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Cast your mind back to 2008-2009 and the Great Recession, a grim time for many of us that remember it. Economies around the world ground to a halt and a great deal of business activity ceased. Now we stand upon the brink of a similar moment thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Just because many governments have failed to learn the lessons of the Great Recession doesn’t mean that you can’t. Those business people who learn from past mistakes will better survive the economic storm to come. For salespeople, one of the greatest lessons to emerge from the ashes of 2008-2009 was the concept of Challenger Sales.

Challenger Sales was first promulgated as a concept in the book the Challenger Sale, co-authored by Brent Adamson and Matthew Dixon. In the years since it has become a favourite of VPs and reps alike, and has become required reading for many sales teams. Despite this, many in the sales industry are still unsure about the concept.

That’s why we decided to examine the concept as it was published. We still highly recommend that you read the book as it is exceptionally insightful, but if you need the bullet points we’ve got you covered.

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The challenger sales process – Everything you need to know

The basic premise of the challenger sales concept is that all salespeople can be divided into five categories. These five categories are as follows;

1. The Hard Worker – They always go the extra mile, are self-motivated and are hungry for feedback.
2. The Relationship Builder – Develops advocates amongst their customers, helpful, generous and amenable.
3. The Lone Wolf – Independent, confident, they trust their instincts.
4. Problem Solver – Communicative and fastidious with a great attention to detail.
5. The Challenger – Original thinker, determined, debative and aggressive.

The premise of the book was to discover which of these five roles performed the best, ie, which category was over-represented amongst a company’s or industry’s top performers. Over 6,000 sales reps including star and average performers across 44 different personality types were surveyed by the authors. Different companies from different industries were included so long as they employed salespeople.

According to the researchers, the most common form is the Relationship Builder, yet it is also the least represented amongst the top performers at 7%. Conversely, the less agreeable more dominant Challenger accounts for 40% of the top performers. In complex sales environments this figure increases to 54%.

Why is the Challenger group so effective?

The challenger sales process is suited to high level sales environments because Challengers are the most likely to take risks. They’re also less likely to want the customer to like them, and instead, they prefer that they respect them instead. This is a crucial and highly important aspect to understand about the sales process, simply put, respect is more valuable than feelings.

Challenger sellers are also much more adaptable and are able to survive and thrive in difficult environments. As challengers are aggressive and direct, they can also take full control of the sales process. Consumers are faced with such overwhelming choice today that they frequently prefer the salesperson to be assertive and authoritative as it makes the buying process much simpler.

The challenger looks for opportunities for innovation throughout the sales process while also acting rather than reacting, ie, they lead the discussion with prospects rather than reacting to what the prospect says. The challenger methodology of sales is to push and prod, within reason. It can fail as it involves risk, but failure ten times and success once is still success.

The challenger sales model and process

As the challenger salesperson is willing to act on initiative it can be said that any plan they have is more a set of guidelines rather than rules to follow. It is also something that can and should be learned by the four other salesperson categories according to Adamson and Dixon. As with anything in the sales industry, the key is to practice, experiment, and learn.

According to the Challenger Sale there are four principles that, when adopted, can turn anyone into a Challenger salesperson. These four principles are as follows;

1. Challengers are made and not merely born.
2. Combining your skills rather than being narrowly focused is important
3. Challenging is about organizational capability, not just rep skills
4. Building yourself up as a Challenger is a journey, not an overnight trip

In order to indoctrinate your team with these key principles you should foster a culture of competitiveness at every level. This doesn’t have to be entirely negative, far from it, and competitiveness can have tremendous value. Just remember that while it is certainly more efficient to motivate people positively, don’t be afraid to cut away dead weight either.

Is the challenger sales model right for you?

Throughout all this you might be concerned that the customer might find the challenger sales process to be off-putting. Aggression isn’t always a welcome trait, you might think, and the sales process needs to be customizable for their needs right? In that case, how can the challenger approach work?

We’ve already covered the fact that most customers want the sales process to be simple for them, but also, they’re becoming less responsive to personalization too. According to Adamson, the customer is becoming less positive towards pitch personalisation. This surprised Adamson as much as it surprised us.

Therefore, while the challenger sales process is proven to work well, you might want to give yourself pause before fully implementing it yourself. This isn’t because it might fail, but rather, it might be difficult to implement especially if your team or company has it’s business model firmly rooted into the ground. Give yourself time to plan the full implementation of the challenger model to maximise its efficacy.

What’s coming next in challenger sales?

Well one thing is for certain, and that’s that a recession is well and truly on the way. That’s certainly going to be rough for some companies but for others a recession can be a boom time.

There are three things sales teams should do to tackle coming economic problems: keep up to date on the situation, train with and implement the most effective sales practices for their circumstances, and update their tools and environment for the best possible efficiency and productivity.

To understand where things stand now, check out our recent reports on the changes to sales and how to respond.

We recommend that you continue to study the challenger sales process as it is a tried and tested method for success during a recession. Set up initiative and decision-making exercises for your team, challenge them to take risks, to be more direct, and to push more aggressively for deals. This is simple Darwinian sales tactics, it’s survival of the fittest and you don’t want to get caught short.

Finally, to raise productivity and efficiency, consider implementing tools like data auto-capture, email automation, and guided selling. Revenue Grid products also make reporting quick and easy, since all sales-related data is collected and accessible from one place.