Is the Challenger Sale a paradigm shift that makes solution selling irrelevant? Is it dead wrong? Or is it all just a matter of semantics?
In 2012, Harvard Business Review published an article that promised to upend everything sales teams thought they knew about high performance. The article, titled “The End of Solution Sales,” points to the fact that buyers come to the buying process more educated than ever before, often with their desired solutions already mapped out. Such buyers, the authors claim, are easily bored and annoyed by a sales approach that tries to uncover the solution that they believe they already understand.
Instead, the authors, Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon, and Nicholas Toman from the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) advocate for challenging the buyer’s perception of their problems, and uncovering needs that they don’t know they have. Sales teams who cling to old-fashioned solution selling might hang on for a few years, the authors suggest, but it will be a losing battle. The true rewards will go to teams who embrace a new “Challenger Sales” strategy.
Thought leaders from all over the world reacted. Dave Kurlan’s early criticism in 2011, before the HBR article was published, centered on the claim that even if you provide sales professionals with challenger messaging, 74% will not be able to deliver it effectively because of their need of approval. Jim Ninivaggi took a less blunt but equally critical tack when he said that articles like the HBR piece have “whitewashed, oversimplified and frankly misrepresented the history of solution selling.” Anthony Iannarino was very direct, calling some of it “pure, unadulterated BS” (except he didn’t restrain himself to the “BS” abbreviation).
In the four years since the publication of “The End of Solution Sales,” the debate has raged on. The authors went on to build a very successful brand around the Challenger concept, are regularly featured in high-profile media, and continue to advocate for a seismic shift in sales (go-to-market) strategy.
Meanwhile, sales development experts argue that while The Challenger Sale highlights valuable insights, it misrepresents solution selling and, fundamentally, is wrong about its essential conclusions. Who’s in the right? Is The Challenger Sale a paradigm shift that makes solution selling irrelevant? Could the CEB folks be dead wrong about their approach? Or is it all just a matter of semantics? Let’s take a closer look.
Defining solution selling
The term “solution selling,” in this context, refers to a consultative sales approach that focuses on customer pains and needs, and on collaboratively building a solution to address them. The solution selling approach was born in the early 1980s, and was nurtured by several sales thought leaders in the context primarily of copier sales at Xerox. It gave rise to many of today’s sales best practices.
The term “solution selling” is often used to refer in aggregate to approaches like those taught by SPIN Selling, Sandler Selling, Strategic Selling, RAIN Selling, Baseline Selling and Customer Centric Selling methodologies. Sales Performance International offers a methodology that owns the rights to the capitalized title, “Solution Selling,” but for the purpose of this article, “solution selling” refers to all of the approaches and methodologies that fit the general description.
At the time of its advent, solution selling represented a shift in sales approach. Prior to the advent of solution selling, sales training generally consisted of how to best present a specific product to make the buyer want to purchase it. There was an underlying assumption that the need was obvious and the decision was fairly straightforward.
When products and services became more complex, so did buying decisions. The process began to include more people, and drove sellers to create “solutions” in an effort to differentiate and accommodate. In the solution selling approach, the focus is on understanding the buyer, building relationships, uncovering needs, and offering a solution that fits the need. The main assumption in this model is that questioning the buyer about pains and needs will lead to motivation to resolve them by selecting the offered solution.
The above approaches were designed when information about products and services were in the hands of the sellers, giving them an information advantage.
Though the solution selling approach has evolved and diverged into a host of branded methodologies, at its core, it has remained much the same for more than 30 years.
The Challenger Sale’s challenge
The fact that solution selling has remained close to its roots for so long is at the heart of The Challenger Sale’s challenge. The Internet has changed the complex selling environment so drastically, the authors contend, that old approaches are no longer relevant. Buyers come to a sale “armed to the teeth” with information, and this changes the dynamic entirely.
According to this view, by the time buyers reach out to a salesperson, they have already clearly defined the pain they’re trying to solve, identified the elements of the solution they want, and are looking for a provider to deliver what they’ve already designed. Buyers have no patience for lengthy “discovery” sessions to go over their requirements, and they’re not looking for a buying guide.
In such an environment, The Challenger Sale says, it’s easy to fall into either a bidding war, or to annoy the buyer to the point that you don’t get an opportunity to bid.
Instead, Adamson, Dixon, and Toman say, high performing salespeople focus on uncovering needs that the buyer doesn’t yet know they have. In practice, for instance, the salesperson may come to an RFP presentation session with answers to all of the buyer’s requirements in written form, but not focus on it at all during the actual presentation. Instead, the seller uses the time to challenge the buyer to consider needs not covered by the RFP, creating doubt that the solution is the right one, and opening a dialog in which the salesperson becomes the guide to a new way of looking at the problem.
