As the world confronts the human and economic cost of COVID-19, sales leaders must focus on a strategy to survive and position their businesses for success in 2021. Our Five Imperatives series, based on the five steps we feel sales leaders must take now to stay ahead of the curve, details our recommendations and perspectives on how to thrive, even in uncertainty. Part Four discusses how to update your Commercial Insights and align them to the shifting needs of your customers.


It takes only the magic words “Open sesame” for Ali Baba to access the treasure in that most famous of the Arabian Nights tales. As a seller, it can sometimes feel as if you are stuck outside that treasure cave, reciting lines and getting no reaction.

Sales and marketing leaders know the power of using the right words, and by April 16, 66% of commercial organizations reported changing messaging and insights to align to this new environment. Typically, the creation of new messages and insights is something that happens over a deliberate time-frame – with companies investing effort and care to get it perfect. Challenger’s messaging engagements, for example, typically take a few months, with much of the time spent preparing and gathering customer voice. But in Q2 2020, companies do not have the time to perform typical due diligence. To engage today’s customers, in a suddenly shifted landscape, you may have to build the message ship while sailing it.

Long term, deliberate and careful message creation remains central to every commercial strategy, but we at Challenger also recommend a tiger-team approach right now to fast-cycle some configured insights (and new offers). This helps to meet customers where they are and mitigates the risk of sounding tone deaf to today’s realities.

A quick message makeover is a project you should entrust to a small team with wide latitude to try new things. The expectation for the larger organization is to help scale the most promising solutions that come from this work. In assembling the Tiger Team, pick members with a track-record of not only having unconventional insights and perspective but also having acted on these and adjusted them to market feedback. This will be an “agile” development process for sure.

Leadership (both sales and marketing) can support the effort by clarifying goals and setting the measurement expectations. In terms of goal setting, you can use early customer voice to identify what’s emerging as a roadblock to purchase: what business problems are current and prospective customers looking to resolve now? Are we speaking to those and closing business as a result? Click here to read about our approach to identifying your ICP.

In general, customer resistance earlier in the sales cycle indicates the need to more fundamentally rethink how your lead-with insight or lead-to solution is positioned in your messaging. If, on the other hand, deals appear to stall later on, it may not be the message at all, but ability to transact around the solution. In this case, Terms & Conditions may need to be rethought: customers may, for example, no longer be as interested in subscription products, even preferring to pay a higher per-unit price in exchange for a shorter-term contract.

Testing new insights

The first step is to test how your insight resonates with the customer. At Challenger, we use the Spark, Introduce and Confront framework to manage this.

Spark: This is short-form content or dialogue designed to capture attention and soften the customer; making sure they are ready to hear a new and different message. This is a non-confrontational, but simple, brief and clear communication that aligns to the customer’s intuition, emotional pain and nods slightly to your solution. A good example of this is to ask if they’d be interested in hearing what others in their position have done.

Introduce and Confront: Once the customer has given you more time and attention, you need to introduce the idea that will challenge their status quo and ‘confront’ them about the effect that status quo behavior has on their business / personal goals. These two together make up your Commercial Insight. Delivering this Insight in dialogue is rarely a linear process, with customers typically going back to wanting more information once you have confronted them with data and emotional anecdotes, especially when they start reconsidering their prior assumptions. This back and forth is a great sign of active engagement –and particularly important in a virtual selling environment.

Based on what we are seeing in the market, we find that the best messages today center on some of the following, beyond the immediate need that the offer fulfills:

  1. The recession of 2008 saw customer conversations shift toward value; we expect it to be no different this time. Very specifically, how will this purchase help a customer’s cash flow situation? Particularly in generating cash, not just conserving cash, in the business. Given that sellers need to reduce payment risk, even as buyers want to reduce spend, it may start to make sense to think through shorter—term contracts and arrangements.
  2. If you are selling into a company that is experiencing unforeseen demand, how can you help them reduce supply risk? Do you have information that would allow them to better determine whether the spike is sustainable or temporary?
  3. Does your solution have features that make it a viable substitute for any solutions that require more in-person interaction? Can you position it to play well in a social distancing economy? A good example here are various telehealth solutions that are rapidly being adopted to many different settings.

Fast cycle on-the-job testing and application of new messaging

In normal times, companies will want to try out a conversation dozens of times before starting to draw conclusions. Our experience from conducting qualitative research, however, is that 5 or 6 reasonably representative conversations are often enough to know if a new Commercial Insight resonates. We recommend trying to keep initial conversations reasonably consistent but to start iterating on versions as you gain experience and learn what resonates with groups of customers who might be expected to have reasonably similar needs (either because of their roles or their verticals).

