The Challenge of the Challenger Sales Model – The Facts

Last week I wrote an article, Now That You Have a Sales Process, Never Mindthat was very critical of an article that appeared in Harvard Business Review.  The authors were nice enough to clarify their position and, even if you read my original article, it’s worth revisiting because of the additional discussion that took place after it appeared.

I mentioned the number of times that I have been critical of an HBR article on sales, but I have been nearly as critical of Geoffrey James, a contributor to Inc. Magazine.  He has written a few articles which, at minimum, embarrass me and, at worst, reflect badly on him.  Earlier this month he wrote, 4 Things Your Customers Don’t Want, another article that qualifies for some questioning.

In the article he seems to be critical of the Challenger Model.  I’ve been critical of that as well, but for completely different reasons, so let’s review:

The Challenger describes a certain type of salesperson, one that Objective Management Group (OMG) has been identifying for 23 years.  This highly successful, elite salesperson, has a Sales Percentile of 95 (out of a possible 100) or better.  This elite salesperson is also described in my 2005 best-seller, Baseline Selling, where I introduced a sales process milestone called SOB Quality (speed on bases, a baseball expression).  To achieve SOB, the prospect or customer is paying more attention to the salesperson than his/her competitors and achieves that by asking good, tough, timely questions; questions that other salespeople are not asking, questions that lead to better and different conversations; questions that challenge the prospect’s thinking.  Questions that challenge the prospect’s thinking is the essence of the Challenger.

The Challenger isn’t new – the authors of the Challenger simply gave this salesperson a name, got it published in – here we go – The Harvard Business Review, and bingo, it’s got credibility.  But, as with most things, now people are talking about the Challenger Sale as if it were a selling process, but, as you must realize, it’s not.  In Baseline Selling, it’s a milestone.  It’s not the first time that people saw a process when none existed.  People still think SPIN Selling is a process.  It’s really a methodology and it fits, in its entirety, between 1st and 2nd base in Baseline Selling.  Ironically, the much simpler equivalent to SPIN in Baseline Selling is another milestone, called Compelling Reasons.

The essence of Geoffrey’s article is his criticism of the concept of challenging a prospect’s thinking.  He says they don’t want that, but he’s only partly right – about the statement – and dead wrong about the implications.

If we are discussing a transactional sale, then he is completely correct.  Let the customer just buy what they want to buy and don’t complicate it.  But most of us in the sales consulting space don’t consult to companies with a transactional sale – that’s marketing’s job to get more people to buy!

However, if we are discussing a more complex sale, or your company is an underdog (higher-priced, newer company, smaller company, new technology, expensive, customizable solution, engineered solution, story to tell, or otherwise not the price or market leader), then you not only have salespeople, but they must overcome resistance with nearly every prospect they encounter.

Middle managers, who have been tasked to gather information, may not want their assignment challenged and may very well want to simply buy.  In this scenario, without context, James is correct again.  However, in the context of a real sales cycle, the salesperson needs to identify and finally meet the decision maker.  In order to accomplish that, the middle manager must be challenged with enough questions, that they can’t answer, so that they feel the need to involve a decision maker.  When the salesperson meets the decision maker, these challenging questions must be asked to not only justify the meeting, but to achieve SOB and differentiate.  This is where James is so wrong.  While the prospect may not have wished for this experience, most decision makers appreciate the push-back that they rarely get from their direct reports and other salespeople calling.

Everything needs context and a lot of what is written today lacks the context to make it applicable.

In summary, prospects may not want to be challenged, but are appreciative when there is value to the questions being asked.

The Challenger Model is not a sales model; it’s a name they came up with to describe an elite salesperson that OMG identified two decades ago and I described as a selling milestone in Baseline Selling in 2004.