Challenger Propels Sales, but What Does it do for the Customer?… Everything.

By: Gene Brandon, Senior Vice President, National Sales, Valassis
Published Friday, Jan 20, 2017

Challenger Propels Sales, but What Does it do for the Customer?… Everything.

You may have heard of “The Challenger Sale”1 or read a Harvard Business Review article entitled, “End of Solution Sales.”2 If you have, you likely know that the premise of this approach is that B2B buying and selling has fundamentally changed; old methods are just that – outdated and ineffective.

The absolute revolution in access to information has radically changed buyers’ relationships with, and their expectations of, sellers. Today a buyer learns more about your firm from your website and their LinkedIn network in one mouse click than they could have learned from 10 hours of torturous death-by-PowerPoint sales calls, and a week of Rolodex networking, 20 years ago. In addition, the career consequences of wrong decisions by buyers are more unforgiving than ever, encouraging either a consensus decision-making paralysis or whiplash changes made aimlessly in an effort to seek safe harbor. After generations of sellers making a living on relationships, the tone has changed to more of an “I love you, but I’ll miss you.” Buyers need more.

Two years ago, our company began a Challenger journey based on the book "The Challenger Sale," in partnership with CEB – the Corporate Executive Board (a member based consulting organization that helps members research and solve issues facing businesses globally). It is not easy to fundamentally adjust the selling strategy of an organization with over 400 sellers, and it has indeed been a journey. However, after enjoying significant growth over the past year, I can say that the Challenger model has made a tremendous impact.

We are in the early days, but our most talented sellers are approaching sales calls in a fundamentally different way... Instead of focusing on our own company, preparation now consists of fully understanding the customer’s business and developing a compelling idea that rethinks the status quo, and what’s missing. Our sellers now focus on innovating for the customer and bringing them an idea based in fact and research that’s completely in tune with their industry and business reality. Then, they lay it out in a straightforward manner that might create some initial tension, but will move the customer to a better place. Rather than focusing on graphics or logos for the “brag slide” in a 50-page PowerPoint deck, that time is now devoted to research. It’s spent coming up with powerhouse ideas, data and insights that will move our partners beyond their competition and help them efficiently target and acquire consumers. Relationships still matter, but their relevance is now that of a conduit - to deliver vital and impactful innovation and strategies - not simply as a lunch partner. The stakes are too high, and those days are gone.

Good for us. But what about the customer?

In the end, the biggest surprise with these changes has not been internal but with our customers. This strategy is not a selling strategy. It is a client success strategy. I find customers shocked and downright giddy to be saved from the presentation slide-clicking death slog. I see profound shifts in body language and engagement when we discuss their business and key issues they might be underestimating or have missed. Discussions sometimes run hot and passionate, but we are debating ideas based on well-sourced facts and insights, not educated guesses. And the consequences are not whether we’ve wasted an hour or not, but whether the client achieves a new answer; a new solution to problems that may not have been fully realized. 

We have a long way to go to reach my aspirations of how smart and innovative we can be for our clients, but we are fundamentally rotating to the client and from ourselves with the Challenger Sale… and I find it to be one of the most satisfying and compelling journeys of my professional life.


1 Harvard Business Review – End of Solution Sales: By Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon and  Nicholas Toman

The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation: By Brent Adamson