2013-14 are the years of insight selling.

Posted: September 25, 2013 in Uncategorized

solution selling is dead - 2013 is the year of insight selling

Many B2B sales managers and executives assume that things like customer relationship building and a solution sales-based strategy are the key to B2B sales success. Unfortunately, those people are mostly wrong.

The reason? According to CEB executive director Matt Dixon, author of the The Challenger Sale, relationships and solution-based pitches are far less relevant in the information age. Today, rather than relying on B2B sellers to perform a needs diagnosis and problem assessment for them, B2B buyers are doing much of that research themselves. And while relationships still matter, the currency of what constitutes a valued relationship has changed dramatically.

As a result, Dixon explains, B2B sales has devolved into little more than a price war. And if your sales team isn’t comprised of salespeople who are willing to challenge buyers’ perceptions and deliver fresh insight that they haven’t yet considered, it’s a war that your company may very well lose.

In this roundtable interview, Dixon joins fellow B2B sales expert Steve Richard, co-founder of sales consultancy Vorsight, to define “challenger sales,” talk about why insight selling – not solution selling – reigns supreme in B2B sales, and share tips for converting customer-centric salespeople into thought-provoking challengers.

OpenView: Can you give us a quick overview of what “challenger sales” is all about?

Matt-DixonMatt Dixon: I think it’s important to start with what prompted the transition from solution selling to insight sellingin the first place. There are a lot of ancillary causes, but the obvious culprit is the sheer volume of information that buyers have access to today.

By the time the average B2B customer reaches out to a company or is contacted by a sales rep, that customer’s purchase decision is almost over. They’ve started to benchmark price and develop a list of detailed capabilities. Essentially, those customers have done the work that salespeople have long been trained to do for them.

Ultimately, that’s made B2B selling more of a fulfillment process than anything else.

Steve Richard of VorsightSteve Richard: Unless, of course, those salespeople fit the challenger sales persona. Those types of salespeople have figured out that B2B sales is now all about not just engaging customers where they’re buying, but where they’re learning, as well.

MD: That’s exactly right. One thing that we found in the challenger research for CEB’s membership is that the best salespeople are engaging customers where and how they learn – social media, social groups, web forums, online communities, blogs, etc. Doing that allows salespeople to position themselves as sources of unique insight, and gives them the opportunity to assertively challenge what customers think they know.


What are the general characteristics of challenger salespeople, and how can non-challenger salespeople get better at it?

Matt-DixonMD: When we designed the challenger sales study, we tried to examine things that were more about nurture than nature. There have been numerous studies done on personality typesand how they relate to B2B sales. We wanted to look at specific skills and competencies that can be taught or coached to help people get better over time.

We’ve studied almost 20,000 salespeople now, and what we’ve found is that salespeople generally fit into a few different profiles. Traditional wisdom would have you believe that relationship builders would be the highest quota attainers, but we’ve found that’s not true. The highest performers – at least according to our research – were the challenger salespeople. Those people are marked by their ability to politely and professionally challenge their prospects’ status quo and bring fresh insight to their businesses.

As for how I’d define the challenger sale, I think because of the word “challenger” a lot of people assume that we’re talking about the old-school idea of the unnecessarily pushy or provocative used car salesmen. But that’s not it. The challenger sale is really about finding a happy medium between being passive and assertive, and pushing prospects to think more critically or analytically about their needs or options.

Steve Richard of VorsightSR: What I found really interesting about Matt and (The Challenger Sale co-author) Brent Adamson’s research, was that challenger salespeople do not rely solely on the traditional solution sales question-and-answer routine. They might ask questions to identify a problem and match their solution to it, but that process is de-emphasized.

Instead, challenger salespeople prefer an insight selling strategy. They understand that B2B buyers today don’t want to be interviewed, and those buyers certainly don’t want to waste their time educating you on their business so you can sell to them.

MD: Steve hit the nail on the head. Buyers expect you to be prepared, especially as you get to the more senior level. Yes, buyers have access to more information than ever before, but so do sellers. And the onus is on those sellers to research basic information about a company before they call.

So by the time a challenger salesperson calls a prospect, he or she is prepared to intelligently and assertively deliver a point-of-view that the prospect may not have considered. For instance, they might call the CEO and say, “This is what I know about your company, these are the hypotheses I’ve formed, these are some trends that I’m seeing in your market, and this is how I think I can help.”

SR: Exactly. You earn the business value that you bring to the table. The challenger salesperson is still a relationship person, but they also have the ability to do “insight selling,” which is the hot new sales term. It used to be solution selling or customer-centric selling, but those sales philosophies are quickly losing their power.

In order to engage in insight selling, salespeople need to ask themselves some key questions:

  • Are you bringing fresh insight to your customers and prospects that they didn’t have before?
  • Are you teaching them something new about their business, industry, or competitors?
  • Are you causing fear, uncertainty, and doubt, to the point that prospects are worried that if they don’t do something, they might fail?

MD: That’s really what the challenger sales idea is all about. Does it mean that relationship selling is dead? Absolutely not. It just means that the currency of the relationship has changed. Whereas it was once defined by the salesperson’s willingness and ability to acquiesce to customer needs, it’s now defined by the unique insights that the salesperson can bring to the table.

Can sales managers take their existing salespeople and convert them into challenger salespeople, or do they need to proactively recruit salespeople who already have challenger sales qualities?

Matt-DixonMD: That’s a really interesting question and I don’t think there’s a simple answer. What we’ve found in our research is that the vast majority of salespeople have at least trace amounts of the challenger sales persona in them. It’s like an unused muscle that’s atrophied over time.

The truth is that salespeople who fail to convert to challenger sales or insight sales typically do so because they don’t want to change. It’s more of a will issue than a skill issue. Some salespeople simply dislike tension-laden conversations, and are unwilling to present potentially controversial hypotheses or viewpoints.

Steve Richard of VorsightSR: I agree with Matt. You can convert salespeople to challenger salespeople, but it’s definitely difficult. You needpeople who are willing and able to change. They have to possess a certain genetic code and be open to change, and the reality is a lot of salespeople are too set in their ways to change.

For people who already have the core challenger skills, the transition can be relatively painless. You just need to be willing to work closely with them and coach them in a way that fine-tunes their talents and tendencies. Building a team of rock star sales hunters requires a lot of effort, but it’s not impossible to do.

Ultimately, if a business is going to make a commitment to being an insight sales organization, it requires a big commitment from the CEO and executive team. They have to support and promote insight selling with their sales process, and the tools, content, collateral, and coaching they give their teams.

MD: Our data shows that roughly 70 percent of salespeople can learn and get better at challenger sales, so there’s no question that it’s possible to convert people from traditional solution selling to insight selling. For the salespeople who opt into the journey, we’ve seen marked improvement in their performance.

As Steve mentioned, it’s not an overnight transition and the conversion to challenger or insight selling must be supported by continuous teaching and coaching. If your sales managers or executives aren’t good coaches or teachers, then it won’t really matter how open those salespeople are to change. And in that scenario, it might make more sense to actively recruit salespeople with challenger competencies than to try to convert non-challenger salespeople.

It also requires active support of the organization — specifically, marketing — to generate the insights salespeople need to effectively challenge customer thinking.  So, it’s definitely a journey and a significant commitment from the company to get it right.



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