9 Takeaways from Brent Adamson on What World Class Selling Looks Like

The co-author of The Challenger Costumer and The Challenger Sale reveals his insights.

Brent Adamson

Global Head of Research & Advisory and Co-author

Brent Adamson

Global Head of Research & Advisory and Co-author
What sets the best sales reps apart from the rest?

Brent Adamson, Global Head of Research & Advisory at Ecosystems and co-author of The Challenger Customer and The Challenger Sale, has been studying this question for over twenty years.

In our latest episode of B2B Revenue Growth Masterclass episode, he joins us to discuss what world class selling looks like, particularly in large complex B2B deals, and how to achieve it.

1. Sales reps shouldn’t just tell customers they have a solution for their problems

Brent Adamson is not new to the concept of identifying what separates the best sales reps from everyone else. Even back in 2008, he was studying why certain sales reps were continuing to beat their targets despite others struggling due to the turbulent economic situation.

“Everyone understood why sales were down, pending the global armageddon, right?” Brent explains. “But the thing that made them scratch their heads was why, despite the context, I can look at my sales team, and I still have a couple of people at 130% of their goal?”

That drove Brent and his research team to try and understand exactly what they were doing that set them apart from the rest.

What they found was that there certain professional sellers, selling large complex B2B solutions, that were approaching customers in a way that looked and sounded very different.

“At the time, most salespeople would show up to a customer, identify a need, and then talk about how you help them meet that need,” he explains. “But what we going was they were approaching it in a very different way.”

Instead of thinking ‘the customer is always right’ and tailoring a solution to their problem, successful salespeople would challenge them with their beliefs, offer different ways of thinking about it, and not take everything at face value. Instead, they challenged customer assumptions, building trust and offering value.

2. Don’t lead with your unique strengths. Lead the customer to your unique strengths.

This approach also brought the customer to the seller rather than the other way around. Where most salespeople lead with why they are great salespeople and why you should choose them over others, these world-class salespeople get the customer to think differently and then ask the salesperson what they can do to help, allowing them to explain their unique skills and expertise.

“As a customer, I then think ‘Oh wow, we’re missing a bigger opportunity than we realised’. Or ‘we’re exposed to more risk than I first thought’, Brent explains. “Then they come to this moment where they say ‘but who can help me with that?’ And that is when the seller would show them how they could help.”

Brent Adamson is known as having "The biggest crystal ball in B2B sales". Photo: GARTNER.

3. What customers really want is someone who can help them understand their business better

When dealing with customers, it is easy to assume that they know exactly what they want. They have a problem, and they want a solution.

But as Brent explains, it is often much more complex than that. In fact, in many cases, the customers aren’t even 100% sure of the scope of the problem or what the right answer to the problem is.

“What customers really want is to know things like ‘what am I missing’,” Brent states. “They’ve got a complex business they’re trying to run and this set of challenges, and often they’re not even confident enough to know what the right answer is. And if somebody could help them understand their business better than they do now, that would actually truly be valuable.”

4. As a sales rep, it is crucial to differentiate yourself from the competition

When it comes to being successful in sales. Brent places a lot of significance on the importance of being different and separating yourself from others.

Going back to Brent’s earlier point about challenging customer beliefs, Brent believes this is such a successful task not only because of the approach itself. “Salespeople who were doing this weren’t just winning because this is good to do,” he explains. “They were winning because this is good to do, and no one else was doing it.”

Back in 2008, you could talk to ten reps, and they would all tell you what they do, or you could talk to one rep who would help you understand your business. At the time, that approach was radically different.

5. To get a client to think differently, you need proof of concept

Of course, offering a client advice or suggestions is one thing, but without backing it up with data or proof of concepts, it is much harder to get them to buy into your approach.

“To do that approach, salespeople need to have evidence,” states Brent. “If I’m going to come in and talk about a different way for you to think about what you’re doing, I can’t just come in and claim it because that just makes me a bit of a jerk.”

Fortunately, that evidence can come in several different forms.

