Monday, February 18, 2013

Warning to CEOs: Resist the Temptation of Believing in Silver Bullets……



…… especially when trying to address performance issues of your sales force.

On February 6, 2013 Sales training industry experts Brian Lambert, Geoffrey James, John Roy and Scott Hudson discussed “The good, bad & ugly of Challenger Sales Model”. The Model is described in the book “The Challenger Sale, Taking Control of the Customer Conversation” by Mathew Dixon and Brent Adamson of the Corporate Executive Board.   The model is gathering significant attention not least from the way the book is marketed.

Brian Lambert mentioned in the introduction to the discussion some serious performance issues that sales forces need fixing. Yet one of the main conclusions of the experts’ discussion was that there is no such thing as a silver bullet to fix these sales performance issues.

Why should you care?
Every year, billions of dollars are spent for sales training. A big portion of these training efforts does not show adequate returns. In many cases, this lack of return is caused by executives having the newest concept for Sales introduced into their organizations with the hope of having found the silver bullet to solve sales force performance issues.

Why do we need to be reminded of this?
The way the book, “The Challenger Sale”, is marketed,  fosters this illusion of being a silver bullet to improve sales performance.  Just have a look at the jacket of the book. There, Neil Rackham, the author of SPIN Selling, praises “The Challenger Sale” as: “The most important advance in selling for many years”.

Neil Rackham developed his SPIN Selling model on the basis of an extensive research.  When it was first presented, it drew a lot of criticism from the then established sales trainers because it put into question many of their believes and teachings. In hind side, we know that, for many contexts, these teachings have proven to be inadequate.

The Challenger Sales Model is also based on research though not as extensive as the one undertaken by Rackham. The Challenger Sales Model also is often put in questions by today’s sales experts. The discussion by industry experts, mentioned above, is just one of many examples. Can you see the power of putting Neil Rackham’s quote on the jacket? For those knowing the industry, it is a clear message: If you criticize the Challenger Sales Model, you risk being seen like those trainers critiquing SPIN Selling in an attempt to protect their turfs.

The article published in the Harvard Business Review on the Challenger Sales Model is another element of how the book is marketed. In this article, Dixon et al.  announce nothing less than the death of Solution Selling. For the benefit of the doubt, let’s assume they meant Solution Selling as a generic term.  “Solution Selling” is also a registered trademark of a widely used commercial sales methodology. You can imagine that the owners of this methodology were not exactly happy about this article. From my perspective, the research done for “The Challenger Sale” actually confirms a very basic concept of “Solution Selling”, namely to focus on prospects who are not yet looking for a solution. That is essentially what a challenger does.

Last week, I found yet another example s of the marketing strategy for the book.  This example is on audience targeting.  In the British Airways magazine “Business Life”, I found this article discussing the book.  This last example triggered the idea for the title of this blog post.

Why is an airline magazine well suited to diffuse the message about “The Challenger Sale”?
Many executives are frequent flyers. They often do some background reading while traveling by plane.  Articles, like the one in the British Airways magazine, draw easily their attention. Most executives are rather displeased with the performance of their sales forces and this for good reasons when you look issues presented by Brian Lambert.  During the experts' discussions, one of the panelists mentioned that most executives have not risen to their position through the sales ranks which makes them though particularly vulnerable to believe in messages transmitted in such articles.

At first glance, and especially if one has not had much exposure to the sales function, articles such as the one in the British Airways magazines appear rather plausible.  Inspired by the article, executives might next buy the book or immediately have somebody looking into how this apparently new great model about sales could be introduced to their company’s sales force.  As mentioned above, there is a high likelihood that such an initiative will end up in another disappointing experience of a sales training initiative not producing the expected results. Here is why.

The definition of Sales might look simple
In an earlier post, I already made an attempt to present a simple definition. Thanks to a discussion with my friend David Ednie, I found a more refined and comprehensive version:
Sales means having interactions
             with the right person
             about the right subject
             at the right moment
             in the right way
to reach mutually beneficial decisions for the seller and the buyer.

Mastering Sales is less trivial
To understand who the right person and what the right subject is, one needs methodologies. To know when it is the right moment to interact, one needs a process. Skills are needed to know the right way how to interact. Already this little list demonstrates that there are many facets to be mastered by a well performing sales force.  There is simply not one book that can cover all these aspects.

Recommendations
First, remember that books are primarily written for authors. Especially in the sales training industry, which is largely lacking a body of scientific knowledge, books are written to establish ones authority about the subject. Content presenting an apparent comprehensive model or system based on own research seems to be best suited to establish credibility. Yet content alone does not sell the book. You need clever marketing. The way “The Challenger Sale “is marketed is an excellent show case how to boost sales for a book effectively.  Whether this goes to the detriment of credibility, is a different subject.

Second, we need executives being more involved in initiatives to improve the performance of sales forces. Yet we should stop creating allusions that one book contains the silver bullet how to do it. Doing so, we set them up for failure.

Third, in most books written about Sales, you will find some aspects worthwhile to be considered. Only wise and careful integration of such aspects into a current selling system has a chance of bringing the expected improvement of performance.   Integrating does though not mean adding. Usually some edges need be filed off from the new concept and elements from the existing system need to be removed or modified. In case you consider the whole system described in a book as being attractive to deploy in your organization, just be aware that integration of a whole model is more complex, and the chance for causing disruptions in the current selling system, negatively impacting performance, is increasing. 

3 comments:

Brian MacIver said...

What nonsense! List the flaws you have found with the SPIN model, and the evidence to disprove SPIN Validity.

Christian A. Maurer said...

I have not said that SPIN Selling is flawed; To the contrary. What I meant to say is that those criticizing SPIN Selling at the time were proven wrong. What I am however doubting is that the Challenger Sales Model can claim to be a similar break through as SPIN selling was.

Anonymous said...

Ignore Brian, he's an irritating internet troll always banging the table about evidence based sales, and yet when you go to his website, you see that he has no evidence for the effectiveness of his training. In fact, if you go to his website, he looks like he's just barely scrapping by.

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