This post concludes a series we began a few weeks ago:

Our first post looked at the distribution of sellers by profile in 2020, using the same profiles from our original Challenger study in 2009. Perhaps no surprise, but in a moment of economic crisis, Challenger sellers continue to distinguish themselves as high performers. Other approaches can work, but the odds are not as great.

The second post focused on selling characteristics that have remained important: being able to deliver insight with quantified economic value to a customer, ideally relishing the required constructive tension.

This post focuses on a few characteristics that have become more important. One of these changes, we think, is due to the current environment. The other is likely part of a trend that has been building for a while and shows no sign of abating. Both are highlighted (in green) in the chart below.

The first move relates to a collection of characteristics typically considered “communication skills”: delivering compelling presentations, asking insightful questions and listening well. These days, these could be collectively called: “Zoom presence” 😊.

The rise in importance of communication skills is partly driven by much of the world moving online and many interactions now happening virtually. There have been some plusses to this: video demands intense focus. It can make it easier to work with people you already know. Virtual conversations can have fewer distractions, less concern about social niceties, and an environment that is very effective when both parties agree upon what they want to accomplish. Also, various online tools make it much easier to whiteboard (Miro), keep to a schedule (Asana), or simply sketch out a workflow (Lucidchart).

Much harder, however, is trying to engage virtually with people you don’t already know. Here, many sellers tell us they are having to relearn some communication fundamentals. In follow up with sellers, we learned that those who drive higher levels of engagement lean into the features of video. In an environment that demands more focus, they provide more focus: they ask powerful questions, make better use of judicious silence, and then clearly ask for next steps.

The other big change we observe is the growing importance of product knowledge. Ten years ago, we advised companies to go easy on product training. Seller-time, we found, was likely better spent bringing along the right experts and facilitating a rich discussion. However, this approach is insufficient in a world where requirements continually increase as the number of stakeholders rises correspondingly. An eye-catching 2011 study by the management consultants BCG found that the average Fortune 500 CEO was committed to more than 6 times as many different performance goals than in 1955. It seems unlikely that they are looking to accomplish less in 2021. This is where product expertise comes in handy. In a world where buyers struggle to agree on their requirements, sellers must represent, in a compelling way, exactly what they can do for the customer.

On top of buyer complexity, however, is the fact that products are also more complex today than they were even 10 years ago. Cloud-based subscriptions like SAAS are increasingly blurring the line between a product and a service, with customers expecting more end-to-end advice from their suppliers.

When buyer complexity meets product complexity, it’s rare for a seller to perfectly prescribe how a buyer should buy, but they do need to become more agile at addressing customer requirements. This often starts with better product knowledge, which ensures that sellers can carry the experience through from insight, to impact and ultimately to solution.

Check out the video reviews of the Challenger Skills in 2021 series, featuring Timur Hicyilmaz, here.

Timur Hicyilmaz

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.