A Step Beyond the Challenger Sale

Help your B2B customers make sense of all they’re learning without you.

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    Since the inception of our groundbreaking Challenger™ sales research more than a decade ago, we have argued that to sell complex, large-scale B2B solutions, sales people must adapt to new B2B buying behavior

    Now, buying behavior is changing more rapidly and more profoundly than ever — especially since the pandemic widely expanded the use of virtual interactions and transactions. 

    The key to successful B2B sales now hinges not just on delivering insight but also on making sense of all the information purchasers now find and use. 

    B2B customers who report superior confidence in their buying decisions are 157% more likely to complete what we call a “high-quality, low-regret deal” than other customers. The job for today’s B2B sellers is to instill that confidence.

    The Sense Making approach does that (watch video below) by empowering customers so they can take bold and decisive action with confidence and peace of mind.

    What the Sense Making Approach does differently — and why it matters

    The Challenger Sale is all about challenging customers and disrupting their current thinking to teach them something new. Sense Making is about building customers’ self-confidence by:

    1. Connecting customers to carefully curated, helpful information
    2. Clarifying information by explaining, simplifying and clarifying apparent inconsistencies
    3. Collaborating on customer learning through Socratic guidance

    The response from B2B customers? More confidence and less skepticism, with sales reps seen as less pushy and self-serving.

    The information challenge affects both suppliers and buyers

    • 90% of B2B customers agree that the information they encounter as part of a B2B purchase is generally of high quality.

    • Only 17% of the total purchase process is spent talking to potential suppliers, because so much is available through independent research.

    • And yet, 44% of customers found supplier information to be trustworthy but simultaneously contradictory.

    • B2B buyers spend only 17% of the total purchase journey with sales reps.

    • A sales rep gets roughly 5% of a customer’s total purchase time because the average deal involves multiple suppliers.

    • 44% of millennials prefer no sales rep interaction at all in a B2B setting.

    Brent Adamson, Distinguished VP, Advisory, sums up the challenge for sellers by noting that B2B customers are more likely to make high-quality deals (premium-priced, large-scope solutions) — without second-guessing themselves later — when they’re confident their decision is rational and based on the right information.

    But those who lack that confidence are likely paralyzed by the amount and range of information they’re trying to process. 

    That makes them less likely to commit to a high-quality deal

    • Customers who encounter information that’s trustworthy but contradictory are 66% less likely to commit.

    • Customers who receive conflicting information on the trade-offs between vendors are 33% less likely to commit.

    • Customers who report encountering overwhelming amounts of information are 54% less likely to purchase — at least without regret.

    The impact of these information challenges is cumulative when they occur simultaneously.

    The abundance of high-quality information not only presents a problem for sellers; it's also an issue for buyers. While suppliers struggle to differentiate themselves on ideas and insights alone, customers also struggle to process and synthesize the information available to confidently make decisions.

    Brent Adamson

    Distinguished VP, Advisory, Gartner, Gartner

    Three critical questions about the Challenger Sale versus Sense Making approaches

    Both research initiatives stemmed from the need to identify best practices in B2B sales in a complex environment. In particular, we sought to answer three main questions:

    1. What sets the best sales reps apart in a complex sales environment?
    2. How do you replicate winning sales behaviors?
    3. How do you create a differentiated sales experience? 

    Supplier out ("Challenger™") vs. Marketing in view (Sense Making).

    How does Sense Making differ from the Challenger Sale approach?

    In practice, Challenger Sale and Sense Making operate independently:

    • Challenger Sale is based on a supplier-out view. It captures how the best sales reps explain what makes their offerings distinctive and powerfully share their capabilities with the customer. 

    • Sense Making is based on a market-in view from the customer’s perspective. With Sense Making, sellers essentially adopt the customer’s position so they can jointly look out at the market, noting the variety of good — if conflicting — information and possibilities, and admit the scenarios may seem like a mess.

    Is the Challenger methodology still effective?

    Challenger, while more than a decade old, is still highly effective. However, just as products and solutions face increasing commoditization, we are also seeing “good-enough” credible information crowd out even the best sales messages.

    We advocate for having a sharp sales message — at best, a true commercial insight. But that’s increasingly necessary and not nearly as sufficient as it once was.

    80% of the sellers who used the Sense Making approach closed high-quality deals (premium-priced, large-scope solutions) that buyers didn’t later regret

    When should I implement Sense Making versus Challenger Sale?

    This depends on how mature your organization is in deploying Challenger. The less committed you already are to Challenger, the more opportunity there is for Sense Making to create an impact. Benchmark yourself — likely in one of three ways — to assess the opportunity:

    "We haven’t yet implemented Challenger."

    Sense Making presents a superior approach to making sure your message and insights are clearly rationalized and easily understood by the customer — even if they’re not presented as commercial insights. Our data shows customers are highly receptive to the Sense Making approach. Focus on a narrowly scoped training and enablement initiative to introduce this approach to your teams, and incorporate it into your sales process, account planning and opportunity management.

    "We recently initiated our Challenger journey."

    If you’re in your first or second year of a Challenger rollout, developing commercial insights is still your most critical priority. However, when the appropriate moment arises to help customers think differently about their business, deploy your team with sharp insights. Also consider factoring Sense Making into initial training, which helps reps better empathize with customers.

    "We have been on the Challenger journey for some time."

    You may have seen multiple rollouts, have strong commercial insights and watched the number of Challenger sellers within your sales ranks increase over time. It can be complex to introduce Sense Making, but many of our clients use Sense Making to improve the efficacy of Challenger without invoking extensive change management.