Between Social Selling and the Challenger Sale



The two loudest trends in sales at the moment are social selling and the challenger sale. I say loudest because nearly every conversation about sales strategy seems to weave one or both of these concepts into the thread. This is the stuff that is keeping sales leaders up at night and driving sales reps to claw at any tool or technique that will help them stay relevant in this new playing field.
Before I move too far ahead, some definitions might help. The Challenger Sale was a concept introduced in 2011 based on research performed by the CEB to define sales effectiveness. The book by Matt Dixon and Brent Adamson went on to take the sales profession by storm. The core tenets they unveiled are that buyer’s are more informed than ever before and that sales people fall into certain archetypes, one of which, the Challenger, as being more equipped to handle the reality of this new buyer/seller environment. The Challenger does this by offering insights that engage and disrupt a prospect’s thinking.
Defining social selling is a bit harder, particularly because most salespeople think it is nothing more than a buzzword. For simplicity sake though, I will go with Hubspot’s perspective, “Social selling is when salespeople use social media to interact directly with their prospects.”While selling has always been social, the arrival of social networks and the easy sharing of information facilitated through these networks, provides a unique and more direct opportunity to engage prospects with insight. Thus, you can say that the defining characteristic of the social seller is to be seen as a valued resource to prospects.
Both methods have their appeal. The focus on adding immediate value to the customer at the point of engagement is critical in establishing credibility and trust. The era of the no-content salesperson that purely rides along on personality and relationships has come to an end. In their place are salespeople that are able to guide conversations along buyer needs versus vendor features and that are viewed as knowledgeable contributors to customers.
That being said, the Challenger Sale and Social Selling when used exclusively, are fast paths to getting nowhere with customers. The fundamental problem is that each approach sits at opposite extremes of the buyer experience. It is like the difference between takers and givers.  The takers are too pushy while the givers are not pushy enough. What is lost is the nuance underlining each of these methodologies, thus the application does not reflect what the methodology actually conveys.
Like the takers, you have Challenger salespeople who barrel over customers in the process of “challenging” their beliefs. Instead of listening and understanding, they are their agenda. It may not be a “product” push, but it feels no different to the customers that are on the receiving end of being “challenged”. On the other hand, the social sellers are all about the giving. They give away their time and knowledge and resources, all in the name of being helpful. In the process of being helpful though, they wait for the prospect to make a move and to buy, but rarely does that happen.  Instead, the customer gets the information and then either selects another provider or simply does nothing.
What we are missing in this rush to find new and novel ways to advance our sales efforts is getting back to what actually has always worked.  We are missing the art of persuasion, something that great leaders and entrepreneurs possess. Naturally gifted salespeople possess persuasion as well, but anyone can be taught the specific set of skills that make up persuasion. Selling through persuasion avoids the pitfalls of being oriented too far on the giver/taker spectrum. When you sell from persuasion, you overcome four key issues that occur in the poor execution of implementing a Challenger or social selling style of sales approach:

  • You sell from the buyer perspective– Both Challenger and social start with the seller point of view. The persuasive seller wants to learn more about the customer first before prescribing or offering insight.
  • You drive towards mini-commitments–Social sellers focus so much on giving, that it becomes hard to establish reciprocity upfront , whereas the Challenger goes in too strong which causes prospects to withdraw. Persuasion finds ways of bridging differences and finding agreement.
  • Your engagement style is a natural– Unless you are completely introverted, persuasion is how humans are naturally oriented. Challenger and social selling are for most people not as natural or intuitive in terms of engaging and interacting with people.
  • You hit the emotional decision centers – Many social and challenge sellers tend to rely on facts and “data”. That is helpful but does not create buy-in from customers.  People do not buy until they understand what is in it for them, and that is an emotional decision.

Think about how a debate proceeds. Your goal as a debater is to move the people in the audience and your opponent towards your point of view. The people that tend to fare worse are those that attempt to barrel over their opposition. Those people are perceived as bullies.  Then there are those that do little to counter opposition. They stick to their narrative but their lack of attack is seen as weak. The people that win debates however are able to understand their opponent’s perspective, build upon seemingly small points of agreement, and are able to connect their arguments to emotional triggers.
Understand this is not meant to dismiss the Challenger sale or social selling. The point is that Challenger is a great perspective and social selling is a valuable tool to use that builds upon a foundation of sales talent, sales skills and a well thought out sales process. The Challenger sale used on a poor foundation can turn sales reps into combative jerks. Likewise, social selling can be a license to not ask hard questions and for reps to waste time on “research”.
That is where persuasion enters, to balance out the extremes and to focus on the skills that are core to B2B selling. You are leveraging various questioning tactics, active listening, empathetic mirroring, value mapping, NLP, and other skills. The art of persuasion is a process that advances each conversation and point of engagement towards a decision without being overly aggressive. You are building the foundation of a relationship rooted in mutual professional respect and trust.


Reprinted by permission.
Image credit: CC by SarahSierszyn

About the author: Mark Birch

Mark is an early stage technology investor and entrepreneur based in NYC. Through Birch Ventures, he works with a portfolio of early stage B2B SaaS technology startups providing both capital and guidance in the areas of marketing, sales, strategic planning and funding.

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