are some of the specific ideas from The Challenger Sale that caught our eye and still resonate five years after the book’s release.
Hugh Braithwaite, President and CEO
For all of us marketers, The Challenger Sale offers two clear lessons.
First, the term “sales messages” is misleading, if not malicious, for effective marketing. A better term would be “perception shifters,” or even more simply, “a winning argument.” Sadly, most sales efforts are siloed affairs, often based on the false assumption that prospects have no existing mental biases or perceptions about your category or brand. If that was true, serving up features and benefits is all you need.
But most people sell to humans. And research shows the brains of most humans are full of messy, commingled and conflicting ideas about things – including your brand. As the book points out, the best salespeople understand those perceptions and develop insights to change them in their favor.
Second, marketers need to up their game. We now clearly play a leading role in creating, not just prettying up, effective sales messages. We are no longer message packagers – we are insight creators. We need to take that role seriously and build our knowledge of the customer (and the sales team) so that we can contribute at a higher level, as co-leaders in the message making business.
So, the next time you’re asked to create sales messages, see it as it truly is – a challenge to teach, to clarify, and reframe existing perceptions. That’s the true challenge. After that, anyone can sell it.
Lee Procida, Senior Account Executive
The most important chapter may actually be the Afterword. It’s there that the authors focus on applying the Challenger approach to non-sales situations, something I was constantly thinking through when reading the rest of the book.
I’m reluctant to give away too much of our secret sauce here, but there was one direct quote that really seemed to mirror the approach we take here at Braithwaite, thinking through any tactic and strategy as it relates to the goals and market environment. Here’s how they describe this approach:
“In other words, heads of communications try to get their teams purposefully ignore the specific tactic a business customer is asking for (e.g., ‘We need a press release on X’) so that they can instead dig for the strategic reason driving the request (“We need to make sure our competitors see that we’ve moved into this space”). Doing this, a savvy communicator will often identify opportunities to deliver much greater value than what could have been accomplished just by ‘taking the order.’”
Now, “ignore” is a strong word. We never ignore, but instead have a conversation. How we typically approach a situation like that is to say, “Yes, a press release has some value, and there are a number of other tactics that can add more value to get you closer to your ultimate goal.”
Just like sales, the complexity of marketing truly demands this insightful approach. We don’t expect our clients to know every single detail of what they need and what’s currently working best in the marketplace. Similarly, we advise our clients to employ a Challenger approach with their customer, clients and colleagues as well, because it ultimately generates more value for everyone involved.
Kayla Lane, Marketing Intern
One of the concepts I found most interesting was the importance of possessing a combination of skills that contribute to the success of salespeople, specifically balancing the art of teaching, tailoring and taking control to ensure the best outcome for themselves and consumers.
What may be the most important point on taking control is this caveat from the book: “If you take control but offer no value, you risk being simple annoying.” I immediately recognized the importance of this from my own experience, both from the sales side and customer side.
From the customer side, I’d rather be sold on a product or service by someone who pushes me to think deeper about my needs. I don’t always know exactly what I need, and whenever a salesperson has actually helped me solve a larger problem by teaching me about solutions, I’ve been much more grateful.
From the sales side, I’ve implemented this firsthand, though only after reading The Challenger Sale did I have a name for the technique. I’ve worked in retail, selling to college freshmen and their parents, where it’s often the case that students and parents don’t fully understand what they need. I’ve seen in those cases it was crucial to teach and tailor to what was best for their needs and budgets. And, certainly, taking control when tensions were rising was a necessity.