A Challenger Rep’s Rise to #1

As we closed our second full year in our Challenger implementation, we saw another year filled with breakout performances as reps started refining their Challenger Sale skill-sets. The following article highlights one of the year’s success stories. The story is about a new rep hired in to one of our larger divisions, who successfully transitioned from Relationship Builder to Challenger, delivering the top sales performance of his division for the year. Following is an excerpt from my interview with Phil Daily as we debriefed his performance for the year…

Interview with Phil Daily

Phil Daily Challenger Sale RepJeff: You came into the organization brand new last year, and not only learned Challenger selling, but learned a new industry, all while earning the position of top sales person of the year on your team. What was impressive about this is that the person who had typically been #1 for nearly 20 years had another great year as well. For those outside the organization, they may wonder if it was just a matter of a ‘hot’ territory, a fast growing industry, or some other circumstance not directly related to your performance. Honestly, did Challenger have anything to do with this, or were there other contributing factors like inheriting a favorable territory? Phil: Our industry is one that is slow to change and steeped in tradition. The customers care deeply about their purpose and “getting it right,” and I believe the more purpose one sees in their vocation, the more powerful Challenger can be. Coming into my territory last year, I used Challenger to confront the status quo and the “way it’s always been done.” As a result, I saw positive growth in regions of the country that are traditionally thought of as declining markets with declining growth. Jeff: What is your impression for why these markets had been in decline? Phil: When sales reps used traditional product-centric and relationship building approaches, it caused our solution to blend in like ‘white noise.’ Challenger brought a constructive tension, which was sorely needed for change. Jeff: Prior to beginning your Challenger journey, which of the five profiles best represented your own sales approach? Phil: A mixture between Relationship Builder and Challenger. Jeff: Interesting. Those two approaches are often diametrically opposed. How did these two profiles manifest themselves in your approach? Phil: Deep down I believe I had some Challenger qualities and behaviors. However, before understanding what a Challenger message looked like, I would back off as I felt uncomfortable with the constructive tension. As a result, I would default back to relationship building and try “friending” customers into the sale. Trusting the process of Challenger has really helped me in overcoming this barrier. Jeff: Often based on the name “Challenger” alone, people can have some reservations about the approach. Did you have any initial reservations when introduced to Challenger? Phil: Yes. Intentionally creating ‘Constructive Tension’ can sound scary. However, I was most anxious about how to execute. There is a lot of information to take on when learning Challenger, especially through the transitions. Jeff:  Describe what you mean by transitions? Phil: Struggling through transitions relates back to my lack of familiarity with Challenger choreography.  For example, I would be so focused on Reframe, when it came time to progress the conversation into Rational Drowning, I would struggle with a ‘transition’ statement that was conversational and natural.  My supervisor helped me with transitional phrases such as “the interesting thing is” or “to solve this issue…” Over time, making this conversational became second nature. Jeff: What was the hardest part of the Challenger process for you? Phil: I was so focused on the Reframe itself, that I was having a hard time setting it up properly. I found myself having very long conversations before I could move forward.

I finally discovered the Warmer allows me to find the customer’s ‘frame’ so I can begin to redirect their thoughts.Tweet:

It was difficult at first, because I was so used to looking for areas of agreement to build the relationship. However, setting up and delivering the Reframe is about turning the head of the customer, which can create moments where they don’t always know how to respond. Jeff: What would you advise others to do that struggle with that same area? Phil: Don’t be overly anxious to get to the Reframe before you get to the Warmer. Demonstrating credibility cannot be understated.  When prospects think, “He gets me,” it builds the critical foundation of trust, but it’s not based on being nice. Rather, it’s based on providing valuable commercial insight with industry knowledge. Jeff: What do you know now, that you wish you knew when you first began your Challenger journey a year ago? Phil: Jumping to solution before the appropriate time is a very easy mistake to make. Fight the temptation to lead with product and trust the Challenger choreography. Jeff: I receive emails from sales reps all over the world that are contemplating Challenger, and one of the common concerns is their fear that customers won’t respond well to the approach. How have your customers/prospects responded to your Challenger conversations? Phil: My customers believe, and have told me, that they have gained valuable insight to their challenges. This insight prompts them to reach for solutions that are uniquely designed to confront these ‘new challenges.’  When teaching customers to think about their industry in a new way, the same old way of researching and buying product won’t do. But with the Challenger approach, customer’s often share with me that our “resources are specifically designed for their issues.” Jeff: What advice would you give to those sales reps considering the Challenger methodology? Phil: Learning Challenger concepts is not easy. However, the potential for greater performance and purpose is definitely a worthwhile endeavor!

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In an upcoming article, I will be asking these same questions of our top sales rep from another large division that applied the Challenger approach to his acquisition efforts, and had breakout results.

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.

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Don’t Sabotage Your Challenger Sale Implementation

Sabotage Challenger Sale ImplementationIn January 2012, as I began my first Challenger Sale implementations across several of our SBUs, there were certainly things I would later change in subsequent implementations. One thing that remains the same to this day, however, is in identifying my true goal for Sales Reps and Sales Leaders.

