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Challenging the Challenger Sale

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The message foretold that the new sales person was different from its predecessor, who merely needed to have a good knowledge of the client’s product and the ability to engage in endless smalltalk over oysters and champagne. The new sales person needs CONTENT, content that must bring real value to the client. Something that makes the client more competitive or faster to market. We predicted that the new sales landscape valued content far more than relationships.

At a similar time, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson of the CEB were working on ‘The Challenger Sale: Taking control of the customer conversation‘. Starting with a sample of 700 sales people, they drew some startling conclusions on sales effectiveness. Their sample size is now over 6,000. Their key conclusion was that sales people could be segmented in to five archetypes: the hard worker, the challenger, the relationship builder, the lone wolf and the problem solver. 

Most significantly, the duo concluded that of all the archetypes there is one that consistently outperforms all the others by a “landslide”: the challenger. Challenger archetypes formed over 40 per cent of the star performers that were identified. When you overlay complexity of sale, the emphasis on the Challenger archetype increases to 54 per cent.

CEB also identified that only seven per cent of star performers were relationship builders, that is the ringing alarm bell. Challenger appears to be the zeitgeist or is it a case of mass hysteria? You see, it has a spectacular flaw that is causing a comprehensive gap between the theory and the practical application.

Worldwide we are seeing this flaw lead to organisations struggling with questions such as:

  • Does that mean I only need challengers?
  • What do I do with my relationship builders?
  • What have I actually got in my sales force?
  • How do I hire challengers?
  • How do I make challengers?

What we are seeing is a belief in the data and findings, followed by total bewilderment on how to answer these questions. Dangerously, we are also seeing the wrong conclusions being drawn and the wrong hiring or development being implemented. 

Where do we think the Challenger Sale fails? Firstly, we know that not every individual has the capability of being a challenger. CEB claim challengers are made not born, we would agree to a certain extent. We don’t believe you are born to be a challenger, however, we are convinced that your potential to be a challenger is increased or decreased by the time you enter Secondary/High School. This is because your potential to be a challenger is locked in your intellect, values and motivations. 

The CEB conveniently ignores these human factors but they are key enablers to accelerating your sales team’s development and powering your sales hiring.
Before we go any further, let us first define these terms: intellect, values and motivations.

Intellect is a measure of the speed and accuracy at which an individual takes in, retains and processes information. That’s it. It is NOT a measure of academic achievement. In the world of business, two things impact the level of intellectual horsepower required: ambiguity and complexity. As these factors increase, there is a greater need for intellectual horsepower.

Values are the innate characteristics that define your behaviour at work. It is how we approach decision making and relationships – how we feel about authority and being told what to do, whether we are conscientious or tardy, and whether we empathise with others or not. Think about behaviours you are highly regarded for. You will find that it is the behaviours you value the most that end up making you! Values are essential to understanding an individual’s propensity to be a challenger, a relationship builder or any other archetype. If you do not understand your employees’ values or those of the individual you are hiring, we would argue you don’t know them at all.

Motivations is perhaps the trickiest to define. It’s best described as the factors, both intrinsic and extrinsic, that compel us to act. In a business context, this would be; what job do you like doing? What types of environment do you like doing it in? How do you like to work? What speed do you act? What speed do you then deliver at? And what’s your attention span like?

Without understanding a sales person’s intellect, values and motivations, organisations today are wasting billions on ineffective sales training and development. There is precedent for this conclusion: how many sales reps, that were put through a sales methodology training programme, apply their new knowledge three months, six months or a year after the programme? Some 25 per cent? Is this the same 25 per cent who adopted the CRM when you rolled it out, or the same 25 per cent that hit target every time? Whilst challengers are not born, they definitely are not made by sales training.

Secondly, we do not believe that archetypes are transferable. An organisation’s client market, culture, leadership, systems and processes define What Great Looks Like (WGLL™) for that specific organisation. This is the crux of the issue. In CEB’s own research, over 50 per cent of the high performers were not challengers. The answer is to determine WGLL™ for your organisation, that may be challengers, that may be lone wolves or even relationship builders. What we should be interested in is “what do high performers look like in my organisation?”, define it objectively and then measure all your hires by it and develop your sales force to it. If it makes you feel better, call them challengers.

The challenger archetype is, in fact, too simplistic and focused on competency or skill.  No wonder the application of the archetype is difficult to manage in sales organisations when every individual is so different.
 
As users, what we actually need is a set of simple tools, data led (not opinion led) that ascertain:
 
1.    What archetypes are present in my sales force?
2.    What is the time, effort and intervention required to shift individual salespeople to the archetype we need?
3.    How do we change our hiring processes to hire the archetype we need?
 
Herein lies the final challenge, that of an obsession with challengers as the ONLY profile that works. This is simply not true for every business. Remember that of the star performers only 54 per cent were challengers, which means 46 per cent were a mix of the other archetypes.

Therefore, working out what archetype works for your business is a clear goal to achieve. So, bringing the principles of the challenger to life in a way that has the maximum impact on your business is about identifying the unique ingredients for high performance for your sales force and then changing your hiring and development processes to fill your sales organisation with high performers. Managers should ask themselves this question…

“What if 75 per cent of your sales force behaved and performed the same way as your top ten per cent?  What would that do for your career, your revenue, your profits, your customers and ultimately your shareholders?”

Roger Philby is the CEO of The Chemistry Group, a consultancy that drives business improvement through behaviour change.

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