Challenger Sales: A Winning Strategy in the Digital Age

Share By Sachin Shenolikar

Un-Teach, then Re-Teach Your Customers: It’s Why Challenger Sales Work 

Pounding the pavement. Building relationships. Probing customers with questions to get a sense of what they need. Those strategies were once considered tried and true ways to make a sale. But have those methods become antiquated in an age of rapid and unlimited information?

The answer is yes, according to research by the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), which found that the most successful modern sales teams take control of discussions and provide unique insights that influence customers’ decisions.

Companies such as Xerox and Nokia have incorporated this strategy — called the Challenger method — in recent years.

“There’s a lot of noise in the marketplace and we need to make sure our message gets across,” Nokia Chief Marketing Officer Tuula Rytia said in 2013. (CEB reports that Nokia attributed a 21 percent increase in sales productivity to the Challenger philosophy.)

Here’s how the Challenger method works: By tailoring well-researched conversations, sales reps unveil new opportunities that their customers may not have considered before. “It’s not somebody who’s going to be adversarial, but it’s going to be somebody who challenges the customer’s base assumptions,” says Justin Doyle, a marketing manager at Xerox who provides research for Challenger sales reps.

“So, the customer may think their world looks like XYZ, and that sales rep will say, ‘Not really — it’s an ABC situation.’”

In 2012, Xerox worked with CEB on a project in which the goal was to increase sales of A3 color office multifunction printers. (A3 refers to devices that can print on paper as large as 11 x 17 inches.)  Its researchers looked at the K–12 educational market and found that the demographic purchased mostly black-and-white devices. The customers’ base assumption was: Budgets are really tight, so what’s the point in spending more money on a product that’s not crucial?

Xerox reps had to prove that color printers are indeed important to schools — and not merely another box to check on a supply form. “We found secondary research and also funded primary research that showed that color printing is critical to the way students learn,” says Doyle. “Kids today are digital natives — they’ve grown up with computers and the Internet. Color is a part of their world and a fact of their life, so a printed page with color on it has more impact as a learning tool.”

Armed with those findings, sales reps were able to make a strong case that their solution would improve the students’ learning experience, while making life easier for school administrators and teachers. The result: Doyle says Xerox saw a 17 percent increase in sales for A3 color office multifunction printers in 2013 for the program’s target sales channel.

As the amount of available information on the Web increases, marketers and sales reps are being creative in how they shape their pitches. They are studying hard to know their clients’ business better than the clients themselves.

And they are cutting through the noise with clear and convincing solutions. How? By being challengers.

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