Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Challenger SE Part 2 - Don't Call The Baby Ugly!

The Challenger Sale has really had an impressive impact on the high technology salesforce. More than 50% of my clients have either formally or informally adopted it as an overlay on top of their current sales process. Yet looking back at implementation over the past two years I’ve noticed one persistent problem in both the sales and pre-sales utilization of the “Challenge” – and that is what I now label as “Calling The Baby Ugly”

The Ugly Baby

You would never, ever, tell parents that their baby is ugly. You always look for something positive to say and provide some form of complement. Yet sales and presales alike, emboldened by the Challenger Sale, quickly launch into a description of why a customer’s processes/personnel/strategy/implementation is wrong (i.e. ugly) and then offer to fix this ugliness. Customers have invested their time, money and resources into their current situation and take pride in their work – so a full-frontal attack on the status quo rarely works.

 Customer Reaction – The Three “D’s”

 Sales takes the Challenger Sale and tries to disrupt the customer and their thought process, which can be a very unpleasant experience. You more directly you challenge, the more you need to be 100% accurate and on-point. Customers can react negatively in one of three ways:

1.    Defend – they defend the status quo and why things run the way they do. This is an almost guaranteed way to ensure that “Do Nothing Inc.” gets the deal. Nothing will happen and the harder you try to push your Challenge the stronger the defense will become.

2.    Deny – they will deny that there is a problem. Remember the rule that “it is not a problem until the customer says it is a problem”. Denial and defending tend to go hand in hand.

3.    Destroy – they will destroy your ideas and also destroy your client relationship. There is no upside to following this path.

In all of these cases you need to make a decision how to react when you start to get some pushback or objections – in almost all cases you need to proceed with caution.

Asking Better Questions – The Three Customer “C’s”

Companies invest a lot of time and money teaching their salesforce how to ask better questions – the problem is that the customers don’t play along.

1.    Customers rarely follow a script and allow you to follow a pre-determined line of questioning, no matter how well you prepare.

2.    Customers don’t always know what they want. So sometimes that voyage of self-discovery just gets them lost, dazed and confused.

3.    Customers don’t always tell you everything you need to know and you cannot get the whole story. Sometimes that is accidental and sometimes deliberate.

So What Should A Sales Engineer Do?

In Part 1 of this series I explained how customers believe that the SE offers more value than anyone else from the vendor organization and detailed some ways to capitalize on that. The key is to approach the customer with some humility and deference. (Sometimes you have to approach the challenge head-on and directly – possibly with the classic Wall Street Managing Director or the Executive who says you have two minutes – but let’s say for now that is a corner case and not the norm). How do you take this approach?

Step 1 – Will The Customer Listen To Me?

Many SE’s use that Trusted Advisor term, which in this case means will the customer listen to, and accept, my advice? We’ve all been in the position when we have given someone really good advice and they have ignored us. If you have that T/A relationship with the customer, life is easier. If you don’t, you are explicitly going to have to ask permission. As an extreme, contrast the Global Account SE who lives and breathes one large client, compared to the inside SE who may deal with 8 clients a day!

Step 2 – Asking Permission

Customers accept negative news much better when presented in a positive manner. That means keeping the results and outcomes in mind, rather than focusing entirely on the current problems. My preferred approach is to preface the Challenge with a softening or even self-deprecating statement. Set-up examples might be:

“Can I share something with you about how Customer “X” dealt with a similar situation? I’m sure it’s not an exact match as I still have a lot to learn about your company, but I think you’ll find it worthwhile”
“Can I ask you something off the record?”
“I understand the company has a lot of time and effort vested in this current process and its serving you well. Would you be interested in learning about some ideas..”
“How about we take a break, go grab some tea/coffee, as I’d like to run a few ideas by you about alternative ways to..”

Step 3 – Make The Challenge

The challenge needs to be made from a twin basis of success and facts. That means speaking about how other customers have overcome similar obstacles and the results they achieved rather than diving down into the details of all the current issues. You also need to be clued into the non-verbal signals from the customer. Often the best approach is to get them out of a “sales environment” by moving to the cafeteria, or at least closing down the laptop.

The more people you have in the room, especially once you get past five, the lower the probability of Challenge success. That may sound counter-intuitive as you’d think your spark would have a greater chance of catching fire, yet mass psychology takes over and audiences conform to the norm. So the Challenge works better in small groups and one-to-one. Note that Rep + SE versus a single non-executive customer also isn’t a good situation as that also leads to defense.

Step 4 – Support The Challenge

Once the customer opens up to the Challenge, provide specific examples (evidence and impact) and back that up with numbers (usually time, money or headcount). Remember you are trying to spark curiosity and get a “tell me more” response and not trying to close the deal or stun the client with your intelligence!



The introduction of the Challenger Sale presents a great opportunity for the SE team to reassert themselves back into the customer relationship and break away from being a technical resource. There is a crisis in sales right now as reps struggle to cope with the better educated buyer, to ask more insightful questions and to truly provide value , so ….

Never let a good crisis go to waste..”

-      Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago