What’s all this fuss about the challenger sale?

This work by the Corporate Executive Board is one of those concepts that just intuitively feels right: in complex sales, the most effective salespeople are those who can get the buyer thinking about their problem/opportunity in a new way and who can keep this ‘re-education’ going right the way through the sales process.

We’ve heard in interviews/presentations over recent years a number of buyers saying specifically that this is what they want from suppliers. These notes from our conversation with former government CIO John Suffolk are a great example:

The headline shift is that suppliers have the opportunity to be bolder in creating propositions to solve specific challenges. Consultants need to stop asking “what keeps you up at night?” and software vendors need to stop saying “we have the best tool on the market – how many licenses do you want to buy?” Instead, suppliers should come with specific propositions that solve well-documented business challenges – the kind of thing that we’ve described before as a ‘provocation proposition’.

This video gives a good intro to the challenger sale concept, but is no replacement for reading the book and seeing some of the examples brought to life!

 

So what does it mean for B2B marketers?

    1. I’m really excited by the role it creates for marketers to drive better propositions. In the solution selling world a lot of this is down to the skill of the individual salesperson and ‘differentiation’ isn’t really as important as having a comprehensive set of case studies and capabilities materials. The success of challenger selling comes down to one thing: have you got a compelling fresh perspective to educate your audience about? The vast majority of B2B marketers would have to answer ‘no’ to that question. (Unfortunately, ‘the quality of our people’ or ‘it’s about people, process and technology’ aren’t compelling challenger propositions.) 

      It may be wishful thinking, but the more the sales team are asking for support with challenger selling, the more opportunity there is for marketers to invest time in getting closer to the audience and creating compelling propositions. You may think ‘there’s nothing new to say about what we offer’ but some of the examples in the book show how to overcome that issue. By way of a shameless plug, this is exactly the approach that made our award-winning campaign with Canon such a success.

    2. It’s marketing’s job to start the re-education process early in the buying cycle. The general consensus is that around two thirds of the buying process now happens before a buyer wants to make contact with sales (although I don’t agree with this across the board). So having created a compelling challenger proposition, it’s marketing’s role to get the story out and capture/convert interest (hence a greater role for inbound marketing and influencer marketing alongside content marketing in 2014).

    3. Sell the value of engaging with sales to convert interest to action. With a lot of propositions, we know that the earlier a prospect engages with sales the more chance you have of shaping – and winning – the deal. But people still insist on marketing the ‘end product’ rather than the ‘next step’. If the next step you want someone to take is to have a meeting with your sales/business development team then sell the value of that meeting in your marketing. Work with sales on exactly how to articulate the potential value that the customer/prospect will get from a meeting. You don’t have to convince them to sign a contract with the second marketing email they receive.

    4. Equip sales to continue and convert the conversation. Sales enablement continues to emerge as a growing focus for B2B marketers. I hear more people agreeing with the sentiment that if they only had budget for either sales enablement or lead generation, they would pick sales enablement every time. Alongside a general push to look at more innovative tools and the right way to roll them out, the challenger sale offers a useful perspective on the type of sales enablement we should be considering.

      Partly, this ties back to the question of whether you have a convincing challenger proposition in the first place (if not, the content of your sales enablement may be a struggle). But the book also talks about the importance of the sales experience as a factor that’s massively important to the buying decision: how you sell being actually marginally more important than what you are selling. This challenges marketers to think about creating sales enablement assets that will help sales to engage in different ways and will give sales opportunities to keep that engagement and education happening over a sustained period of time. Think about materials to support different meeting formats, assets to re-engage with cold leads, and tools that can help different job functions reach a consensus.

    5. Work jointly with sales to progress key opportunities. Sales enablement shouldn’t be a question of throwing assets over the fence from marketing to sales. There’s lots of potential to work jointly on specific opportunities, for example with services to monitor accounts and contacts or create custom insights, and getting involved far earlier in bid support (even before the bid is live) when there’s a chance to create a challenger position with the target account. In fact, I think there’s a gap here between traditional Account Based Marketing (focused on a few key accounts) and bid support (focused on the later stages of specific major deals). But that’s a topic for another day…
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