B2B Marketing Strategies From “The Challenger Sale”

Lisa Nirell outlines trends to watch from “The Challenger Sale, ” and what B2B marketers can apply from their research.

I just attended a seminar to showcase of The Challenger Sale, a recently released bestseller that reveals some credible studies on changing buyer and seller relationships. Co-author Matt Dixon, a Director of Research with CEB (formerly Corporate Executive Board), outlined some important trends in B2B sales and marketing. If you are in the throes of a channel and global field sales planning for 2013, you need to recognize these:

1. Consensus decision-making is becoming de rigeur. Today’s corporate decision makers are very risk-averse. Just when salespeople think they have a strong inside supporter, the buyer will ask them to gain buy-in from a variety of evaluators from other departments. As Dixon stated, “for salespeople, it is now a game of herding cats.”

2. Customers push more of the purchasing risk onto suppliers: Purchasing wants vendors to accept less payment up front, and make subsequent payments contingent on meeting certain milestones.

3. Buyers demand more customization. This puts further pressure on vendor profit margins and increases cost of sales.

4. The rise of third party “purchasing consultants” drives longer sales cycles and undermines effective marketing initiatives. In addition to firms such as Deloitte, BCG, and Accenture, many former employees of vendors are now hanging out their solopreneur shingle. They are helping customers negotiate better deals with vendors.

5. Sales manages fewer buying stages. CEB estimates that nearly 60% of the buying decision is completed before a salesperson is allowed to meet the buyer. Dixon asserts “by that stage, buyers are nearly ready to negotiate. It’s very similar to how we buy cars today. We walk into the dealer, armed with competitive quotes, specifications, and consumer reviews, ready to negotiate.” Whatever happened to relationship selling? It has nearly perished.

What are the implications for marketing leaders? In a word, opportunity.

While Dixon outlines five different sales archetypes and recommends building Challenger sales skills, he skips an important nuance. Salespeople who fulfill the “hard worker” or “relationship builder” roles describe a large percentage of salespeople, and it will take time to grow them into a Challenger role. Salespeople have been traditionally trained to be subservient to the buyer and do what it takes to close. Old habits take time to change.

What salespeople really need–and where marketers can add value –is in helping sales teams build self-esteem. A paucity of self-esteem is what causes salespeople to say “yes” to every customer request and kowtow to purchasing bullies. True Challenger behaviors emerge when they truly feel like a peer to the buyer.

Matt Dixon Challenger Sale Jan 2013
Matt Dixon and moi at IES & BD Conference

Marketers can contribute to this process on a daily basis. Here are some ideas:

1. Actively participate in account planning and opportunity planning meetings
2. Develop messaging tools and playbooks that reflect unique perspectives and teach two-way communications skills
3. Tailor any ad-hoc marketing content to customer value drivers and business imperatives (unless you are a research laboratory or only sell to technology visionaries).
4. Role plays with salespeople so that they become comfortable discussing money.
5. Invite salespeople to marketing brainstorming sessions. Show them how to facilitate these meetings. This helps them become increasingly facile with the idea generation process.

Authors Dixon and Adamson remind us that “sales innovation (not sales coaching) is the missing link in terms of fully realizing the benefits of the Challenger Selling model…even with strong sales managers who coach to these behaviors and can model the Challenger selling behaviors themselves–many deals will still not happen.” I disagree with the authors on this point. In my career, I have lost several six-figure sales to No Decision, Inc..

I believe sales coaching is the Holy Grail of top performers. If I had valued coaching back when I was a corporate salesperson as much as I do now, I could have defeated the NDI dragons more swiftly. I did not tap into the wealth of sales expertise in my companies and chose to go it alone. My self-confidence suffered as a result.

The Challenger Sale is still a must-read for marketers. It will help you understand how salespeople think, and reinforce the need for you to coach your own teams. Since selling represents the new frontier for Marketing leaders, it’s well worth your time.

Related posts:
The Parallel Worlds of Gondolas and iPads
Why Marketers Need to Channel Captain Kirk
Four Essentials for Modern B2B Marketers


copyright 2013, Lisa Nirell. All rights reserved.

This post originally appeared in FastCompany.

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