The Challenge of the Challenger Sales Model - The Facts

Posted by Dave Kurlan on Mon, Oct 21, 2013 @ 09:10 AM

Last week I wrote an article, Now That You Have a Sales Process, Never Mindthat was very critical of an article that appeared in Harvard Business Review.  The authors were nice enough to clarify their position and, even if you read my original article, it's worth revisiting because of the additional discussion that took place after it appeared.

I mentioned the number of times that I have been critical of an HBR article on sales, but I have been nearly as critical of Geoffrey James, a contributor to Inc. Magazine.  He has written a few articles which, at minimum, embarrass me and, at worst, reflect badly on him.  Earlier this month he wrote, 4 Things Your Customers Don't Want, another article that qualifies for some questioning.

In the article he seems to be critical of the Challenger Model.  I've been critical of that as well, but for completely different reasons, so let's review:

The Challenger describes a certain type of salesperson, one that Objective Management Group (OMG) has been identifying for 23 years.  This highly successful, elite salesperson, has a Sales Percentile of 95 (out of a possible 100) or better.  This elite salesperson is also described in my 2005 best-seller, Baseline Selling, where I introduced a sales process milestone called SOB Quality (speed on bases, a baseball expression).  To achieve SOB, the prospect or customer is paying more attention to the salesperson than his/her competitors and achieves that by asking good, tough, timely questions; questions that other salespeople are not asking, questions that lead to better and different conversations; questions that challenge the prospect's thinking.  Questions that challenge the prospect's thinking is the essence of the Challenger.

The Challenger isn't new - the authors of the Challenger simply gave this salesperson a name, got it published in - here we go - The Harvard Business Review, and bingo, it's got credibility.  But, as with most things, now people are talking about the Challenger Sale as if it were a selling process, but, as you must realize, it's not.  In Baseline Selling, it's a milestone.  It's not the first time that people saw a process when none existed.  People still think SPIN Selling is a process.  It's really a methodology and it fits, in its entirety, between 1st and 2nd base in Baseline Selling.  Ironically, the much simpler equivalent to SPIN in Baseline Selling is another milestone, called Compelling Reasons.

The essence of Geoffrey's article is his criticism of the concept of challenging a prospect's thinking.  He says they don't want that, but he's only partly right - about the statement - and dead wrong about the implications.

If we are discussing a transactional sale, then he is completely correct.  Let the customer just buy what they want to buy and don't complicate it.  But most of us in the sales consulting space don't consult to companies with a transactional sale - that's marketing's job to get more people to buy!

However, if we are discussing a more complex sale, or your company is an underdog (higher-priced, newer company, smaller company, new technology, expensive, customizable solution, engineered solution, story to tell, or otherwise not the price or market leader), then you not only have salespeople, but they must overcome resistance with nearly every prospect they encounter.  

Middle managers, who have been tasked to gather information, may not want their assignment challenged and may very well want to simply buy.  In this scenario, without context, James is correct again.  However, in the context of a real sales cycle, the salesperson needs to identify and finally meet the decision maker.  In order to accomplish that, the middle manager must be challenged with enough questions, that they can't answer, so that they feel the need to involve a decision maker.  When the salesperson meets the decision maker, these challenging questions must be asked to not only justify the meeting, but to achieve SOB and differentiate.  This is where James is so wrong.  While the prospect may not have wished for this experience, most decision makers appreciate the push-back that they rarely get from their direct reports and other salespeople calling.

Everything needs context and a lot of what is written today lacks the context to make it applicable.

In summary, prospects may not want to be challenged, but are appreciative when there is value to the questions being asked.

The Challenger Model is not a sales model; it's a name they came up with to describe an elite salesperson that OMG identified two decades ago and I described as a selling milestone in Baseline Selling in 2004. 


Topics: Dave Kurlan, Baseline Selling, geoffrey james, the challenger sale, inc. magazine sales article, harvard business review sales article

A Rare Paragraph or Two About Making Successful Sales Presentations

Posted by Dave Kurlan on Mon, Jul 15, 2013 @ 14:07 PM

Geoffrey James contributed a terrific piece to in May.  I've criticized some of Geoffrey's articles in the past, but this one, 3 Reasons Why Most Presentations Fail, is really good.

Basically, Geoffrey says that salespeople wrongly:

  1. Provide too many details about too many things,
  2. Talk about their history and clients instead of their prospects' issues, and
  3. Fail to differentiate themselves.

Of the 1,000+ articles I have written for Understanding the Sales Force, exactly 2 have been about presentations and presenting.  Why?  I want to help companies and their salespeople move from presenting (which anyone can do) to selling (which only some people can do well). 

When everyone presents, salespeople and companies are perceived as commodities and the sale is driven by price.  When salespeople take a customer-focused, consultative approach and actually become the value added, salespeople and companies are able to effectively differentiate, solve problems, and get paid accordingly.

There is a time and place for a presentation and/or demo and it should be much later in the sales process than when most companies and salespeople choose to do it.  When that time does come, we can all do a much better job of articulating the solution to our prospects in a more compelling way.  However, if we skip the selling part (listening and asking good, tough timely questions), there simply won't be any leverage when it is time to present, and consequently, our attempts to convert those presentations to sales will result in very poor success rates.

So, yes, present more effectively, but do it at the right time - after you have reached the required milestones that justify a presentation to a qualified opportunity.

Topics: Dave Kurlan, Sales Coaching, geoffrey james, sales presentations, Inc. Magazine

Inc Magazine Gets it Wrong on Sales Prospecting

Posted by Dave Kurlan on Fri, May 31, 2013 @ 01:05 AM

I have to question Geoffrey James for an article that he recently posted on Inc. Magazine's online site.

