Confronting “The Challenger Sale”

The Challenger Sale has been called the best marketed but worse executed sales program in history.

Is this assessment fair or evidence of sour grapes from a few industry experts who wish they could claim the 800,000+ graduates and 500,000+ books sold since 2011?

I am frequently asked versions of this question by executives and salespeople who are considering investing in Challenger sales training, or wondering if their investment was worthwhile.

To help them come to a reasonable answer, I walk them through three important questions:

  1. Is the research flawed?  Not from our point of view.  Some experts criticize the narrow sample upon which the research was based ­– approximately 6,000 salespeople from 100 large companies. But, do we really care how big the research pool is as long as the research teaches us something?
  2. Does the research teach us something?  Yes, it does, though experts knock the conspicuous lack of new insights produced. There are not many new, fundamental insights into how people buy or what great salespeople do.  I would, in fact, wager that every serious book or training program written about consultative selling in the last 45 years recognizes the value of challenging buyers’ beliefs and assumptions as a way to create value.  But, do we really care about this lack of originality as long as the researcher’s conclusions are accurate and the training works?
  3. Are the conclusions accurate and does the training work?  Here is where the analysis gets messy. Anyone approaching this question honestly must acknowledge that there are as many answers to this question as there are people who have received training from CEB, now Gartner. After all, sales training is ultimately a very personal experience. Just as every client has different expectations for their investment of time and money, they also have their own set of competencies and experiences that determine if sales training can be easily applied to their unique selling environment.

Any thoughtful and experienced sales training organization, however, should be able to help prospective clients understand what they will and won’t get from the training they complete.

How well does Gartner do?

Reasonable Conclusions. Poor Execution.

Frankly, I embrace many of the conclusions made by the book’s authors – conclusions I derived from the many people, experiences and books that influenced my three decades in sales:

  • Focus on the customer’s problem not your solution.
  • Understand a buyer’s emotional and rational drivers.
  • Conduct research as you prepare for a sales call.
  • Salespeople who challenge a buyer’s beliefs are ultimately more successful.

This last conclusion is of course core to what The Challenger Sale teaches.

At Floriss Group, we believe salespeople who help buyers think differently are ultimately more helpful.  We teach each of the above core competencies as essential leadership qualities that any sales or customer-facing team member can apply.

We also guarantee our approach will work for each client we train. Why? Not to sell more training, but to sell less training.

Our guarantee requires us to assess up front if our methodology and development process can deliver the impact each client expects. It is on this important point of delivering to each client’s unique expectations where we diverge from Gartner.

In our conversations with Challenger training graduates, their comments reflect that the book’s conclusions are reasonable but the training is unable to translate research into recommendations that work in real life. There is a critical gap between theory and reality. 

Executive and sales graduates alike are confused by flawed definitions of simple concepts such as making an emotional or a rational case. They express frustration with pre-call checklists that are difficult to use and daunting to complete, as well as the requirement to complete deep customer research in advance of a meeting that is not practical or even possible to do.

We often find that first meeting best practices prescribed by Challenger take too long to complete and only produce generic insights that make the investment unjustifiable by salespeople and their managers. And, when salespeople attempt to apply proprietary concepts such as “teach, tailor, and take control” with buyers who have significantly more industry experience, they often find themselves lost and unable to provoke even the most basic buying conversation.

Worse yet, users often complain that they don’t know what to do after meeting with a customer, and core elements of the training are so complex that graduates often view the material as impossible to practice, let alone perfect.

Of course, these insights represent the unique experiences of sales teams we’ve engaged. Not a representative sample, but valuable nonetheless.

An Aha Moment

So why is The Challenger Sale not living up to the hype?  Why are some salespeople initially excited, but ultimately disappointed with their experience?  How can a modern sales methodology not deliver such fundamental requirements?

For the answer to these questions you really don’t have to look any further than the book’s title – The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation.

In fact, The Challenger Sale is not a sales methodology. It is not an end-to-end sales process. It is a sales meeting engagement philosophy supported by recommendations and tools designed for 6,000 salespeople who worked for the 100 large companies that funded the authors’ research.

The issue seems to be misaligned expectations on the part of its customers. Challenger is not capable of delivering your team an end-to-end, value-based sales process.  It is not a blueprint for optimizing your sales pipeline.  And, it is not going to form the foundation of a unifying sales playbook.  Your organization should probably already have these three components in place before investing in the training.

The research may be sound, the insights may teach us something, but the conclusions of the book lack depth, and the implementation of the training is not universal enough to transform a sales organization or deliver the measurable impact most graduates will be expected to deliver.

What’s Next?

I help executives and sales leaders deliver the returns they expected from investments in programs like Challenger and others.  If you’re frustrated by your team’s reaction to the training, discouraged by efforts to document a legitimate ROI, or just looking for simple fixes to make your investment more sustainable, I’m happy to assess your situation and let you know your options.  Use this link to grab time on my calendar.

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