After sufficiently making a compelling case for departing from the status quo, I make one point abundantly clear with sales leaders and teams:

“My goal is NOT for you to become a Challenger! My goal is to help you achieve your goals with intentionality, predictability and repeatability. If you are currently not experiencing this in your sales performance, I can train you to any of the five profiles as each are capable of producing high performers. But only one has nearly a 14x higher likelihood of producing high performers! Therefore, in which of the five would you like me to aim my training?”

Should Challenger be Mandatory?

It’s understandable why leadership would want to make mandatory something as important as Challenger, especially given the organizational importance of meeting revenue and margin objectives. But doing so, can often have the exact opposite effect of what is intended. Following are three reasons why I would recommend avoiding the ‘mandate’ for anyone looking to implement The Challenger Sale.

  1. Mandates lessen value. Whenever you take someone’s choice away from them, which is what making something mandatory does, you risk creating a perception that whatever is coming, can’t be that great. After all, if it were, people would want to participate without the requirement.
  2. Mandates shift ownership. By default, when an organization makes something mandatory, the onus for the outcome lies squarely with the organization. Is this where you want the ownership for outcomes to be for the rep, or would you rather have the rep own their own outcomes?
  3. Mandates don’t equate to buy-in. Anyone with children will quickly recognize this reality with the following example…“Tell your sister your sorry…like you mean it!” Just as mandates don’t equate to buy in, neither does compliance equate to behavioral change.

Not all mandates are bad. They definitely have their place, but using them in your Challenger implementation will start things off on the wrong foot. Furthermore, it is unnecessary if you properly frame the need for change before trying to reframe.

Regarding my original point on ‘making people Challengers,’ be careful of the message you are sending when implementing Challenger. Sending a message such as, “We are going to turn everybody into Challengers” will cause a lot of unnecessary anxiety and resistance. It will wreak of being the “next new program” and to many reps, will suggest you are taking a blind and blanket approach to selling. Their defenses will be primed to make impassioned pleas for why their current approach is sufficient. This is what happens when you lead WITH the solution, not TO the solution.

Important to remember is what CEB’s research didn’t show.

The research did not show Challenger as being the only successful profile. Sometimes, proponents of the Challenger research and methodology, can appear more like zealots than advocates. What the research did show, however, is Challenger as having the highest success rate for complex selling environments.

Therefore, if you are contemplating a Challenger implementation of your own, honor your team members by not elevating the importance of  a “program” over their value as an individual.

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.

5 Misconceptions of the Challenger Sale

Misconceptions, Myths, True or FalseI interact and participate in a variety of Sales & Marketing forums and events, and inevitably, when the topic of the Challenger Sale comes up, I hear one of five [often misinformed] points of view on the Challenger Sale.

While I am a huge fan of the research and principles of the Challenger Sale, I never take issue with those that disagree with the research and behaviors when they are based upon facts, not misinformation, and understanding, not ignorance. In short, disagreement is fine provided you truly understand what you disagree with and why.

Five Common Misconceptions of Challenger Sale:

Following are the five most common beliefs I hear from those who support and those who reject the Challenger Sale’s research, behaviors, and/or principles.

  1. Challengers don’t build relationships. The premise of this belief is that CEB’s research showed this to be the least effective selling profile, therefore Challengers don’t do it. To dispel this belief, I will simply quote Neil Rackham’s comment from the Foreword of the book, as he has got it right—”Personally, I believe that a customer relationship is the result and not the cause of successful selling. It is a reward that the salesperson earns by creating customer value.”
  2. Challenger is too aggressive/too pushy. This one is really common, and when discussing in-depth with anyone holding this belief, inevitably I find that they merely skimmed through the book, or heard someone else’s opinion which became their own. CEB admittedly calls out that they have “heard every manner of pushback here you can imagine.” The belief is that the Challenger engages in confrontations while proverbially getting in their face. The truth is that Challengers are quite elegantly challenging their beliefs of remaining in their current circumstances, but aren’t challenging people. They aim at the behavior, not the person.
  3. Challenger is just another sales system. The belief is that this is a different selling system, leading people to believe that whatever their current system is, they must abandon if they want to become a Challenger organization. The truth is best explained by sharing Brent Adamson’s comments on the topic. “The Challenger Sale isn’t so much a ‘selling system,’  as it is a way to think differently about how to approach customer interactions.” He goes on to talk about how it is much more of a commercial strategy. Bottom line is that CEB’s research did not reveal Challengers all using the same sales training and system. They concentrated on the behaviors, not the system.
  4. Challenger claims to be new, and it’s not. I am still perplexed by this one as I hear it so often in Sales circles and on LinkedIn forums. I must have missed the sentence in the book that said these were all new behaviors. The reality is that the behaviors existed, but had not been organized and reported in the manner that CEB had done through its research. What was new with the unveiling of their research, was their findings and nomenclature (e.g., “The Challenger).
  5. Challenger is for Sales. Finally, this last one is misunderstood by both, dissenters and supporters of the Challenger Sale. It’s understandable given the title of the book and Rackham’s endorsement on the cover. Any conversation with authors, Matt and Brent, will quickly dispel the belief that this is meant for Sales alone. For those that read the book, and closely follow CEB’s conversations on the topic, you will already know this as they talk at length about building organizational competencies and alignment to these behaviors with messaging, marketing, etc.
Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.