He opens the article by saying that for most companies "the ability to find potential customers is the difference between growth and bankruptcy."  His opening might be a bit of an exaggeration.  The reality is that it could be the difference between growth and lack of growth because most companies that aren't growing aren't going bankrupt.

In his article, he shares a systematic approach for prospecting "loosely based upon a conversation with Thomas Ray Crowel."  My interpretation of his use of the word "loosely" is that he contributed his own opinions to this systematic approach.  That makes the article all the more disappointing.

In the fifth step of the prospecting call, he says that if the prospect sounds interested, you should skip the script and jump right to the close.  Really?  Isn't this a prospecting call?  He makes it sound more like telemarketing than prospecting for appointments or meetings.  It certainly doesn't apply to a complex B2B sale!

He also suggests that you create a qualifying script using the old - very old - method of authority, budget and need.  If you are selling something that requires authority and budget, then you'll require more than need to get them to spend their money and you certainly wouldn't be able to jump right to the close.  Why would we want to qualify this early?  Until we have heard that they have a compelling reason to buy, they won't have an incentive to answer any qualifying questions!

This systematic approach (250 cold calls/week) is based on a salesperson making cold calls all day.  That in itself is very archaic and when it is performed as a full-time function, it's usually by the lead generation team, not salespeople.  After all, if the salespeople are making 250 calls per week, when would they have time to conduct their scheduled sales calls and meetings?

Geoffrey's subtitle for the article is a "step by step approach for building up a sales pipeline."  Lead generation people don't have pipelines and people who close on the first phone call don't have them either.  His steps and examples are not consistent with salespeople who actually build sales pipelines!

If you need to connect with business prospects and build a sales pipeline, read Frank Belzer's terrific book, Sales Shift.  His book has some truly relevant, modern, effective and efficient methods for finding and closing new business - the new way.  And if you want to pound the phones and dial for dollars, my book, Baseline Selling - How to Become a Sales Superstar by Using What You Already Know about the Game of Baseball, has a terrific prospecting section and you can get some terrific tips on reaching 1st base at the Baseline Selling site.

You can also find some good articles on prospecting right here on my Blog.

Topics: Dave Kurlan, Baseline Selling, sales shift, frank belzer, cold calling, geoffrey james, sales prospecting

Inc Magazine Gets it Wrong on Consultative Selling

Posted by Dave Kurlan on Mon, Apr 08, 2013 @ 08:04 AM

wrongInc. Magazine ran an article on its website that I just can't ignore.  It's making my blood boil.

Why Consultative Doesn't Work is irresponsible writing.  Forget for a minute that those of us in the sales development space (he calls us pundits) have been trying to help companies and their sales teams transition from a transactional to a consultative approach for years.  Transactional selling no longer works unless you are content to be the low-cost leader.  The article's author, Geoffrey James, says that consultative sellers strive to become trusted advisors and companies don't need "some smart**s who kibbitzes from the sidelines."

James does not tell the entire story.

He fails to mention that the top 26% of all salespeople rank that high because they do sell consultatively.  The smartasses are some of the remaining 74% who think they are selling that way but simply ask a few lame questions prior to plunging ahead with their ill-timed demos and presentations.  They are still selling transactionally.  They are the ones that appear to be smartasses because they are making the claims and recommendations without benefit of having had a meaningful conversation with their prospects.

James is guilty of one of the most common misunderstanding in all of sales - that consultative selling requires salespeople to act like a consultant.  Not true.  Consultative selling, when taught, practiced and applied correctly, is primarily about listening, responding with thoughtful, intelligent questions, helping a prospect to recognize their compelling reason to buy, and in the process, differentiating yourself from the competition.  If the customer/client then trusts you enough to seek your advice on matters in which you are an expert, all the better.

The other problem I have with this article is that rather than propose an alternative selling approach, James suggests that salespeople should be able to fill the function that a manager would have served if the product or service was being handled in-house.  Are you kidding me?  Granted, some services that are outsourced could be done in-house but 95% of the time this is simply impossible. Think about some of the core services and products that nearly every business, your business, purchases:

  • Health Insurance and 401K
  • Business, Auto and Professional Liability Insurance
  • Commercial Real Estate
  • Office Supplies and Furnitute
  • Copiers, Printers, Computers and Business Equipment
  • Telecommunications and Internet
  • Business Software and Applications
  • Postage and Shipping
  • Janitorial 
  • Security
  • Utilities
  • Legal and Accounting
  • Vehicles
  • Memberships
  • Marketing, Advertising and Public Relations
  • Payroll
Out of the many products and services listed above, the last two are the only ones that some companies attempt to do internally - and they tend to do both ineffectively and inefficiently.  So salespeople, positioning themselves as experts that could manage the above functions, makes no sense.  However, salespeople positioning themselves as experts who could help companies better understand what they really need, based on more effectively understanding why they need it, can make better recommendations and further differentiate themselves.
Geoffrey, you have written some tremendous articles over the last several years but you should unpublish this one.

Topics: Dave Kurlan, Consultative Selling, geoffrey james, Inc. Magazine

Content not found
Subscribe via Email

View All 2,000 Articles published by Dave

About Dave

Best-Selling Author, Keynote Speaker and Sales Thought Leader,  Dave Kurlan's Understanding the Sales Force Blog earned awards for the Top Sales & Marketing Blog for eleven consecutive years and of the more than 2,000 articles Dave has published, many of the articles have also earned awards.

Email Dave

View Dave Kurlan's LinkedIn profile View Dave Kurlan's profile


Receive new articles via email
 to the Blog on your Kindle 



Most Recent Articles


Top 50 Sales & Marketing Blogs 2021

Sales & Marketing Hall of Fame Inductee




Top 50 most innovative sales bloggers


Hubspot Top 25 Blogs