It would be more difficult for me to share my version of a modern sales approach if the Challenger approach didn’t exist. Brent Adamson and Matt Dixon's research made it possible to address the issues that continue to plague sales organizations and repel their prospective clients. Their book The Challenger Sale was interesting to me, mostly because so many people criticized the ideas, but the old guard often tries to dismiss anything that threatens the status quo.
By the time it was published in 2011, The Challenger Sale started a conversation that was long overdue. I had stopped carrying a "Why Us" deck about 10 years earlier because of several events that caused me to change my approach. The first was a presentation I gave to a large client, hoping to convince them to make a change that would require an additional $2 million investment with my company. During the presentation, I prosecuted their beliefs because I was convinced their way of thinking was holding them back. A few hours later, the senior leader asked for my slide deck, then called to tell me they were giving me the money. While I wish that had been enough for me to change my entire approach, it would be another six months before I gave up on solutions selling.
In a sales call in Cincinnati, I reached into my laptop bag to open my "Why Us" deck, only to have the client tell me to put the laptop back in the bag. He said he didn't want to see a presentation. Instead, he wanted to ask me questions, and he suggested that if I gave the right answers, he would sign a contract. I protested, certain that the answers were on my slides. He rejected my appeal, and the conversation began.
He got his answers, and I got ink. But even then, I didn't change my approach.
A few weeks later, a friend shared a story with me. He had walked into a large conference room and started to connect his laptop, when the senior leader said, "If you open that laptop lid, I will throw your ass out of here." My first thought was “People really hate slide decks.” Later, I realized they hated wasting their time on a conversation that created no value.
The company that invested the additional $2 million called me late in the fourth quarter to brief them on what they needed to do in the coming year. I pretended that we were prepared to do so, even though having this kind of conversation hadn't occurred to me. Only after briefing the managers did it dawn on me to take a similar approach in a first meeting with prospects.
When selling in a highly commoditized industry with little real differentiation, winning deals means displacing your competitors. Once I had started using my new approach, I opened with an executive briefing when meeting with an existing client, the large packaging arm of a pharmaceutical company. At one point, my client suggested I was overcharging him. I asked him to look out the window and look at my car, then I showed him my costs compared to his costs. He was embarrassed and, after apologizing, he said, "As the head of HR, I should know what a fully loaded employee costs.”
These experiences encouraged me to use an approach that differentiated me and my company from my numerous competitors. Not only did it work incredibly well for me, but relatively low-level managers also asked for the slide deck so they could bludgeon their leaders with data that would prove that they needed to change.
When I read The Challenger Sale, I immediately recognized the approach. It's the oldest approach on Earth. Adamson and Dixon simply used real data to document its effectiveness. People with power and responsibility have always looked for experts who have the experience and knowledge they lack.
Adamson and Dixon did not invent this approach, and neither did I. But what they did was far more valuable and more difficult: They popularized it. Had it not been for their work, it might be impossible, to write, share, teach, and practice what I do. Moreover, clients are better served by the salespeople who have adopted this modern approach, even if these buyers don’t know exactly why some salespeople seem more helpful than others.
Unfortunately, too many sales organizations resist adopting a new approach, even when The Challenger Sale describes what seems to be the most effective approach available. I developed my version of the consultative sale after growing a business from $3 million to $50 million, with a team of five or six salespeople. Half of the sales force had win rates in the high 80s or 90s.
What modern sales needs is another book that can inspire sales organizations to imagine what is possible by shedding the legacy approaches and replacing them with something their clients can appreciate, namely, help making good decisions that will improve their results.