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On Relationships, Solutions, and Challengers

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Written by Mike Schultz
President, RAIN Group

Having spent two decades in the sales training and consulting world, I get asked all the time what I think about this or that sales approach or book. When I do, it tends to make for productive discussion and learning. Importantly, it helps people decide what’s right for them when it comes to selling.

Until now, I've never been asked about the same approach and book on a regular basis. That approach and book is The Challenger Sale by Brent Adamson and Matthew Dixon. And now that we've published RAIN Group's major research study, What Sales Winners Do Differently, we're getting asked even more often.

Since we get asked often—and since it's getting a bit old copying and pasting the same emails to clients and colleagues—we thought we'd open up the discussion to everyone.

Please feel free to comment bellow. You may agree, disagree, or take the conversation in a completely new direction. In any case, we welcome the opportunity to interact with you.

Now, a few thoughts on The Challenger Sale, relationships, and solutions.

The authors of The Challenger Sale confidently declared "the end of solution sales" has come, and that "selling is not about relationships." These declarations are, in fact, verbatim titles of articles they published in the Harvard Business Review.

Based on our research and our experience, we disagree wholeheartedly. Sellers and companies that dismiss core solution sales and relationship concepts place their sales results at grave risk. While our research findings and theirs share some similarities, so much is different that our recommendations differ from theirs in a number of essential areas.

For example, in our research, we tested six factors using language similar to that of the key drivers of buyer loyalty they tested in their research.

First, we wondered if their key drivers would match up with what we found winners do (fig. A). Turns out they didn’t. There were other factors that were vitally important.






Next, we ran our own statistical key-driver analysis of buyer loyalty. We wondered if these would match up more closely, given that we, as they, were analyzing the key drivers of buyer loyalty as they relate to the selling process (fig. B). No match there. We found other factors were more likely to drive buyer loyalty.






Then we compared their key drivers to the top 10 factors in our study that buyers indicated the second-place finishers need to change to win their business (fig. C). Buyers found other factors more important to win their business.






This was all fascinating from a data perspective. Now, this is not to say The Challenger Sales’ key drivers aren’t reasonable. More often than not, they are. For example, several show up in our graphic on page 4 of What Sales Winners Do Differently. But we found factors beyond these that were also important, so much so that if sellers ignore them, they place their likelihood to win sales in jeopardy.

As we outline in the report, we found that collaboration with buyers is very important for success. In tone and interpretation, the words "challenge" and "collaborate" are more antonym than synonym. While we agree that sellers should ask tough questions, be comfortable with (and, if necessary, create) tension, and help buyers see new possibilities, doing these under the label of "challenging" can lead to an unproductive, adversarial dynamic with buyers.


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Topics: Sales Conversations Consultative Selling