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Challenger Sale: It’s Time to Start Making Sense of All That Information

December 28, 2021

Contributor: Alice Walmesley

Here's how insight-driven sales organizations maintain their competitive edge in todays information-rich buying environment.

In short:

  • More than a decade ago, Gartner's groundbreaking Challenger™ sales research argued that sellers need to deliver B2B customer interactions specifically designed to disrupt customer's current thinking and teach them something new.

  • In the last decade, markets have been flooded with huge amounts of useful and credible thought leadership and insights, paralyzing decision makers.

  • High-performing sales reps must now help B2B customers make sense of the information they encounter so they can be confident in their purchase decisions.

More than a decade ago, Gartner's groundbreaking Challenger™ sales research argued that to succeed in the modern, complex B2B buying environment, sellers needed to challenge customers to think about their business in a different light. But in the last decade, markets have been flooded with incredible amounts of useful and credible thought leadership and insights.

The unintended consequence is that customers are paralyzed in decision-making as they struggle to prioritize between high quality, but often conflicting, information. High-performing sales reps focus on helping customers to make sense of the information they've encountered to fuel confident purchase decisions. Gartner calls this approach Sense Making.

Download now: How to Close More High-Quality, Low-Regret Deals

The key to successful B2B sales now hinges not just on delivering insight, but also on contextualizing it for the customer’s unique circumstances, so they are confident in their own purchase decisions. B2B customers who report superior confidence in their buying decisions are 157% more likely to complete the purchase of premium-priced, large-scope solutions without second-guessing themselves later (a “high-quality, low-regret deal”).

Failing to differentiate in an information-rich buying environment

Most sales organizations are now capable of delivering powerful insights, thanks to investments in data and analytics, content marketing and sales training. But customers are overwhelmed with high-quality information.

B2B customers spend, on average, only 24% of their buying time meeting with all potential suppliers. In addition, they independently gather, consider and analyze information that they access predominantly through digital channels. Rather than attending meetings with sales representatives, buyers spend much of this time conducting independent learning through online sources, especially as the number of remote and hybrid workers grows. To complicate matters, 89% of buyers report encountering high-quality information during the purchase process.

This has profound implications for both sellers and buyers.

Since customers already have access to high-quality information, suppliers — and their sellers — cannot reliably differentiate themselves through increased investment in information alone. On the buyer side, an abundance of high-quality information makes it difficult to understand critical details necessary to make informed decisions. 

All of these factors contribute to reduced odds of closing a high-quality, low-regret deal.

The importance of Sense Making

Sense Making’s purpose is to connect, clarify and collaborate: Connect customers to relevant information, clarify the complexity of the information and collaborate with customers as they learn throughout their buyer journey.

This is very different to more common approaches, in which sellers concentrate on either providing a lot of information or imparting it based on extensive personal experience and knowledge. Unlike these giving and telling approaches, Sense Making helps customers evaluate and prioritize relevant information, regardless of the source, and this approach is shown to reduce customer skepticism and promote high customer confidence. That translates into more high-quality, low-regret deals.

With Sense Making, sellers essentially move their chair to the customer’s side of the table to “look out at the market.” From there, sellers note the variety of good — if conflicting — information and possibilities, and offer the customer reassurance. Sense Making enables the customer to gain critical perspective on their purchase criteria, their direction, the possibilities that exist and the vendors that can support those possibilities. It also allows sellers to appropriately put their views, insights and solutions into the right context for the customer to truly appreciate.

The Challenger™ approach, by contrast, is based on a supplier-out view. It captures how the best sales reps explain what makes their offerings distinctive — through helping the customer think differently about their challenges or business in a way that leads to the supplier’s unique offerings.

The business results of Sense Making

Sense Making matters tremendously in today’s buying environment because without it, even the best insights and most thoughtful pitches get lost in the noise.

And B2B purchasers who lack confidence in their decisions can easily become paralyzed by the amount and range of information they’re trying to process — making 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.

Sense Making before, not just during, customer interactions 

Importantly, Sense Making does not begin during customer interaction. Rather, sellers who take a Sense Making approach to information prepare for each customer interaction in a very particular way.

It may be common knowledge that top-performing sellers distinguish themselves from their peers through superior preparation. But the Sense Making seller’s preparation is unique in its emphasis on developing an information plan, collaborating with managers to discover new information and prioritize it for customers, and customizing tools to assist a skeptical or overwhelmed customer.

This preparation leads to a distinct customer interaction. Sense Making sellers report admitting the limits of their own knowledge and relying on evidenced views to help customers arrive at their own understanding about difficult decisions.

This article has been updated from the 2019 original to reflect new events, conditions and research.

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