Understanding the Challenger Sale

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Honestly, I resented the Challenger approach to selling. I read the book, and tried to implement its practices myself with more negative results than benefits. Why the hell were organizations so excited about this approach? For me, it didn’t make sense. It seemed to teach reps to pitch and present, which was opposite of everything I’d learned. This was because their are unique nuances to the approach that a novice sales rep misses so it can easily come off as pitching, with little support of stats and stories. The Challenger approach is an advanced selling approach that requires proper guidance to correctly implement. With new guidance on the approach at Shopify Plus, I’m learning how implementing this tactic could be successful, and it actually works in accordance to how humans think and behave.

The Challenger approach has started to become popular in modern day sales organization because the new user is equipped with an endless amount of information about the product, industry, trends, etc. to a point where most potential customers interact with a vendor once most of their requirements are established. This creates an environment where vendors aren’t able to present unique offerings, and prospects are only interested in the price.

The priority for the Challenger is to reframe the underlying assumptions supporting the customer perceived requirements. The nuance is in not challenging the entire concept, but rather the assumptions around the importance of the requirement and their approach of it. It’s more powerful to be able to say, I know you’re already thinking about this but the way you’re approaching it is flawed and here are the stats that prove another approach that is more correct. This is an important part of human psychology: no one likes to be told that they’re wrong. Although, opinions can be changed if the process on how that opinion was created can be challenged.

However, a novice rep could easily come off as condescending, or (more likely) start to rant about about industry trends and related product features with no context to how it would be relevant to the buyer. Instantly turning off the potential customer. As an example, for online stores being mobile friendly is important. Everyone knows this and simply puts “needs to be mobile responsive” on their checklist. However, most people will not have a good understanding of why mobile commerce is important, and how they should be executing their strategy to get sales — which is really why it’s a requirement in the first place. This is where a rep can reframe the requirements by sharing how to merchants that are doing well in mobile commerce are thinking, with stats to support it.

Of course, all this should relate to how the solution you’re providing is most capable to meet those needs. Although, you can’t say that — that’s pitching. Actually, the entire approach should never mention the product. It should create an environment where it peaks the customers interest on how you would improve their business beyond their current understanding. And then, when they finally ask then you can describe it. This is when they’re actually interested. When you’ve created interest, you’ve done the job.

Up to this part could be ample as phase 1. The hardest piece of this approach is what is called “emotional impact”. This is where “landmines” are placed to create urgency in the process. This is when stories are shared of how people that are continuing with their assumptions are actually failing, again supported by stories. However, there is hope. The final piece, called “the new way” shows that if they’re able to change their approach they can survive and even dominate. This is challenging since the rep needs to have a relevant stories and have a deep understanding of what were the triggers for successful operations, which is something only experience and analysis can bring.

People are more likely to accept fault and change their opinions because the underlying assumptions were wrong, this is essentially how constructive conversations work. Any decision, even in a world with abundant access to information, will be made with assumptions. If a rep can reframe and adjust those assumptions, this creates “aha moments” for the customers since they weren’t thinking about those before. As a result, the rep is able to become a trusted expert for their decision.

When implemented correctly, the Challenger approach actually hits on key parts of a successful sales conversation: deeply understanding the current approach, and then creating interest and creating urgency by teaching them something new.

Tales from the Sales Lab