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Tips For Implementing Challenger Selling

Amanda Wilson - QvidianBy Amanda Wilson, Director, Product Marketing and Programs, Qvidian

One of the currently more popular sales methodologies (in a very long line of them), is Challenger Selling. Based off the book The Challenger Sale, the basic principle is that sales success has more to do with how you sell than what you sell.

According to Corporate Executive Board (CEB) research, Challengers consistently outperform other sales profiles in complex sales environments. The key trait of Challengers is that they don’t focus on building customer relationships, but instead focus on pushing customers’ thinking, introducing new solutions to their problems and illuminating pitfalls customers typically overlook. Specifically, CEB boils it down to the fact they:

  • Teach;
  • Tailor; and
  • Take control, using constructive tension


But how do you ensure your investment is worth it?

Does Challenger Selling Work?

I was surprised to read CEB’s own post, “Your Reps Are Set Up to Fail.” In that post, they state sales organizations adopting Challenger find “nearly two thirds of their sales force either partially or fully fail to consistently demonstrate Challenger Selling behaviors.”  Did they just say that there is only a 33% success rate? Yikes!

We rolled out Challenger Selling to our reps earlier this year. And while it is still relatively early days, we have considered our rollout successful thus far. Our reps are loving it. They are engaged in learning, applying it in the field, and sharing stories with the rest of the team. As a result, we are now starting to see more leads turning into opportunities, more momentum in the sales cycle, and less price sensitivity.

While we are just at the beginning of our Challenger journey, here are some insights on why we are seeing early success.

The Roadblocks

CEB calls out three specific behaviors in current operating environments that are inhibiting Challenger Selling.  This was fairly accurate for us, with a bit of tweaking:

  • Process Discipline: There is nothing wrong with an established sales playbook. In fact, having a foundation from which to work helped in our Challenger rollout. The problem lies in the static nature of traditional playbooks. Rather than throwing away the playbook, adapt it.
  • Short-term Focus:  I don’t know about you, but I need my sales team focused on short-term opportunities. My bonus is tied to making that number! We have found the challenge is being able to focus on the short term, with the long term pursuit in mind. Adapt behavior without interrupting the business.
  • Competitive Approach:  Maybe I’m old school, but I just asked for a sales bell to be installed here in the office. I believe in what we are doing here, so when a rep closes a deal that’s going to change the way a customer does business, that’s something to get excited about! With each rep win, they provide a story about how Challenger Selling helped (or sometimes didn’t) so the rest of the team can learn — and they are excited to share it.

    I have seen our rollout not be as much about our culture as it is about our process and tools — and adaptability of both.

Lessons  Learned So Far

CEB is working on creating more tools and best practices through their surveys and resources to help companies successfully adopt Challenger Selling. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve learned from our rollout:

  • It’s About Change Management: You are transforming your sales organization (and to some extent marketing). It’s not just about what the existing behaviors are, it’s about the fact that you have to change them.
  • You Need Reinforcement: Like Pavlov’s dogs, we need to be conditioned. To change behavior, you need to reinforce and motivate. Presenting Challenger, then expecting reps to apply the principles in a sale without any reinforcement (ringing of the bell!), will not change the status quo.
  • Do NOT Interrupt Selling! In every company I’ve worked, if we tried to affect change that interrupted my reps doing business, it would ultimately fail. Every. Time. The trick is to seamlessly provide change elements in the context of doing business. It not only is less disruptive, but provides immediate results for the rep which in turn is positive reinforcement.
  • Communicate and Share: This might be a given, but cannot be overlooked.  Getting reps to communicate and share when things are working (or not) in an efficient way (see bullet #3) is critical to gaining momentum behind Challenger Selliing.

Marketing Alignment

Marketing’s alignment with the selling approach is critical for success. CEB advocates it is the company’s job - not the repto come up with commercial insights for sellers to adapt in the selling situation.  Marketing needs to have a close relationship with sales to not only gain the context needed to create these insights, but to hear how messages are working for adapting and iterating as needed.

Additionally, CEB provides marketing frameworks for choreographing the appropriate messaging to lead to — not with — your solutions. This is a great practice for marketers regardless of supporting the sales methodology.

Like any methodology or change in behavior, rolling out Challenger takes commitment, tools and support to ensure success. But the benefits of stronger alignment and more deals closed can make the return on investment well worth the effort.

Amanda Wilson is Director of Product Marketing and Programs at Qvidian, a provider of sales effectiveness applications.