Challenger recommends taking the following tactical steps with these conversations:

  1. Ideally, you want one or two people to be part of the dialogue, while somebody else observes and takes notes. Ask a salesperson to lead the conversation and to deliver the primary message. Another more senior person, maybe a sales manager or somebody from marketing, joins the conversation to provide another perspective and to share what else they have seen.

    Even though transcriptions and recordings are easily available, we still recommend having somebody join as an observer. That person, more than anybody else, will be able to provide an overview of how well a conversation has gone.
  2. Staying silent after asking a question is a wonderful way to elicit feedback. In a virtual setting, this kind of constructive tension is harder to manage as silence could just be a lag in transmission. If you are waiting for an answer, you likely need to act out waiting for an answer: leaning slightly forward and taking a direct look at the person on camera.
  3. In terms of tone, one important trend to observe is that finance is becoming more involved in purchasing (36% according to the latest Challenger pulse survey). Finance professionals, in particular, are more likely to be directive, and more likely to look for an analytical conversation. The plus side is that they are also more open to rational, ROI-focused conversations.
  4. Skeptical customer questions are superb indicators of interest: if somebody asks you hard questions about implementation, then you know the battle is half over. These questions are worth logging, in order to determine whether or not you want to preemptively address them next time or whether you want to use some of these more obvious objections as a way of transitioning into some of the unique benefits your solution provides.
  5. Debriefs are critical. We recommend that people record some of their assumptions around how they think different customers will react and then, in debrief, test whether or not the assumptions were correct. This practice proves how well you understand the customer today and doesn’t rely on how well you “think” you understand them. This is painstaking, difficult work, but does help ensure that you don’t simply revert back to a message that is old and comforting to both parties simply because it feels appropriate.

Shift marketing to digital

In a world where B2B companies are conducting almost all business virtually, usually from home offices, you can’t rely on the usual ways of capturing attention. Large scale events, such as conferences, are unlikely anytime soon, and customers will hold-off on holding face-to-face meetings with sellers. For now, we rely on the internet and virtual interaction. Though early to tell, the following observations might yet be indicative of trends with the greatest impact:

  1. A blurring of the line between sales and marketing-led outbound activities

    While marketing is usually in charge of longer-term awareness-raising and nurture campaigns, we now see companies forming more of a triad-model with traditional B2B marketers working more closely with SDRs and Account Executives. The three functions partner in setting up the technology (marketing automation platforms, sales engagement platforms, sales enablement platforms, etc.), refining messaging, and measuring outcomes (full funnel CRM dashboards pulling information from all the systems mentioned previously) in order to iterate on the solution and sales/marketing approach.
  2. For the moment, greater interest in media of all kinds

    Currently, we still see evidence of greater engagement: especially with content that is newer and that offers a fresh perspective. Specifically, based on what we saw in 2008, we would anticipate greater openness to consuming relevant, more expert-focused content. Given current operational difficulties across every industry, most individuals are open to new ideas.
  3. Experimentation with newer forms of virtual meetings

    Not only is commerce being conducted digitally, but most people have adopted tools such as Zoom into their everyday lives. Given higher levels of digital fluency, we think that individuals will also be open to experiment with new forms of virtual meetings, becoming more comfortable with larger online gatherings and with using associated tools such as chat, online polling, and general collaboration software.
  4. Further expansion of direct e-commerce capabilities

    For companies who sell through distribution or retail, the current moment is likely to accelerate a shift toward direct e-commerce with companies looking to build up their own direct-to-customer capabilities. For B2B companies, this might mean a need to invest in direct customer relationships, taking more ownership of the customer experience.

If you’d like to have further conversation with Challenger about these ideas, please fill out the form below.

Spencer Wixom & Timur Hicyilmaz

Spencer is Senior Vice President of Marketing at Challenger, and has helped transform sales and marketing teams in some of the biggest and best companies in the world.

Timur has been conducting research for most of his career. He was part of the team that researched many of the original concepts behind Challenger. Mostly focused on trying to better understand how commercial organizations succeed, Timur has spent time working on everything from trying to understand consumer attitudes toward energy consumption to identifying best practices for hospital operations leaders. His passion is for trying to identify strategies that are more likely to deliver a desired outcome than any others.