Challenger Sale: Moving Beyond Rational Drowning

Rational Drowning to Emotional Impact

Growing up on the coast of Southern California, I was no stranger to the rip currents we would often see. For those unfamiliar, a rip current (a.k.a. ‘Riptide’) is when the wind and waves push water toward the shore, which then causes the water to travel sideways along the shoreline from oncoming waves until it finds an exit back out to the sea. Some rip currents can move as fast as 8 feet/second.

On one particular day at the beach, I remember seeing a grown man get caught in the rip current. Most of us have been caught in a number of them, and the solution was easy if you knew what to do. We knew to relax and ride the current until it equalized with the rest of the shoreline. It just meant a longer swim and a walk from where you were, that’s all. But for this gentleman, he chose a different course of action.

He began by waving off the lifeguard who was warning him of the strong current. With a wave, in pride he yelled back, “I’m fine.” His plan was to swim against it. Bad call!

It didn’t take long for him to be completely exhausted whereby holding his head above water became difficult. He began swallowing and choking on seawater. In a flash, his once prideful face that rejected help, now showed desperation for anybody to save him. The lifeguard made his way to him in no time as the current led him right to the victim.

I will never forget the look in the man’s eyes – The first look was the look of pride in the face of a dangerous situation. The second look was when he realized he was in over his head.

Temptation to ‘Keep it Above the Surface’

Prospects can have similar expressions, when they have that defining moment. For some, it’s an “Ah Ha!” moment, and for others, an “Oh no!” moment where they realize for the first time how severe the implications are of remaining in their circumstances.

In conversations where one seeks to change the behaviors of another, whether as parents or in sales, there is that point where the person first acknowledges the risks or consequences you are speaking about. When speaking with children, their response may sound like, “I know, I know.” For the business person, this sounds much more rational as they confidently proclaim, “Yes, I am aware of the risks and am taking precautions.” This is code for Status Quo.

This happened recently when I was speaking with the President of an organization about consequences he didn’t realize, and he would be facing in the upcoming months. At one point in the conversation, this President jokingly commented that he needed to do something different or the board would come after him.

He began to move on, but I stopped him dead in his tracks and asked, “Before we move on, in all seriousness, what will happen if we don’t solve this?” At first he chided me for taking things so seriously when he was simply making a joke, but I held out for the answer. I told him, “I’m the serious type, so seriously, what will happen?” He looked down at the table soberly, then slowly back up to me and stated, “I’d probably be fired.”

Within 30 days, he was fired. He had acted too late. His eyes told me a lot, much like the man’s eyes in the rip current. In an instant, pride turned to fear and desperation, and then he was gone.

Rational Drowning vs. Emotional Impact

When working through the Challenger Sale choreography, the third and fourth steps, Rational Drowning and Emotional Impact, are tightly intertwined. I describe these two stages as follows:

If a person fell overboard in the middle of the ocean, Rational Drowning looks like treading water. The victim initially says, “I’m alright,” which ‘feels’ true at that particular point in time. Not until they realize they can’t continue this way for long, will they pass from Rational Drowning to Emotional Impact.

This is not a place most prospects will go willingly. They would rather stand outside of the story…their story…like a casual observer, who can see things factually…logically, and yet remain unmoved, while mired in their own status quo.

Our role as professionals, is to care enough about them to be willing to expose them to the truth about their circumstances.

Tips to Lead to the Center of Their Story

In the aforementioned story of this President who was subsequently fired, I recognized that he was intentionally seeking to avoid getting deeper. I have seen his situation hundreds of times before, but simply telling him so would merely serve to keep him on the outside of his own story.

I could have told him, “You need to change or you’ll be fired” and would have been accurate. But his response would more likely be defensive than if he recognized aloud, as he did, when he said, “I’d probably be fired.” Asking intentional, targeted questions allowed him to begin narrating his own story as his pronouncement of the consequences carried more weight than mine would have. I just had to lead him to recognizing this reality.

Following are a few tips to remember when leading a prospect through these critical stages:

  • Prospects aim for the surface. Like a balloon filled with helium, so it is with prospects. There is a tendency to want to rise back to the surface as going deeper into the center of their own story is never comfortable.
  • ‘Comfort’ is not the aim. If you are not prepared [and skilled] to respectfully lead prospects to uncomfortable places…such as the center of their own story, you will continue to struggle with selling.
  • Don’t tell the prospect’s story for them. According to a study done by the University of Texas (Metzger, 1997), a person will remember approximately 20% of what they hear, but remember up to 80% of what they do and say. In aiming for the uncomfortable center of their own story, ask questions that lead them to tell their own story.
  • Ask targeted questions. Nothing is more maddening and exhausting to a prospect than questions that appear exploratory and aimless. Know where you are leading the prospect in your questioning.
  • Lead TO your solution, not WITH. Your questions, when asked appropriately, should ripen the prospect to a New Way. Don’t jump to your solution yet, as they need to be prepped with what will resolve their issue. This ‘new way’ should aim squarely at what your product or solution can uniquely solve. BUT DON’T TALK ABOUT YOUR PRODUCT/SOLUTION YET.

One final note about these two very important areas of the Challenger Sale choreography – Because these two areas are so tightly connected, there can be a tendency to confuse one for the other. Over the years, I have seen countless reps struggle to even get into uncomfortable places with a prospect. When they do, the most common tendency is to resurface and provide ‘relief’ to their uncomfortable prospect.

Doing this will likely result in the loss of the sale as the prospect merely learned that you make them uncomfortable, but offer nothing but a product solution. They will avoid you going forward. Therefore, remain disciplined and stick to the choreography.

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a 25-year Sales & Marketing Executive that works with executives, leaders, and teams to create repeatable success in their business. Articles posted typically emphasize 1 of 3 requirements leading to Repeatable Success — Intentionality, Predictability and Repeatability.
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