Challenge the status quo with a challenger approach to sales

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June 8, 2022

How viewing sales through a consultant’s lens is a game-changer

Customers expect a more consultative sales process these days. They are more informed, and expect better content, more information, clarity into the buying decision, etc. If you’ve got any kind of sales team…or if you sell anything more complicated than a widget, then you likely use (or should use) a consultative sales process.

One of the best frameworks for implementing an effective consultative sales process comes from the book “The Challenger Sale” by Mathew Dixon. This article explores some of the main milestones in the Challenger sales process, some of the specific takeaways we had while going through it, and a real life example of what it looked like to implement the principles from the book.

The Challenger Sales Process:

#1 – The Warmer

Build rapport and establish your understanding of the prospect’s organization, their needs, and problems. When you speak directly and presciently towards a prospect’s exact pain points, you’ll establish major credibility by clearly showing that “you get it”. Your specific product or service won’t be the focus of this step, and might not come up at all. 

#2 – The Reframe

During the reframe, you look at the deeper problem below the more surface level problem that the prospect is aware of. Show them why the current solution they are pursuing won’t cut it. The goal of this step is to get them to say or think: “I’ve never thought of it that way before.”

Challenge their current perspective by identifying misconceptions and shifting their focus to the new more effective methods they could use. While this stage does require a certain degree of tension in the conversation, it’s important to note that this tension is NOT between your sales rep and the prospect, but rather between the status quo and the new perspective shift.

#3 – Rational Drowning

AKA the “left-brain pitch”, Rational Drowning refers to making an overwhelming case for your approach to solving the prospect’s problem, with data and numbers to back it up. This might include stats like the amount of money typically wasted, the numerical size of a particular opportunity, the % success rate of some initiative, target market stats, etc.

#4 – Emotional Impact

Next up, the “right-brain pitch”. This is where you make the emotional case. You can’t optimize your sales by making an analytical pitch alone, you need to get the prospect’s emotional buy-in as well. The easiest way to do this is through a storytelling approach, describing anecdotes that correspond with the prospect’s pain points and needs, or ones that correspond with these 6 stages of the sales process (describing from a customer’s perspective). 

#5 – The New Way

This is when you start to map out your better approach to the problem. This stage shows them that there is a really good solution that exists, and how the problem can be solved (the details for what features that involves and how they can take action now is in the next step). That means you aren’t introducing your product or service quite yet, but instead are painting a clear picture for how their problem can easily be solved in a new and better way. 

The ultimate goal in this step is to educate the prospect about what the ideal solution to their problem looks like in general (which your product / service would align with). When done properly, this will set up the prospect to already be sold on your solution before your specific product or service is even mentioned. They are bought in and ready to go and are just waiting for the details for how they can pull the trigger.

#6 – The Solution

Now for the easy part – pitch your product or service. If you’ve done all the previous stages properly, all that’s left is to 1) connect the dots between their problem -> the ideal type of solution -> your specific product, and 2) giving them the details of the offer with a call-to-action for them.

Who is the right type of person for this kind of consultant of sales:?

One of the more interesting parts of the book is how they profile the main tyes of personas of salespeople and the relative performance of each sales style. While the book goes into a lot more very helpful detail about the different types of sales personas, here is a brief summary of the personas:

  • The Hard Worker: A motivated sales rep who always goes the extra mile and strives to improve.
  • (Top Performer) The Challenger: A Challenger sales rep deeply understands customers, is good at seeing the world in new ways, and loves to debate and push (nudge / guide) the customer in the right direction.
  • The Relationship Builder: This kind of sales rep persona is agreeable, likable, is skilled at building rapport, and is generous in giving their time to others (colleagues, prospects, etc.)
  • The Lone Wolf: Independent and self-assured, the Lone Wolf tends to do things their own way and follows their instincts.
  • The Problem Solver: A reliable and detail-oriented sales rep who is good at troubleshooting all problems. 

Now you might guess that the performance of the Hard Worker is highest, or maybe the Relationship Builder, or even the Problem Solver? It might come as a surprise, but the Challenger persona performs far and away the best. 

Personal anecdote of how this worked for me would be compelling

At the time of initially reading the book “The Challenger Sale”, I was running an agency providing professional services for developing online course development and marketing services. I read a lot of sales books while I worked on refining and scaling the sales process for the agency. This one was my favorite and the most memorable from that time.

While I was already pretty proud of the sales process we had, I knew it could be better. I felt like we were missing something, some potential strategy or solution, because the results were extremely variable, and there were too many instances of seemingly highly qualified leads being closed and then ghosting for unknown reasons. At first, I looked at the more micro level of best practices of email follow ups, and onboarding new client…the works. But the problem persisted.

As I read and digested the challenger sale, I had many moments of realization (while reading and afterwards) about why certain things worked or didn’t work in our sales process. Why some deals were successful and others which weren’t, and why.

Here are some of the examples of those aha moments:

  • Had been hiring for the wrong sales rep personas (hard worker and relationship builder) 
  • I now understood how certain deals fell through due to ambiguity – the prospect not clearly understanding something which created some feeling of unease which torpedoed the deal
  • It didn’t work to just clearly state the value proposition and details of process and pricing, no matter how clear and perfectly suited to the prospect. Didn’t matter if I was going to provide 10 million bucks of marketing services for $100. In most cases a successful deal still required a process of educating and guiding the prospect through the challenger sales stages. And in many cases, where we were able to seemingly skip several steps of the process, that kept coming back to bite us later.
  • The application of these takeaways for our sales and marketing processes in turn affected a lot of other aspects of the business, like the sales staff best suited to our sales process, how the prequalification phase worked, etc.
  • It was almost as if the degree of consultative-ness of closing a particular deal directly correlated to what was perceived as a fair price for our services by our target market. They pay way more when the offer was consultative in nature and when the pitch was delivered in a conservative way.
  • Giving prospects a clear surprising aha moment was very effective and often the best predictor of a successful deal. Whenever there was a clear aha moment for the prospect during the sales process, the deal almost always closed.

I highly recommend buying and reading the book and its entirety: Buy The Challenger Sale

In the meantime, which of the 6 stages are you already using? Which have you yet to try?

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