Traditionally, B2B sales reps, particularly premise reps meeting clients face-to-face, have relied heavily on “relationship selling.” In this model, the salesperson is focused on building deep, long term, personal relationships with customers, leveraging that connection to produce a steady stream of sales over many years. Buyers bought based on personal connections and rep “likability”, since all major product/service alternatives were viewed as the same, with the relationship serving as the differentiator. Products and services were sold using a feature/benefit approach, where features of the product were tied to specific benefits to the buyer’s company.
Then in the eighties and nineties, the concept of feature/benefit selling was eclipsed by books like Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling, which introduced the concept of the Discovery Call, where the rep would ask the client questions about their business and achieve the customer’s buy-in to the proposed product or service. This approach embraced the concept of the Complex Sale, where the client’s buying process involved multiple approval levels across multiple departments. Clients were not expected to make an immediate decision, but were instead provided by the rep with all the information the buyer needed to drive a favorable decision through the purchase process.
Around that same time, Miller and Heiman introduced Strategic Selling, which further evolved the concept of consultative selling, where products and services became “solutions”. This approach required an ever deeper dive into the client’s business, and different buyer profiles that the rep needed to identify and formulate a selling strategy based on how the buyer approaches the evaluation and selection process. Again, the underlying assumption was that the decision process would take weeks or months due to the buyer’s requirements for multiple levels of approval.
Solution selling is a big improvement over mere relationship sales, in that the rep actually brings value to the customer by educating them on how their products and services will improve the customer’s business. But much of the data required to formulate this solution comes from an exhaustive discovery process that puts the onus on the customer to research and respond.
In 2011, Dixon and Adamson published The Challenger Sale, which shifted the responsibility for information collection to the sales rep’s company. In this model, the rep’s marketing department researches the client’s industry exhaustively (prior to rep contact) to develop valuable insights into the issues that face owners and managers in the client’s sector. This eliminates the need for the customer to undergo an extensive discovery process and instead boils the rep’s value proposition down to a few key insights.
In the Challenger model, the sales rep becomes a trusted advisor that provides valuable insights to clients about issues and obstacles to the client’s success about which they are likely unaware. This is the key: providing the customer with previously unknown critical insights. It answers the old customer challenge of “tell me something I don’t already know.” The Challenger element comes into play when clients push back on the rep’s claims, questioning their relevance to their business. Equipped with solid industry research, the rep can state authoritatively that delaying implementation of their proposed solution will unequivocally result in lost sales, higher costs, increased turnover, or whatever key metric applies to the solution.
In short, a Challenger trained rep brings real value to the client relationship, making it more than worth the client’s time to meet. The sales process is shorter, simpler, takes less of the customer’s time and delivers tangible benefits to the client’s business.