“That evidence could be data, but it could also be social proof,” continues Brent. “For example, we’ve worked with four other companies just like you and here’s what they’ve experienced.”

“Any salesperson that says ‘here’s my commercial insight’ will immediately end up on a pile of other similar forms of content”. Photo: GARTNER.

6. It’s not about what you sell. It’s about how you sell

Brent is the co-author of two different books on the art of selling, The Challenger Customer and The Challenger Sale. At the heart of The Challenger Sale, Brent explains that it is not about what you sell that is your biggest opportunity for differentiation. It is about how you sell that is your biggest opportunity for differentiation.

It is this approach that led to the birth of content marketing back in the mid-2010s.

“Everybody said ‘we’re going to be a thought leader’” states Brent. “There’s not a single CEO in any industry that hasn’t said at some point that we need to be a thought leader. That’s where marketing got involved, building an entire strategy about thought leadership called content marketing, where they went out and created huge amounts of content for inbound marketing.”

7. The salesperson who attempts to be truly helpful is the one who stands out

In today’s market, potential customers are overwhelmed with content. Not just in quantity but also in quality. As a result, if you attempt to provide high-quality content as your unique selling point, you will struggle to stand out.

“Any salesperson that says ‘here’s my commercial insight’ will immediately end up on a pile of other similar forms of content,” explains Brent.

And in an environment where there is an overload of content available, it might not even be your competitor that you lose out to according to Brent.

“If you’re telling people to zig and your competitors are telling them to zag, but everybody is backed by evidence, your customer won’t know what to do, and you’re going to wind up not losing to competition, but instead losing to confusion.”

So, what does Brent believe is the new window of opportunity for differentiation?

“It’s about moving from being frame-breaking to becoming frame-making,” he explains. “Literally just focus on being helpful. If there’s one thing that we know about B2B buying, it's that it’s awful. It’s frustrating, hard, complex, and exasperating. So the sales rep who shows up today and says, ‘Let me see if I can help you make some sense of your situation’ will be the one that stands out.”

“It takes a certain amount of empathy to understand how your customers are struggling in the first place". Photo: GARTNER.

8. Empathy plays a major role in improving customer confidence and converting a sale

Brent also dives into the role empathy plays within sales much deeper as the interview continues. “Be the one that says from working with other customers like you, we find there’s three people you’ve got to get involved. Usually, they get involved late, and they blow everything up, and it’s going to be really frustrating and drive you nuts. We would suggest from what we learned from them: here are the people who you need to get involved, here are the questions they’re going to ask, here’s the best way to answer those questions, and let me know how I can help you along the way.”

Brent refers to this as putting a framework around the decision-making, helping customers align with stakeholders and making a deal more likely.

Brent also attributes this back to having a ‘helpful’ mindset. “It takes a certain amount of empathy to understand how your customers are struggling in the first place. If you’ve been trained that the customer is always right, the customer knows what they’re doing, and responds to the customer’s needs, you’re already on the back foot. You’re already in a position of assuming they know what to do,” he explains. “Instead, if you approach that customer with the mindset that ‘Wow, I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes because they’re about to go on a journey that stinks. Let me see if I can make that a little easier for them.’ Then that empathy becomes practical empathy.”

9. Spend time considering what information your potential customer may encounter as part of their purchasing experience

When it comes to providing your customers with the right information at the right time during the sales process, it’s important to consider not only the content you are providing but also the content they are consuming elsewhere.

But how can you find out what that is?

“Go ask them,” states Brent. “I did this with a company called Expedia. They had their sales reps go sit down with their customers and asked where they got their information from on the way. Each one identifies a series of videos that their competitor had owned and made.”

But rather than spending time and money on replicating these videos, the CEO at Expedia had another idea.

“Now, when Expedia sit down with customers they mention the videos, explain that they are great, and even recommend potential customers look at them,” Brent explains. “They then say, as you look at them, we want you to think about these things, and as you, I’d be happy to have a conversation with you about what your thoughts are and the next steps.”

By understanding and accepting the information a potential customer may encounter, the brand was able to turn it into an advantage, rather than a hindrance.


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