Katharina Cavano

What does it take to truly embrace Challenger throughout your organization? Our former colleague from Gartner, David Anderson shares his insights into the  five signs you might be missing the mark and how to shift in order to fully adapt to Challenger in a sustainable way.

“We’re doing Challenger!” It’s a phrase I’ve heard more and more lately from sales reps and leaders alike, but one I’ve become highly skeptical of over time. When I think about the companies that have been most effective at learning about and enabling their organizations to embrace the Challenger sales methodology, they don’t say that they’re “doing” Challenger. So when I hear that statement, I pay close attention to the next sentence. If the sentence that follows is one of the five below, it signals a red flag that their Challenger journey might not be on a sustainable path.

“We’re doing Challenger…

…we gave the book to all of our reps to read!”

Nothing against the self-help book industry, but when was the last time you read a book that led to any revolutionary, lasting change in your life? Reading a book is educational, maybe even motivational, and we may pick up a new trick or two, but a book can only go so far in driving significant change. When I hear someone say that they gave The Challenger Sale to their reps to read, my first reaction is, “Great! That’s a good first step in the learning journey of the Challenger sales methodology.”

But what comes after the book? What steps has your company taken to enable these behaviors after folks have read the book? How are you measuring success? How are you embedding these behaviors into your sales process, your CRM, your training, and any other tools your reps use on a daily basis? Have you modified your account planning process? Have you looked at hiring/recruiting? The implications on compensation? How are you coaching and sustaining these behaviors? The only way to drive change is to really weave these behaviors into the fabric of how your company goes to market.

…it’s relationship building 2.0!”

There may have been a time when relationships mattered above all else—when people did business with a handshake based on who they knew and liked most—but those days are long gone. The customer data is very clear on this. Customer behavior has changed; they can learn about needs and solutions on their own, and they don’t need sales the same way they used to. Today’s customers can tell you what solution they want and what capabilities in your solution they do and don’t value.

Customer expectations have changed as a result—if you’re going to differentiate yourself, you better bring something to the table beyond an ability to ask smart questions and explain the value of your benefits and solutions. That’s not to say that asking questions and building relationships aren’t important today—of course they are because they help you communicate your insight—but they are means to a different end.

Here’s the problem: if your customers have changed their behavior and their expectations, and if sales reps need to change their behavior as well, then why would you keep calling it relationship building? Saying that “everything’s changed on the customer end, but everything we’ve always done remains the same” is crazy talk. It’s like giving people an excuse to think they’re already doing it and don’t need to change. Semantics really matter when it comes to driving change.

If someone in your organization is afraid to let go of relationship building as the most important aspect of sales, it is a clear signal that they are not ready to embrace a different way of selling (either because they don’t really understand the Challenger sales methodology or because they’re not ready to change).

…we just trained our reps on how to build insights!”

This is probably the biggest red flag of them all. Companies have taught us that this is not a burden you can put on your reps alone. Customer data shows that they value a sales rep who can teach them new ways to think about their business and needs—new risks, new problems, new ways to gain a competitive advantage, maybe even what outcomes they should be striving for to begin with. Creating compelling insights, backed by data/evidence/proof points at a level that is powerful enough to drive change (and sales as a result), is a really difficult thing to do.

If we take shortcuts on insight creation or if we enable reps to create insights in the field that haven’t been fully vetted by our customers in advance, we run the risk of them not being effective. And instead of reflecting on the insight and the customer situation and trying to understand why it didn’t work, many reps will just say, “Well that didn’t work.” Good luck getting them to try it again.

Insight creation should be done by cross-functional teams of sales, marketing, product, technical specialists, and even customer service. The reps’ role is to use what they know or learn about different customers to identify which insights might be appropriate for their business and to tailor them to the needs of different companies and stakeholders.

…we just don’t call it Challenger.”

I can understand why people have an aversion to the word challenger—for whatever reason, people interpret that word as combative or confrontational. This is especially true outside of the United States.

But when you take the time to look at the data and interpret it, you see very clearly that it’s not combative or confrontational at all. It’s very collaborative. Challengers create conversations with their customers about ideas. Challengers don’t challenge people; they challenge the status quo. They bring alternative perspectives and engage their customers in the exploration of them and what they could mean for their business.

And the data clearly shows that Challenger skills are present and drive high performance in sales reps from cultures all over the world. Now, the way you have a Challenger conversation varies dramatically from country to country and even region to region within the same country. It’s different based on various cultures, roles, and personalities. But at the core, the same set of skills is still present in the data—they just manifest themselves differently in different situations.

An aversion to the word challenger signals a lack of understanding beyond the surface level. If companies or people don’t understand the Challenger sales methodology at this level, it’s a signal that they’re not taking the time to really explore the ideas, dig into the meaning of the data, and reflect on what it means for their world.

Companies that have seen significant results from Challenger have taught us that it’s a long journey. And there’s a journey of learning that has to begin long before the journey of implementation can start. But when you take the time to do it right, challenger becomes a good word. It becomes a rallying cry that quickly helps convey a complex and powerful message of the need to bring something more than a relationship, something more than features, advantages, and benefits—to bring something of value that can help a customer get to a level of results they couldn’t have gotten to without our help.

If companies or individuals are unwilling to take the time to really understand Challenger, it’s a red flag that they could be implementing it at the superficial level.

…we gave the book to all of our reps to read!” (version 2.0)

Yes, I know that this is a repeat of sign #1—but this one takes a different spin. The Challenger Sale book only looks at the initial set of customer data and sales rep skills. It’s a “what-to” guide more than a “how-to” guide. Although the book is a great starting point, it was exactly that—the genesis of a multi-year research study to quantitatively map out how the best reps sell differently than everyone else and capture tactical tools that companies use to enable these behaviors.

Since the book, we’ve mapped out how the best reps sell differently than everyone else across a number of dimensions—how they navigate their sales process, how they qualify opportunities, how they generate new demand and reshape existing demand, how they prioritize stakeholders, how they facilitate consensus (or help customers arrive at group consensus if they can’t be the ones facilitating it), and how they overcome the influence of blockers … and how they measure all of that. When you dig into the data, you learn that the best sales reps and the best companies are running a very different playbook than most, one that goes far beyond just Teach, Tailor, and Take Control.

Instead of saying “we do Challenger,” the companies that really get it say “we’re on the Challenger journey.”

Katharina Cavano