The Secret to High-Performance Sales

Salespeople who balance customer focus and assertiveness are more likely to close sales and build long-term loyalty.

Like sports, sales isn't just about winning; it's how you play the game. The salespeople most likely to win deals are those who can balance customer centricity with assertiveness.

In their recent book The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson discuss the five main types of salespeople prevalent in the business world today, primarily concentrating on the high-performing Challenger, who's customer focused, yet never afraid to be assertive. During a recent interview with 1to1, Dixon discusses what makes a true Challenger and why they're more likely to close deals than their sales colleagues.

You list 5 different types of sales reps: the Hard Worker, the Relationship Builder, the Lone Wolf, the Problem Solver, and the Challenger. What sets the Challenger apart from all the rest?

According to our data, Challengers are defined by their ability to do three things. First, they "teach" their customers. In other words, they take a sales approach that is about delivering business insight first-for instance, new ideas for saving money or making money-and products and services second. This stands in stark contrast to the typical sales approach of leading with products and services or leading with open-ended questions (e.g., "What's keeping you up at night?"), sales approaches that customers find not only tiresome, but also utterly undifferentiated in the market. In fact, according to our research, 53 percent of B2B customer loyalty is a function of the supplier's ability to deliver an insight-driven sales conversation. In other words, Challengers deliver exactly what customers tell us they look for in their suppliers.

Second, Challengers tailor their sales message to the different stakeholders they're engaging with. They don't take their sales message and deliver it in the same way to the CFO, CIO, CMO, etc. They adapt the message to the business objectives those different stakeholders care most about. This is an important skill when selling complex solutions that require huge amounts of organizational consensus before purchasing.

Last, they take control of the sales conversation. They do this in an assertive, not aggressive way and they do it with respect to the ideas they bring to the table, as well as around matters of money. They're not afraid to push the customer a little.

To really understand what makes the Challenger different though, you need to think about them in contrast to their direct opposite, the Relationship Builder. In our research, Challengers were the highest percentage of high-performing sales reps at nearly 40 percent, while Relationship Builders came in dead least at only 7 percent of high performers. And, in complex sales, Challengers are a staggering 54 percent of high performers compared to only 4 percent that are Relationship Builders.

So what makes them so different? Relationship Builders are all about acquiescing to customer demands and about being generous and likable. Where Challengers are about pushing the customer outside of their comfort zone, the Relationship Builder seeks to be accepted into it. When you put it all together, the Challenger sells by maintaining a certain amount of "constructive tension" across the sales interaction while Relationship Builders are more concerned with relieving tension across the sales process. This doesn't mean that relationships are unimportant to sales, but it does mean that using the relationship as an end unto itself is a poor sales approach. Arguably, it's the Challenger who builds the stronger relationship because it's one built on real business value, not just likability.

How else do Challengers stand out?

Our data shows that customers are increasingly boxing salespeople out of their purchase decisions altogether: Today, by the time a customer first contacts a supplier, their purchase decision is 57 percent complete. So, they've already defined their needs and scoped their requirements. They've already narrowed down the set of vendors they want to talk to. They've probably even decided what they want to pay for the solution. All that's left to negotiate on at this point is price. That's a tough place to be whether you're the CEO of a B2B supplier, a commercial leader or just an individual salesperson.

How do you avoid this situation; in other words, how do you get in early, ahead of the RFP? Our data shows that more than half of customer loyalty-53 percent to be exact-is a product of how you sell, not what you sell. Customers perceive very little difference between suppliers around things like brand, product and service quality, and price-to-value ratio. Where they see huge discrepancies is in the actual sales experience one supplier delivers versus another. Where one supplier's reps come in and waste their time, the other supplier's reps come in and lead with insight. They deliver a sales experience that is actually worth paying for. This is what Challengers do and it's what leads not only to higher levels of individual sales performance, but to higher levels of customer loyalty and growth.

Why is the Challenger's approach so effective?

Salespeople tend to think that the more acceptable sales approach is to ask questions of the customer as a way to show concern and empathy. But again, the truth is that customers don't see it the same way. Every salesperson who walks into their office asks open-ended questions! What customers want is for salespeople to come in and make them smarter: to show them new ideas for making money or saving money, to show them risks that might be over the horizon or provide new insights for how to break into new markets. Customers don't want to be asked what's keeping them up at night; their view is that salespeople should already know that. They're not making as much money as they should. They're wasting money they don't need to. There are risks out there they don't know about. Those are the things keeping your customers up at don't waste their time asking them to explain it to you. Show up at the table with insights for improving their effectiveness as business people. That's what they want and that's what will earn their loyalty over the long run.