management style

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Challenger Sale" by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to know how to be a great sales manager? What are some strategies you can use?

The challenger selling system can help you learn how to be a great sales manager. But in order for you to implement challenger selling, and ensure your reps have support, there are a few things to keep in mind. In order to learn how to be a great sales manager, you need to know how to be a good leader.

Learn How to Be a Great Sales Manager With Challenger Skills

Challenger skills drive sales success because they dovetail with what research has shown customers want most.

CEB research shows that the most important thing to customers is the sales experience—not the product, service, or price. Customers want to learn something in the sales interaction more than they want to buy something. They want insight into how to cut costs, make more money, and reduce risk. 

Therefore, customers value reps most who:

  • Offer unique and valuable perspectives on the market
  • Help them navigate alternatives
  • Provide advice
  • Help them avoid potential problems
  • Educate them on new issues and outcomes

Customers are saying to reps, “Tell me something new about my business”—which essentially defines the Challenger’s sales approach. Learning how to be a great sales manager can help you capitalize on your challenger sellers’ success, and hep them reach their goals.

Implementation Lessons for Learning How to be a Great Sales Manager

Here are some key lessons for sales leaders, marketing professionals, and senior leaders based on the experiences of companies that implemented the Challenger Sales Model. With these lessons, you can also learn how to become a good sales manager.

Lessons for Sales Leaders

Every high performer isn’t a Challenger. Knowing this is an important part of understanding how to be a great sales manager. Part of the rationale behind the Challenger Selling Model is to replicate what Challengers do naturally across the rest of the sales force. But not all high-performers are Challengers. It’s important to avoid mistakenly using high-performing Relationship Builders and Lone Wolves as teaching examples, since you’ll teach non-Challenger behaviors and tactics. Appendix B provides an assessment tool for identifying the high-performing Challengers you want everyone to emulate.

Don’t emulate the Lone Wolf: While Lone Wolves can be highly successful (25% of them are high performers), a sales force consisting entirely of Lone Wolves would be dysfunctional. Each does their own thing, so you can’t replicate their behavior across the organization and you couldn’t manage a sales force like this. Creating collaborative solutions for customers requires teamwork—however, Lone Wolves behave independently of rules and sales processes.

Start recruiting Challengers: While you can develop Challengers through training and coaching, it also saves time to recruit them when you have openings or new positions. Recruiting is another element of learning how to be a great sales manager.

This requires a different interview process. You need to target different competencies, ask different questions, and apply different evaluation standards. Appendix C provides a Challenger Hiring Guide.

Develop rep skills and organizational capability at the same time: To get the full benefit from the Challenger Selling Model, companies need to improve both individual skills and organizational capabilities. Developing both at the same time speeds up the overall transition, since the capabilities are complementary, and can help you learn how to be a good sales manager. For instance, reps need presentation materials developed by marketing professionals, and marketing people need feedback and information from reps to create great materials.

Take steps to make training stick: Research shows that 87% of sales training content is forgotten by reps within a month. Coaching is a key way to boost retention. Other studies show that you can improve retention by what you do before and after training. Successful companies do three things:

1) Boost rep demand for change and generate buzz before training is rolled out

2) Create “safe practice” opportunities based on real accounts

3) Create ongoing behavioral certification programs to reinforce learning over time

Lessons for Marketing Leaders

Stop trying to be customer-centric. Knowing how to be a great sales manager requires you to know other skills. Being customer-centric can hurt your business in two ways: 1) it leads to offering discounts and other favorable terms that undermine profitability for little long-term gain and 2) it focuses reps on taking customer orders rather than longer-term goals. Instead, be an insight-centric organization that teaches customers to think differently.

Know your company’s unique benefits: You have to know your unique capabilities so you can teach your customers insights that link back to those capabilities.

Don’t use buzzwords in your pitch: If you use the terminology everyone else does, you’re telling customers that you’re just like everyone else. The top overused buzzwords are: leader, leading, best, top, unique, great, solution, largest, innovative/innovator. To truly differentiate your company:

1) Don’t describe your differences; make customers value them

2) Build your conversation around an unexpected insight

3) Don’t lead with your solution, lead to it

Follow these leadership ideas, and you’ll learn how to be a good sales manager and leader.

Lessons for Senior Leaders

Learning how to become a good sales manager is necessary at all levels of leadership.

Accept limited resistance: Aim for 80% adoption of the new model and let the rest climb on board at their own pace as long as they’re meeting their goals and not getting in the way of change. Knowing how to be a good sales manager doesn’t mean forcing everything to get on board with your plan right away. But if performance slips, they need to adopt the new approach or leave. Also, as more reps and companies adopt Challenger selling, it will become a requirement in order to compete, not an option.

Expect casualties: Some reps won’t be able to change, so consider shifting them to another role like customer service or product specialist. Meanwhile, remember that most reps (70-80%) can become Challengers.

Consider piloting the program: Most companies test-run new tools to learn what adjustments should be made. However, Grainger, the equipment supply company, went further by piloting the Challenger program to understand adopter behavior and to respond effectively to adoption plateaus.

Reps cluster into four groups—early adopters, majority, laggards, and naysayers—who get on board in that order. You have to win over one segment before you can push the next segment for adoption. For instance, the majority waits to see early success, while laggards want to see success from a peer close to their segment before they’ll adopt. Targeting the right group at the right time is the key to driving adoption.

Terminology is important: Some people find the term Challenger off-putting. Companies worry that it will encourage reps to be aggressive or to decide relationships don’t matter. But it’s important not to water down the message. The term underscores the need for big change by contrasting the new with old. People are more likely to see it as different. Your message is engaging people when they disagree or debate it.

Beware of the trap, “It won’t work here”: One question that comes up is whether the model is appropriate for Asia-Pacific markets, where challenging and teaching can be seen as aggressive or arrogant by customers. But research has shown that all customers want insight regardless of region. That said, in Asian markets, you may want to revise the terms without watering down the message—for instance, instead of “teaching,” you could refer to “sharing and delivering insights.” Also, it may help to add the word “respectfully” as a modifier.

Start now: You have to start now if you want to change the way your reps interact with customers before your competitors do, and discover how to become a good sales manager. There’s no doubt about what customers want. As Challengers, your reps will get more time with the customer, more invitations to come back, and more promises of action. In contrast, your customers will tell competing reps, “We’ll get back to you.”

Learning how to be a great sales manager takes leadership skills. As a manager of challenger sales reps, you’ll become a great leader and discover how to be a great sales manager.

How to Be a Great Sales Manager With the Challenger Method

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson's "The Challenger Sale" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full The Challenger Sale summary :

  • Why the best salespeople take control of the sale and challenge the customer's thinking
  • How to package your company with a key insight to spark an "a-ha" moment
  • How to get the organizational support you need to maintain your sales edge

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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