Critical but misunderstood Challenger “B” sales conversations

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Challenger Customer A to B
Most sales reps who are trained in the CEB Challenger Sales model do a pretty good job with the “A” sales conversations. This is the first of what I call three distinct “sales” in the B2B complex or value sales process.

In a complex or value sale, we first need to “close” the customer on the need to change, due to the real and urgent nature and cost of their current business state and problem.The Challenger Customer principle is to first address, or “break down,” the customer’s “mental model” of their business and problem. Their label for this the “A” stage of a sale.

Challenger points out that most B2B sales reps proceed immediately to the “C” stage — how they solve the problem. CEB didn’t even bother putting “C” on their model. It comes automatically. We’re all so anxious to explain how we solve the business problem, and the value (proposition) we provide, it doesn’t need to be called out.

Rather, we need to understand the nature and importance of the “B” stage or sale, to conduct an effective value sale. We need to understand the nature and purpose of sales conversations in this stage. And often it IS multiple conversations. For most reps these are quite new conversations as well.

Purpose of B Sales Conversations

After buyers become clear about the need to change, their next step is to decide “how to change.” This is the B stage. They do this by making three sub-decisions:

  1. Solution Approach — what approach best resolves the business problem?
  2. Required Capabilities — what capabilities are required to execute the approach; which capabilities does the customer currently have, and which must be acquired?
  3. Value Model — how does the organization define value in the context of this decision?

In many respects this is where the value sale is made or lost.

These are decisions buyers must make anyway. Sellers that are committed to “creating value through how we sell as much as what we sell” see this as a major opportunity. They can serve customers, make this more efficient for them, and in so doing differentiate the rep/vendor from competitors.

This is where the consultative selling skill comes in. Unfortunately, as Dave Kurlan has shown, only 35% of all sales people have the consultative competency as a strength.

Designing B Sales Conversations

One way to address this issue is to design conversation frameworks for these key conversations. This is not scripting conversations. Frameworks define the structure and supporting elements of each conversation. This includes identifying conversation areas or tendencies to avoid, because of negative effects on buyers.

Specifically this includes the ability for reps to lead conversations for:

Solution Approach — how to introduce optional solution approaches for consideration and discussion; to bring insights about pros and cons of each approach in the context of the buyer’s business problem; how to influence buyers toward a vendor favorable approach without being over-bearing or appearing biased.

Required Capabilities — knowing what capabilities are required for execution and how to discuss them with buyers; how to use this as an opportunity to listen and understand buyer preferences and internal capabilities.

Value Model — uncovering key value criteria in ways that help buyers gain clarity across all buyer stakeholders; help to resolve conflicts and differences among stakeholders; and to prepare proposals that will resonate.

Validation from a Negotiation Expert

Chris Voss is a former FBI hostage negotiator, CEO of The Black Swan Group Ltd that teaches business negotiation, and co-author of the book, Never Split the Difference. He begins his e-book, 7 Unexpected Ways to Increase Sales, by saying:

“From the first point of contact to a signed contract, the entire sales process is a negotiation.”

Point number 7 — Don’t Offer Solutions. 

As a salesperson, it’s your job to have a solution in mind long before you arrive at the negotiation table. The key is not letting it slip out too soon. If you lead with a solution, you’ll never establish trust or gain the influence you need to get what you want. People make purchasing decisions based on trust, confidence in the seller, likeability, and emotion—not based on the solution itself. If you establish a strong, trusting relationship with a client, they may choose to stick with you when you change companies because they value that connection more than the solution you were selling.

Pushing a client toward a specific solution—no matter how great a fit you think it is—will breed resistance. Instead, offer understanding, present options, and explain what’s possible. Use empathy to earn their trust and help position your desired solution in a way that resonates with their core values, needs, and emotional drives.

As you discuss different options, let the client define terms and solutions in their own words to retain a sense of choice and control. They may only be interested in purchasing one solution, but the nature and scope of that solution could change based on the combination of options that they choose.

This is the modern selling way to “set the game up to win.” If the buyer selects, with conviction and understanding, the approach to solve their business problem that favors your solution, you gain an advantage.

If as a result of these conversations, the buyer understands required capabilities and priorities that favor your solution (and commoditizes those of direct competitors), you gain an advantage.

If your reps assist buyers efficiently through these often difficult and tedious discussions and decisions, you learn their value criteria and earn trust beyond what’s possible outside of these conversations.

Related Information

B2B Sales Conversations — By Design

Source List — Sales Conversations to Design


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