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Should Challenger Sales Reps “Own” Lead Generation?

B2B Marketing

The principles described in The Challenger Sale continue to provoke a great deal of discussion among B2B marketing and sales professionals. In this important book, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson argue that what business buyers really want from their potential vendors – and by extension their sales reps – are fresh insights about how to improve their business. Dixon and Adamson are affiliated with the Corporate Executive Board, and CEB has make challenger selling a focal point of its sales advisory practice.

I’ve written about The Challenger Sale in previous articles, so I won’t go into detail again. Essentially, Dixon and Adamson contend that high-performing sales reps challenge the thinking of prospective customers, make the costs of the status quo visible, and teach prospects how to think about problems and opportunities in new ways.

Earlier this month, Matthew Dixon and Nick Toman wrote a post for The Sales Challenger blog in response to some critics who have contended that challenger selling confuses the roles of sales and marketing. These critics say that communicating insights about new capabilities and benefits is the primary job of marketing.

Dixon and Toman point to new CEB research regarding how sales reps are engaging potential customers. According to this research, average salespeople:

  • Believe lead generation is the company’s responsibility
  • Assess opportunities based on the clarity of customer needs
  • Use social media indiscriminately

In contrast, the research found that high-performing sales reps:

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  • Conduct non-traditional due diligence
  • Personally own lead generation
  • Lead with insights
  • Use social media as a channel to deliver insight

Dixon and Toman write, “Put differently, the average rep fills orders by reacting to existing demand; stars sell where customers learn (not just where they buy), shaping demand and teaching customers into the sales funnel. The best sales reps, it turns out, are just as good at marketing as they are at selling.”

Dixon and Toman don’t appear to believe that sales reps should be completely responsible for lead generation. They point out that the heart of challenger selling is disruptive insights, and they acknowledge that depending on salespeople alone to develop such insights is a “fool’s errand.” According to the authors, it’s marketing’s responsibility to “arm” sales reps with the required disruptive insights.

So in a sense, Dixon and Toman are contending that marketing is responsible for identifying and developing the insights, but that sale reps are the primary channel for delivering those insights to potential customers.

With all respect, I disagree.

The reality today, whether we like it or not, is that business buyers are self-educating and avoiding conversations with salespeople until late in the buying process. Other research by CEB has found that the buying process is nearly 60% complete when prospects engage with suppliers, and I’ve seen similar results from research conducted by SiriusDecisions and others.

As powerful as challenger selling techniques are, they can’t be effective if prospects won’t talk or meet with you.

More than ever before, effective B2B demand generation requires the combined efforts of both marketing and sales. The real essence of the challenger message is that selling organizations must provide new and valuable insights to potential customers. In today’s environment, both sales reps and marketers need to be armed with those insights, and they both must be involved in communicating those insights to potential buyers.

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