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Making the Sale: The Relationship Builder vs. The Challenger

sales professional
August 2019

If you are a sales professional—and even if you are not—you’ve probably read Dale Carnegie’s classic book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

With chapters such as “Six Ways to Make People Like You” and “12 Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking,” it’s easy to see how this 1936 classic still resonates.

How could any budding salesperson fail if they “become genuinely interested in other people,” “smile,” “remember people’s names,” “be a good listener” and “encourage others to talk about themselves”—all pointers Carnegie makes early in his book.

It’s a good bet that a salesperson who uses these techniques will no longer sound and act like just another salesperson in their customers’ minds. Chances are, they instead are viewed as someone with whom they have forged a strong and healthy relationship.

But did this relationship-builder end up making the sale?

Teach, Tailor, Take Control

The list of sales techniques is endless—what works for some doesn’t work for others. Relationship builders versus “Challengers” is a conversation worth having. The Challenger-style was first written about in 2011 when Gartner affiliate CEB (Corporate Executive Board) published “The Challenger Sale” by Brent Adamson and Matthew Dixon.

Providing compelling reasons to buy is the cornerstone of a successful, closing salesperson’s strategy. They are those who “challenge” their customers about their company’s shortfalls, shares intelligence and offers viable solutions.

“If you focus too much on relationships, then you never really push the client prospect,” says Doug Davidoff, Founder & CEO, Imagine Business Development. “With today’s information overload and all the reasons not to make a decision, prospects need someone they can trust and who will teach them something about the buying journey, tailor the communications to their decision style and take control (aka challenge them) when needed.

“The key to ‘challenging’ is to be assertive without being aggressive—obnoxious salespeople lose, but so do salespeople who only say what they think the prospect wants to hear. Challengers teach their prospects something about their business and help them make sound decisions. Relationship people are just good to go have a beer with.”

For relationship- or acquaintance-ship seller types, the thought of challenging a client to purchase a product or service takes them out of their comfort zone.

After all, the underlying drive or intent of the relationship-builder approach is “things are good when the client likes me and when the client is happy.” So, when the buyer begins to show discomfort, the relationship-builder intuitively works to soften the pain.

Relationship-based salespeople—while they potentially have ‘big Rolodexes’—don’t really have meaningful, compelling relationships,” Davidoff says.

“Acquaintance-ship salespeople focus on stuffing more and more opportunities into the pipeline, figuring that if they can be actively working 100 or 200 opportunities (and in some cases even more), then certainly something will come through. In healthy markets, this acquaintance-ship selling can even look like it produces consistent results. The reality is far from that, however.

“The problem with this approach is that it relies on the law of large numbers (the more times you try, the better chance you have to reach your goal). While in the short-term, it produces what looks like solid results, the reality is that the salesperson is not really selling—they’re merely picking up sales that were going to happen anyway.”

Davidoff says traits that can be found in sales teams that are practicing acquaintance-ship selling include:

  • The focus is on the quantity of activity rather than quality.
  • When querying your salesperson on what is happening in an account or prospect, the salesperson does not clearly articulate the compelling reason for a buy, nor the barriers that must be overcome.
  • “False positives” are revealed during the sales process.

‘Uncomfortable’ Decisions

Why is this? Making a new sale requires someone (the client) to make a decision. And, regardless of the situation, making decisions is painful: Think of the arguments that ensue after someone asks, “What do you want for dinner tonight?”

It’s likely the buyer (or client) will experience some level of discomfort during any decision-making process. To make a decision, the client must determine that the pain of not making the decision outweighs the pain of making the decision.

Leading or facilitating this process requires salespeople who are able to be comfortable while the buyer is uncomfortable. Depending on the level of influence required or what’s at stake—the salesperson might even need to be the one who makes the buyer feel uncomfortable. (Ideally, this is not done in a pushy type of way). Keep in mind: If the buyer feels no discomfort through the process, then the buyer will not change course from what they previously were doing. In other words: A decision won’t need to be made. The result: No sale.

The difference is best described:

  • Relationship-builders are comfortable when the buyer is comfortable.
  • Challengers are comfortable when the buyer is uncomfortable.

This comparison is often misunderstood to mean that Challengers are only comfortable when the buyer is uncomfortable—not true—and this has led some to confuse the Challenger sales rep with the jerk sales rep, which is not a fair comparison, Davidoff says.

The net of this is that Challengers maintain control when the buyer becomes uncomfortable, which enables them to continue to influence, whereas the other archetypes tend to cede control in those situations and lose their influence, Davidoff says.

The Challenger is very good at building relationships. This is because they are viewed as being indispensable. By challenging their clients about situations that make them uncomfortable from the outset and by then offering solutions, their value to the client actually reaches its greatest level during this stage of the sales process, Davidoff says.

Continue to read "How Sales Personalities Affect the Team" to find out what type of salespeople you are, how the sales personalities affect the team and what hiring managers are looking for, or click to read "Communication and Trust Are Keys to Successful Selling."