What Sales Winners Do Differently: the RAIN response
In a research report titled What Sales Winners Do Differently, authors Mike Schultz and John Doerr from the RAIN Group take Adamson, Dixon, and Toman on directly.
“The authors of The Challenger Sale confidently declare that ‘the end of solution sales’ has come, and that ‘selling is not about relationships,’” say Schultz and Doerr. “Based on our research and our experience, we disagree wholeheartedly. Sellers and companies that dismiss core solution sales and relationship concepts place their sales results at grave risk.”
The authors go on to state that some of CEB’s research agrees with their own findings, but the differences are too great to ignore. In particular, they challenge the key drivers that CEB’s research identifies as critical to high performance. While those drivers are important, they say, their own research indicates that other factors are more important.
Perhaps most significantly, they assert that “sellers should ask tough questions, be comfortable with tension, and help buyers see new possibilities [as suggested by CEB], [but] doing these under the label of ‘challenging’ can lead to an unproductive, adversarial dynamic with buyers.”
Which raises the question: Is it all just semantics?
If the big beef with The Challenger Sale is simply the idea that the label leads to an adversarial dynamic, is it possible that the debate centers entirely on a question of word choice?
The authors highlight fundamental differences between solution selling approaches and the strategy advocated by CEB. While solution selling focuses on building a solution collaboratively, CEB focuses on challenging the buyer to look at the problem in a new way.
And, CEB goes further to suggest other major weaknesses in solution selling. For instance, they suggest that the solution selling approach to uncovering the buying decision is wrong-headed and that, in fact, the successful salesperson will define the buying decision process for the customer, and teach them how to make the purchase. Further, they suggest that most solution selling approaches focus on the wrong decision makers—going after “Guides, Friends, and Climbers,” who generally have very little power in the organization regardless of their title, rather than the “Go-getters, Teachers, and Skeptics” who may be harder to work with but who actually get things done.
When it comes to executing a Challenger strategy, I believe that incorrect interpretations of the concept have made sales organizations stumble, which RAIN Group, the Objective Management Group and others have been pointing out. Also, coming up with valuable insights to challenge customers is no easy task and places high demands on companies, from leadership to sales professionals. Thought leaders like Bob Apollo and Donal Daly expressed interesting thoughts on this topic in a recent blog post and LinkedIn discussions.
I’d say that the team at CEB really struck a chord by using the unexpected word “Challenger” to define what top sales performers have the ability to do: refocus the buyer’s mind and better align it with their offerings. The leading assumption in this methodology seems to be that sellers can add information that changes the buying decision process, hence creating a competitive advantage.
Many feel this insight can be embraced without discarding solution selling and that top performing sales people have done this for decades, without placing a label on it. However, there would be no contrast or intrigue if CEB had promoted their findings as “Solution Selling, Iterated.” In other words, instead of simply providing an updated solution, they’ve created their own intellectual property by choosing the word “Challenger” and thereby challenging the entire sales world’s conception of the solution they need. Or, as co-author Brent Adamson replied to a recent discussion on this topic: “…we could have legitimately called it ‘The Frankly Pretty Hard, but Still Absolutely Necessary Sale’ and been pretty accurate. But that's just bad branding: TFPHSANS doesn't really roll off the tongue.”
In practicality, each organization must carefully evaluate their own strengths, their needs, and their marketplace, and match their strategies to the situation.
Strategy, methodologies and semantics aside
In our times of global competition and information overload, the need to have strong sales professionals and insightful communications to help buyers move away from the status quo is more important than ever, which is one reason why I believe that CEB has received much attention. Also, CEB’s packaging and marketing of the Challenger concept is nothing short of impressive.
The fact is that the world has changed and sales organizations will need to up their game. In fact, a much bigger problem than choosing a specific strategy and methodology, is not chosing or executing ones at all... Having a sales team of independent cowboys shooting from their hip will not make you come out as the winner and generate consistent sales in the future.
From theory to practice
Highly successful organizations don’t stop at choosing a sales strategy or methodology and implementing it. They build systems that track and analyze salesperson behaviors to identify which elements of their chosen approach are effective. This allows them to continually optimize against reality. Rather than guessing at whether a particular strategy, approach, or methodology works in its entirety, such a system allows the organization to know what’s working and do more of it across the board.
Our recommendation: Do your research, choose the approach that makes the most sense for your organization, and then implement it with a tool that provides both reinforcement to the sales team, and optimization analysis to the leadership team.