Implementing the Challenger Sale, Visually

Making a Powerful Impact, Visually

In January 2012, I was giving a keynote address on becoming a ‘Challenger’ to a room full of highly competent sales reps, who were self-described as Relationship Builders in their selling approach. In fact, this approach was reinforced by the whole organization as it had been centered around relationship building for more than three decades.

To create an impetus for changing what had been endorsed as the preferred selling approach (a.k.a., status quo) for decades, I had to create a constructive tension in a visually compelling way.

This post is aimed  at showing how I did so in a way that resonated with 5 different sales teams that didn’t know this was a problem.

Background: The Sales Team’s Profile
As aforementioned, the 5 various team types (i.e., B2B, B2C, B2I, 501(c)(3), and licensing/franchise sales), were comprised of highly competent professionals. Most of the team had tenure between 5-20 years and knew their customers, their issues and aspects about how the products, services and solutions would benefit customers more significantly than any competitive offering.

Due to a very unique, well-defined marketplace that is not very large, the relationships that had been formed over many years with customers were very strong. From the customer’s point of view, the reps were highly regarded. Furthermore, these reps were instrumental in taking market share from competitors year after year.

Why Change?
After a deep dive into the metrics, processes and behaviors, I saw an opportunity to go from good to great, especially after identifying that the intentional behaviors were not leading to predictable and repeatable results. As a side note, whenever I see leaders and/or teams that don’t have these 3 characteristics (intentionality, predictability and repeatability) in their performance, I see risk and ripe opportunities.

Additionally, having worked years ago with a 100 year-old company who mistakenly believed that relationships were key to their successful sales, I saw this as the Achilles heel, that not only would bite them, but already had some overlooked signs of performance drains.

Relationship Builders
When it comes to the Relationship Builder, statistically, this sales profile has the lowest probability of success for becoming high performers, particularly in a higher complexity sales environment. According to the Sales Executive Council’s research, only 4% of Relationship Builder’s are likely to be high performers in a complex sales environment, whereas the Challenger profile, at 54%, was very likely to succeed in a complex sales environment. (See Fig. 2.4 from the SEC below).

Challenger Sale Effectiveness

A Visual Case for Change
As with any change effort, it is never just one thing. There are many aspects to leading a successful change effort, much of which is not described in this post. That said, I wanted to share of one specific and practical way to illustrate your point in an experiential and visual way.

With the data shown above in Fig. 2.4, and my diagnosis of where these teams stood to make transformational improvements in their performance, I did the following. I made a life-size bar chart on the stage as the backdrop for my keynote address. I used stacks of the company’s products to make the representative bars for each respective sales type (i.e., One stack for the Relationship Builder, one for the Problem Solver, and so on for the Hard Worker, Lone Wolf and Challenger).

Each product represented 5% within the stacked bar . I took the organization’s most iconic product, which measured approximately 14 inches high in its package, and made the graph with the Relationship Builder profile at 4% on one end and the Challenger profile at 54% on the other end.

There were two aspects of the visual representation that made the effectiveness of each sales profile particularly hit home:

  1. First, the Challenger bar stood over 10 feet high, towering over me as I made my points
  2. Equally as stunning, was the Relationship Builder bar – The fact that I had to cut 20% of the product off the top to accurately represent 4%, since each product represented 5%, had a sobering effect

The stark contrast between the two ends of the life-sized bar chart not only was visually stunning, but resonated with each of the reps who recognized the gaps between what had been and what should be for them.

Challenger Profile Statistics

Life-size bar chart of Challenger statistics

The Results?
A year after The Challenger introduction and implementation, performance improved across all teams. Following are some stand out achievements from three different teams:

  • Team A had a 22% performance improvement from the year prior with all reps far exceeding quota, and within 1-2 points from one another
  • Team B sells registrations, of which post-sale cancellations are also expected. They used the Challenger approach to reduce cancellations, which led to the lowest cancellation rates they had ever seen
  • Team C had an individual from the team that went from being ranked dead last in performance, to consistently #1 or #2 for 6 months in a row by changing to Challenger behaviors

Reflections:
Many leaders wait until they see problems before they initiate a change effort. How about you?

  • Do you know what to look for?
  • If so, do you know what to do about it?
  • Are you challenging the status quo?
  • Does your team know which behaviors to be intentional about that lead to predictable, repeatable results?

An answer of “No” to any of the questions above can have dire consequences if not addressed. If that describes you, seek out a trusted resource, colleague or other business professional with a solid track record of improving performance in these areas.

If you would like to receive other insights on The Challenger Sale and how to get intentional, predictable, repeatable results from your team, follow my blog.

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.