Taking Control of the Customer Conversation in Sales

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How can taking control of the customer conversation help you close a sale? What can you do to develop and execute this strategy?

In Challenger Selling, taking control of the customer conversation is a core skill. As a Challenger seller, you’ll learn that taking control of the customer conversation can help steer your customers in the right direction, and drive them toward the decision you want them to make.

Taking Control of the Conversation

Taking control of the sale is the third pillar of the Challenger Selling Method. Challenger reps are able to take control of the sale because they’re naturally good at two things that core reps struggle with: talking about money and pushing the customer. This chapter explains how to build these skills in average reps.

Challenger reps are comfortable discussing money because they’re confident in the value of the insight they’ve provided to the customer. For the same reason, they don’t hesitate to push back when a customer wants a discount, looser terms, or more without a price increase.

Challengers also create momentum, keeping the conversation moving toward the next step. Their goal is to sell a deal, not have a friendly meeting. In contrast, Relationship Builders don’t push toward next steps because they don’t want to undermine the relationship. They

naturally want to reduce tension, not increase it by pushing.

Misconceptions about Taking Control

Reps may be reluctant to take control or sales managers may hesitate to push their reps to control the sales conversation due to three misconceptions:

Misconception 1: Taking Control is Synonymous with Negotiation

Many sales reps and managers think they should think about taking control of the customer conversation only at the end of the sales conversation, at the negotiation stage. However, Challengers take control of the entire sales process from the beginning. As a result, customers see the Challenger as a confident partner as opposed to an anxious rep hoping for a deal at the end.

Challengers realize that customers may be confused about how to execute a complex purchase, so they teach the customer how to buy the solution. Extrapolating from past sales, they explain the purchase process and coach the customer on who should be involved.

Challengers also take control immediately in two typical problem situations that usually stymie core reps:

  • The foregone conclusion: A company may assign a junior employee to meet with the rep, not to learn anything new, but to confirm a decision that’s already been made to go with another supplier. The point is just to make sure they’re getting the best deal. This happens nearly 20% of the time. Challengers recognize the ploy and use it to push for access to more stakeholders or decision-makers in exchange for continued dialogue. If they don’t get it, they move on to better prospects. In contrast, average reps don’t want to walk away, so they waste time on a lost cause.
  • Free consultation: A customer may invite the rep in to analyze a problem and generate creative solutions—then the customer searches out the cheapest supplier. Challengers either avoid this customer or they confront the customer upfront about the effort required to analyze the problem and get everyone on board; then they request assurance that the customer will invest in the supplier in return.

Misconception 2: Reps Should Only Take Control When the Topic Is Money

Challengers take control not only on price, but also on ideas—they push the customer in how they think about their business and its challenges (this is required for reframing, the essence of Commercial Teaching).

In fact, pushing on ideas is necessary because the customer often will be skeptical about a new way of thinking and will push back by demanding data or by arguing that his company is different. The Challenger rep replies that other companies have unique aspects too, but this idea has helped them. 

Pushing back is critical because the insights link back to the supplier’s solutions. If the rep can’t convince the customer the problem ought to be solved, he can’t sell the solution.

Misconception 3: Reps Will Be too Aggressive If Told to Take Control

Sales managers often fear that reps will be aggressive. But research shows that reps are more likely to go the other way toward passivity and wanting to resolve tension rather than maintain it.

Reps are often passive because they think the customer has the most power in the sales relationship. They give in to customer demands because they feel they have no choice. However, reps have more power than they think; many undervalue their contribution and overestimate the value of the customer’s objections. Taking control of the customer conversation means you know the value of your expertise and company resources and you don’t give them away without a commitment from the customer to work with you.

Sales managers often inadvertently encourage rep passivity by urging them to be customer-centric, or to put the customer first. In response, reps tend to give discounts when they shouldn’t or become customer order-takers. Managers have to stop this if they want to build a Challenger sales force.

Challengers are assertive, not aggressive. On a rep behavior spectrum, with passive at one end and aggressive at the other, assertive falls in the middle and is characterized by:

  • Directly pursuing goals constructively
  • Defending personal boundaries
  • Using direct language

The main difference between being assertive and aggressive is posture. Assertive reps use direct language and move the conversation forward purposefully, but they’re sensitive and responsive to the customer’s reactions. They make their value case and stick with it, building stakeholder support. In contrast, aggressive reps attack with antagonistic language. But again, reps are far more likely to be timid than aggressive. The real question is how to make them more assertive, not less assertive.

Equipping Reps to Take Control

To help reps become more assertive, sales managers need to address the main barrier to taking control of the customer conversation: the desire for closure.

Most reps are uncomfortable with loose ends and ambiguity. In contrast, Challengers welcome ambiguity, and even tension, because they realize it can be used to their advantage. They’re comfortable with silence in the sales conversation, as well as keeping points of contention open and on the table for a while.

While you can’t transform people’s personalities, you can help make reps more aware of their tendencies and give them tools for making sure they don’t give in when they shouldn’t during tough conversations.


Remember that it’s important for reps to take control throughout the sales process, not just during negotiation. It has to happen throughout the conversation or it will feel contrived or off-putting at the end.

Teaching reps the importance of clear direction over quick closure and how to create value in the sales process can help them overcome passivity and be assertive.

Taking control of the customer conversation requires an assertive sales rep. This is why Challenger Sellers are great at this skill. Taking control of the customer conversation ensures that they lead the customer where they want to go.

Taking Control of the Customer Conversation in Sales

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  • 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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