Harvard Business Review says Sales is No Longer About Relationships

A very interesting article by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, both of the Sales Executive Council, show recent research that selling is not just about relationships, but rather about teaching customers, tailoring sales messages to the customer, and taking control of the sale.

I have been following the Harvard Business Review (HBR) since the time we did research in conjunction with them in the March 2011 issue entitled The Short Life of Online Leads.

The Sales Executive Council did a global study in 2008 involving more than 6000 B2B sales reps from nearly 100 companies in many industries.

They classified these sales professionals into five profiles:

1- Relationship Builders: who focus on building strong personal and professional relationships.

2- Hard Workers: come early, stay late, make more calls, make more visits, and go the extra effort mile.

3- Lone Wolves: are very self confident and may break rules by doing things their way or not at all.

4- Reactive Problem Solvers: are customer-centric by being reliable and detail-oriented with strong follow-up and well executed implementation.

5- Challengers: understand their customers’ businesses to push their thinking and drive the entire sales conversation with themselves in control. They are not afraid to assert even controversial views with customers and bosses.

These five profiles are almost evenly distributed among typical salespeople, but only one stands out for performance… The Challenger.

In fact, the Challenger makes up 40% of the high performers.

What makes them different?

1- They teach their customers. They focus their sales conversation not so much on features and benefits but on providing unique insight on the customers business with new ideas to make and save money. They help customers see things they didn’t know existed!

2- They tailor their sales message to the customers needs. They are deeply tuned in to the objectives and value drivers of the customer and position their sales pitch to each different stakeholder within a customers organization.

3- They take control of the sale. They are assertive, not overly aggressive, but comfortable with tension and rarely give in to a customer who doesn’t know their solution like they do. They can press customers to make a decision, even on price.

If the Challenger is the winner, who is the loser?

The Relationship Builder. In fact, they account for only 7% of high performers in standard sales situations.


The data seems to say that relationships have changed. Challengers push for better decisions, while Relationship Builders give in when the customers push back to preserve what they think are relationships. They are likable and generous, not competent and valuable.

The study goes deeper, Challengers dominate the world of complex solution selling by making up 54% of the stars, while only 4% of Relationship Builders make up the stars in more complex sales.

Restated, Challengers win because they have mastered the complex sale. This fact is extremely valuable when considering the future. With a down economy, this looks like an even more valuable trait. In other words, the Challenger looks to be the profile skill most desired for sales results well into the future.

Wow, lots of things are changing, BANT, relationship selling, what next?

Click here to see if you are considered a Challenger or to see a graphical summary of how the Challenger stacks up against the other profiles.

I’m looking forward to their new book “The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation” which goes on sale at Amazon on Nov 10, 2011

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