Ask any sales leader how selling has changed in the past decade, and you'll hear a lot of answers but only one recurring theme: It's a lot harder. Yet even in these difficult times, every organization has a few stellar performers. Who are these people and what can we learn from them?
The following is an adaption of an article I found on the HBR Blog Network that talks about the qualities of these star performers.
Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson of the Sales Executive Council wanted answers to these questions. They launched a study of sales rep productivity three years ago involving more than 6,000 reps across nearly 100 companies in multiple industries. Here are their three insights:
1. Every sales professional falls into one of five categories
Every B2B sales rep falls into one of the following five types, characterized by a specific set of skills and behaviors that defines the rep's way of interacting with customers:
Relationship Builders focus on developing strong personal and professional relationships and advocates across the customer organization. They are generous with their time, strive to meet a customer’s every need, and work hard to resolve tensions in the commercial relationship.
Hard Workers show up early, stay late, and always go the extra mile. They'll make more calls in an hour and conduct more visits in a week than just about anyone else on the team.
Lone Wolves are the self-confident, rule-breaking cowboys of the sales force who do things their way or not at all.
Reactive Problem Solvers are, from a customer’s standpoint, highly reliable and detail-oriented. They focus on post-sales follow-up, ensuring that service issues are addressed quickly.
Challengers use their deep understanding of their customer’s business to push their thinking and take control of the sales conversation. They're not afraid to share potentially controversial views, and are assertive with both their customers and bosses.
2. Challengers dramatically outperform the other profiles, particularly Relationship Builders
Average reps are fairly evenly distributed across all five profiles. But close to 40% of high-performing reps cluster in the Challenger profile. Three key capabilities define these stars.
a) Challengers teach their customers. They focus the sales conversation not on features and benefits but on insight, offering new (and typically provocative) ideas that can make or save money for their customers.
b) Challengers tailor their sales message to the customer. They have a finely tuned sense of their customers’ objectives and values and use this knowledge to position their sales pitch.
c) Challengers take control of the sale. While not aggressive, they are certainly assertive. They are comfortable with tension and are unlikely to acquiesce to every customer demand. When necessary, they can press customers a bit around issues such as price.
Why aren’t Relationship Builders star sellers?
Just as surprising as it is that Challengers win, it's more eye-opening who loses. Relationship Builders come in dead last, accounting for only 7% of all high performers.
Relationships still matter in B2B sales, but the data point out that the nature of the relationship makes the difference. Challengers win by pushing customers to think differently, using insight to create constructive tension in the sale. Relationship Builders focus on relieving tension by giving in to all customer demands. Where Challengers push customers outside their comfort zone, Relationship Builders focus on being accepted into it.
These findings are often troubling to sales leaders because their organizations have placed their biggest bets on recruiting, developing and rewarding Relationship Builders. Here's how a leader in the hospitality industry reacted when he saw these results: "You know, this is really hard to look at. For the past 10 years, it's been our explicit strategy to hire effective Relationship Builders. After all, we're in the hospitality business. And, for a while, that approach worked well. But ever since the economy crashed, my Relationship Builders are completely lost. They can't sell a thing. And as I look at this, now I know why."
3. Challengers dominate the world of complex "solution-selling"
When Dixon and Adamson analyzed their data by complexity of sale - separating out transactional, product-selling reps from complex, solution-selling reps - they found that Challengers dominate as selling gets more complex, accounting for 54% of all star reps in a solution-selling environment. Relationship Builders fall off the map almost entirely, representing only 4% of high-performing reps in complex environments.
For any company on a journey from selling products to selling solutions — which is a migration that more than 75% of the companies I work with say they are pursuing — the Challenger selling approach represents a dramatically improved recipe for growth.
Talk back: I’d love to hear your insights about challengers and relationship builders.