Before Challenging - Focus On Ideation

Tony Hughes

Before Challenging - Focus On Ideation

The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson from the Corporate Executive Board has been with us for a few years now. It's a great book and recommended reading for anyone in complex B2B selling. It's been controversial not only because it claims to be new and groundbreaking, but because it pushes sales people to provocatively challenge customers. I've reviewed Challenger Selling and I think the book is brilliant but the concepts are extremely difficult to implement.

Matt and Brent are to be applauded rather than criticized and anyone who thinks that Challenger is about the 'hard sell' is missing the point. Hard selling, push selling, arrogant selling, telling is selling; all fails, especially in Asia where I am as I write this. Causing your prospective customer to lose face as you tell them that they could be doing things better in Asia is kamikaze sales behavior. So is bullishly breaking china with your peacock-chested lecturing; it may be a winning persona at the sales kickoff but it alienates old school CXOs everywhere else. Instead, humility with gravitas goes a long way in all cultures.

The concepts of Challenger Selling are not new. For proof, see page 82 of The Challenger Sale book and you'll find Neil Rackham's SAFE:BOLD framework. Challenger is an iteration of Insight Selling which was built on Value Selling which was built on Solution Selling. Lots of great minds evolving strategic B2B selling practice over the years and kudos to Neil Rackham, Jim Holden, Keith Eades, Bob Miller, Steve Heiman and many others. In some ways the strategic selling labels are just semantics - engage and develop the right relationships by leading with insight, then focus on value and build trust. In the background; have a strategy, overcome the competition, map the political power-base, and understand their evaluation, selection and procurement processes. My meta-framework for strategic selling is exactly this and I published before Challenger.

Don't misunderstand me, there is huge value in The Challenger concepts but in the hands of the naïve it can manifest as pushy 1980s 'telling is selling' behavior in the eyes of prospective clients. For Challenger to work, you must go deep, bottom of the ocean deep, and that's not easy or cheap. Challenger goes beyond a sales persona, it's an organizational capability. Sales, marketing and management must all come together and be 100% committed to transformational change in the way you define customer value and go to market. It's scary stuff; do your research and don't under-invest. For most sales organizations Challenger will be another transient fad - 'yeah, we tried that but our sales people weren't able to execute.'

However, if you would like to adopt a practical and pragmatic approach and take the best concepts from Challenger Selling, here is my advice. Focus on ideation and innovation for your clients. Stop thinking about what you can sell them and instead obsess about their markets and their barriers to faster revenue growth and profitability. There is real magic in going beyond B2B and instead thinking B2B2C. How can you help your clients better serve their markets and customers? This approach allows the value of your content to be the basis of attraction and engagement, rather than betting everything on the caliber of your 'challenger super-heroes' within the sales team.

Here's why ideation is so important. At the end of the day, in professional selling, it's all about the conversations that sales people have with the right people inside the customer organization - conversations that create or progress opportunities. We must obsess about what the conversation is going to be about? There is no point securing a meeting and then failing to engage and progress. Relentlessly ask yourself and your team: 'What is it that can earn a meeting and drive a conversation to create an opportunity based on value for the customer?' The approach sure as hell must not be about you and what you do.... no-one cares! They care about themselves, their problems and their customers, staff and stakeholders.

We need a big idea, a reason to meet, something worthwhile and intriguing to discuss. This is where the concept of ideation and Design Thinking delivers in a practical way. Design Thinking is a framework for ideation and has been with us for years. It's an excellent way of harnessing a team's creative juices to brainstorm and develop ideas and strategies for value and differentiation. Create a cross-functional team of your best minds and ensure the group is heavily weighted with those who know your customers intimately... why not include some of your best customer contacts in the team? Run a process where you identify their thorniest problems, the wicked ones that stymie them. Incorporate the following steps:

  1. Identify and define the issues, then prioritize them and agree who in the customer organization is impacted most and who really cares about resolution. Who owns the problem and the budget internally and will need to approve the investment?
  2. Research, research, research. How has this been tackled in the past? Why is it important? What has worked and what has failed? What do analysts and thought leaders think? Create a body of data from which you will be able to draw insights and evidence.
  3. Brainstorm and ideate. Generate as many ideas as possible. Don't judge, debate or dive down rabbit holes. Have one conversation at a time and record all ideas. Nothing should be rejected or criticized.
  4. Agree and then develop a short-list of ideas. Refine and test assumptions. Create working models, mock-ups, process-flows... anything that creates tangible representation of your ideas. Seek feedback and refine, adjust and keep going.
  5. Select the best. Rapidly iterate, refine and evolve. Assess against the problem-solving or solutioning objective. Collaborate but avoid group-think to select the most powerful ideas. Everyone must be committed to the cause of the group, rather than being wedded to their own ideas.
  6. Execute and implement. Transition to project management mode. Assign task owners, dates and KPIs. Have deliverables with deadlines. How will you communicate the concepts and evidence the rationale and approach?
  7. Review and learn. Debrief and seek feedback. Document everything. Push it through a new iteration cycle if appropriate. Celebrate success, learn from failure. How can you improve or innovate further?

When all of this is done, then think like a publisher. Create provocative headlines and editorial content. Also create white papers and videos. Your marketing team can execute as a thought leader, exactly as recommended in The Challenger Sale without risk because they are not confronting an individual prospective customer. But remember that people are best motivated by reasons that they themselves discover... help your clients on their journey of discovery rather than preach at them. Quality content-meets-context based marketing is the key in a Social Selling 3.0 world, and the face of the content should be the person who will be executing the meetings with customer CXOs. Lock those individuals in to your company and build their brand as industry experts - it's a brave new world for employers.

Never forget that for a sales person to execute Challenger concepts they must know what the conversation is going to be about, and it must something deeply and provocatively relevant for the customer and their world. This is why it's so vital that you segment your business based on verticals. Challenger sales people must, by definition, be [customer] industry domain experts.

With all this in place, here is a way of leading and securing meaningful engagements with customers. The most senior people within your potential customers care about evidence-based research that identifies the trends driving change within their industry and markets. This is what you need to make the conversation about! You have something they don't... you work with their competitors and maybe some of their customers, and you know what 'best practice' looks like in their industry. Or perhaps you have seen how technology or innovation is being applied in other industries and how they could adapt it to gain competitive advantage? Never divulge a customer's secrets to their competitor; that's a huge breach of trust. Be the sage oracle - the trusted advisor, not the gimmicky provocateur.

I believe in Challenger with a twist - do all the work suggested by The Corporate Executive Board, Matt and Brent; but then go to market with attraction rather than projection, insight rather than provocation. The content and insight should be provocative, not the sales person. There is an English proverb: You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Attraction selling, based on insight and value, is the best approach to early engagement in complex B2B enterprises. Bring a perspective that makes you intriguing and never forget that people buy from those they know, like and trust, and who continuously create value. Understand the way that CEOs think and talk their language. Understand the customer's mode of business and remember that only the customer is qualified to define value.


Tony Hughes is ranked as the #1 influencer on professional selling in Asia-Pacific and is a keynote speaker and best selling author. This article was originally published in LinkedIn where you can also follow Tony's award winning blog. Also visit Tony's keynote speaker website at or his sales methodology website at

Please purchase the book at this link: The Challenger Sale


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