Trends In B2B Sales And Marketing From "The Challenger Sale"

I just attended a seminar to celebrate the launch of The Challenger Sale, a bestseller that reveals some credible studies on changing buyer and seller relationships. Co-author Matt Dixon, a researcher with Corporate Executive Board, outlined some important trends in B2B sales and marketing. If you are in the throes of 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.

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 play 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.

—Lisa Nirell is the chief energy officer of EnergizeGrowth and the founder of Marketing Leaders of D.C. She has helped B2B companies such as Adobe, Microsoft, and BMC Software grow customer mindshare and market share. Lisa is the author of EnergizeGrowth NOW: The Marketing Guide to a Wealthy Company. Visit to download a free sample chapter through EnergizeNews and follow Lisa on Twitter.

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

[Image: Flickr user jDevaun]

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  • Tobias Lee

    Understanding customers is critical to effective marketing but often times we get caught up in our ivory towers and lose our connection.  In today's world, as this article points out, it's even more imperative to get a handle on this and the partnership required with sales to be successful.  While I am also not sure if many marketers have the insight to drive a Challenger Selling model "today", I think it may already be "tomorrow" and we should acknowledge that times have changed and start the conversation with sales to drive a stronger convergence in our go to market approach that maximizes value.

    Marketing can contribute to this partnership by not getting overly focused on transactional metrics that focus on increased performance through reduced margins (ie promotional emails where open rates are the target vs. overall revenue).  In my career, I have observed the majority of my marketing teams have not been as finance savvy as they probably should have been to question campaign targets and positioning that might jeopardize price:value.  This approach does little to encourage sales to stand their ground.  Here @Thomson Reuters we are spending time to think about the key marketing metrics that help us meet our focused goals, bridging our finance teams and marketing teams, and constantly assessing our marketing position for optimal price:value. 

  • Lisa Nirell

     Hello Tobias,

    Great insights!

    Some marketers are institutionalizing the sales playbooks to drive stronger interactions with prospects. I have helped clients in this area.

    Playbooks help marketers understand the selling process more deeply .In these playbooks, they design conversational tools that outline the "day in the life" of a buyer. They educate Sales on the challenges those decision makers are typically experiencing, and how they are personally measured.

    The playbooks also train sales teams on how to engage in a challenging, provocative dialogue with the buyer. Ideally, this conversation includes a financial discussion on the cost of delay, doing nothing, or not raising the performance bar/doing business as usual.

    The marketing metrics you may already be using/considering include:

    1. the time it takes for a new salesperson (or channel partner) to make an unassisted sales call
    2. the level of message consistency between Sales, Marketing, Finance, and other departments

    The sheer fact that Sales is engaging in a provocative conversation creates value in itself. It establishes the salesperson as a peer to the buyer, not a humble servant who is just happy to get a meeting and look busy. That provides huge competitive advantage.

    Keep us posted on what metrics you find useful within your team. We welcome the input.

  • Vorsight

    Long term we're going to stop thinking in terms of marketing and sales as two distinct functions.  The best B2B reps are starting to think and act like marketers especially in demand creation and content syndication.  The best marketers now carry quotas.  

    I wish more CMOs like Lisa would write about sales and more VPs of Sales would write about marketing.  Then you'd really have something.

  • Lisa Nirell

     Steve, thank you -- I love your "cross pollination" idea for future posts!

    What happens if a VP of Marketing is unable to carry a quota because their CEO and culture still treat her department as the McDonald's drive through window (versus a trusted strategic growth contributor)?

    In my CMO peer groups, some of my members are dealing with that sad reality. They are working hard to change that perception. That does not make them a bad marketer; it just forces them to work within the cultural constraints.

  • trishbertuzzi

    Very interesting article Lisa! I wish that Marketing and Sales would interact at the level you describe but not sure it is feasible. I don't believe that Marketing has the skills/expertise to lead the kind of discussions you suggest but, having said that, I think that Marketing and Sales together could facilitate those very valuable activities.

    One final point.. you hit the nail on the head with your coaching comment. When dealing with changing behaviors it is not the learning of the skill that matters but rather the long term reinforcement of that skill. Your article was a great start to my day. Thank you!

  • Lisa Nirell

     Hello Trish, It's great to see you here! I have been interviewing CMOs across North America, and discovered that a handful have the experience and credibility to advise sales teams on their messaging and positioning. I also worked closely with Adobe, and they did a great job in this area.

    This post is also intended to push marketing leaders to step up their game and avoid the old excuses that they cannot influence Sales productivity and pipeline velocity. Those excuses are ready to be retired.

    Keep visiting and commenting!
    -- Lisa

  • Richard P

    Interesting article. Not sure if it was intentional or not, but I found the use of the referees image (probably Editor's choice) for the story that lands a valid 'coaching' point an ironic choice given the friction that often exists between sales & marketing.

    That aside, I would argue one of the most valuable roles marketing can play, for those firms pursuing the Challenger model, is helping define the insight that is needed to challenge prospects & teach them something they do not already know about their business, industry or role. It seems you allude to it in your points 2 & 3 ("unique perspectives" & "ad hoc marketing content"), but not directly. Challenging prospects is difficult for many sales reps and challenging them with insight is even harder as many do not really know what kind of insight they should use or where to find it. Marketing is in the perfect position to help with this.

    Coaching on "discussing money" seems unnecessary as I am not sure most sales reps find this difficult. If they do, they are likely in the wrong job, in my view. Further, I would agree coaching is critical, but even here managers struggle as they either fail to recognize what to coach on, do not know how to coach, or do not know how to monitor whether or not the coaching was impactful (they rarely monitor or have the ability to monitor all of their reps to see if the coaching 'took').

    Nonetheless, very compelling article! 


  • Lisa Nirell

    Hi Richard,

    The number one challenge (pardon the overused word) is that too many companies promote high performing salespeople to management roles. That's when the trouble begins. These people want to keep selling, not coaching others on how to sell.

    Some research firms such as HR Chally have done a fine job in developing performance guidelines for sales professionals. This can help managers determine which areas need attention or coaching.

    Management is not for everyone, as you say!

    You can also read my comments above regarding the role of Marketing in helping Sales develop provocative conversations.

    Thank you for your contributions. - Lisa