When the CEB released its book “The Challenger Sale” in 2011, they challenged the very idea of what it takes to be a high-performing sales rep. Their latest book “The Challenger Customer”—already a Wall Street Journal Best-Seller—continues the story, this time with a focus on the changing B2B buyer. I recently caught up with co-author Pat Spenner to learn more.
On the new book “The Challenger Customer”:
Glen: Congratulations on a great new book. I’ve had a chance to read the Challenger Customer, and I’ve already recommended it to clients, but I want to present you with a more difficult challenge: If I was going to explain the book to my mother, what would you say?
This book is first and foremost a story of the changing customer in B2B…
Pat: I guess what I would say is this book is first and foremost a story of the changing customer in B2B and, as hard as it is to sell solutions to customers these days, it’s even harder to buy them. So a more empowered customer learning on their own is the backdrop to all this but the headline is very much consensus purchase and an increasingly diverse customer buying group that is tied into making these purchase decisions, which left to its own devices, it turns out, won’t agree to very much – if anything at all in terms of what they end up purchasing. Status quo becomes a very easy, unrisky or low-risk choice. So that requires supplier sales and marketing teams to work very differently, not just on their own, but together. It touches virtually all of the major pieces of a commercial function from customer understanding to content creation, lead generation, sales enablement, sales rep. engagement training, you name it.
On the role of the ‘Mobilizer’ in the age of consensus buying:
Mobilizers are all about mobilizing around a change path in their organization that’s going to improve the way their business operates.
Pat: It presents a challenge, doesn’t it? Here’s what we would recommend. We’ve drawn this all based on an example we’ve talked about in the book: SMART technology, which does collaborative whiteboards in the collaboration space to help collaboration happen more effectively. Jeff Lowe, who is the CMO over there, decided, when they did a win/loss analysis, they realized that for a lot of the high-quality deals that they end up landing, they often found there was some kind of a Mobilizer somewhere in the chain. To your point, and consistent with our research, it could have been a mid-level person, but it was someone who was fired up around collaboration and improving the way that collaboration happens in their organization. So Smart Technologies came to call these folks ‘Collaboration Champions.’ They’re very much Mobilizers in terms of mobilizing around a course of change in the organization to improve the way that collaboration works. So SMART, we think, did a smart thing in bringing a collection of these Collaboration Champions together live to just, sort of, ethnographically talk to them, observe them, see how they interact with each other, see how they talk about their role, their pain points, their hopes, their fears, etcetera. And as a result, they built a persona around that Mobilizer, that ‘Collaboration Champion.’ So we think that’s a really smart place to start; figure out who is your Mobilizer, what’s that sort of psychographic.
You’ve got to put content out there that is sort of a Mobilizer dog whistle. It’s content only Mobilizers would really appreciate.
So now once you’ve built a persona around them—back to my original challenge of how are you going to go find this psychographic—while the data and predictive analytics tools on B2C marketing side are getting pretty good at enabling marketers to find psychographics, on the B2B side, they’re still a little immature. So we suggest in the book as well that you’ve got to put content out there that is sort of a Mobilizer dog whistle. It’s content only Mobilizers would really appreciate. And we know that because Mobilizers are all about mobilizing around a change path in their organization that’s going to improve the way their business operates. So in this case, the way that collaboration happens across an organization, the kind of content that is going to be most compelling to them are ideas that reframe the way that they view their own business in a surprising kind of way. We call that commercial insight. And so the next step once you sort of created the persona of your Mobilizers is to create dog whistle content, commercial insight, that’s going to pull them out of the shadows and attract them to you. And it’s at that point where you can start to really engage them and perhaps at a known level and nurture them, and then you really want to equip them.
On the importance of proprietary primary research:
Glen: Now, one of the things you have done in the book is you created a typology of different buyer types. It’s based on research. It’s a general model, and it feels robust from the standpoint of observation. So it leads me to a question, and that is I suspect there will be some customers and some people in your audience for the book who will say, “Well, tell you what, maybe this is good enough. Maybe we don’t actually have to do the hard work of going and researching customers and building personas and developing our own core of customer insight because, hey look, there is a model here, and it feels pretty good.” What would be the consequences of making that choice?
B2B marketers… ought to be doing more primary research, probably different than how they’ve thought of it in the past.
Pat: Well, I think there are a few consequences, and I don’t know that we would recommend shortcutting primary customer research… In my observation, from studying B2B marketers for the last ten years… they ought to be doing more primary research, probably different than how they’ve thought of it in the past. So number one, they shouldn’t be dialing back primary research; they should probably be dialing up primary research. I think our guidance would be to refocus how they think about their persona approach. So, in the book we get into two problems with the typical ‘title/role/function persona approach.’ So problem number one is if you’re going by the title, “We need to find the senior head of applications development because we sell technical solutions, right?” … that person, that head of apps, is just as likely to be ‘a Talker’ or ‘a Blocker’ as they are ‘a Mobilizer,’ according to our research. So if you are going after that person, you may unwittingly be engaging ‘Talkers’ and bringing them in and passing them to sales, and that’s part of the reason that you have this toxic marketing/sales, “pass-the-leads, Oh-the-leads-aren’t-high-quality, sales-pitches-them-back” dynamic. And so, to us, that’s a pretty important insight and a reason to back off of title/role/function as a primary organizing mechanism for a set of personas.
Problem number two is if you personalize your content to this set of title/role/function personas early on in the purchase journey, as we see so many marketers doing, you might actually be driving that 5.4 purchase group apart early on, right when they most need your help coming together. And that’s a huge danger.
If you personalize your content [by] role/title/function personas early on in the purchase journey… you might actually be driving that 5.4 purchase group apart early on, right when they most need your help coming together.
So that primary kind of research that organizations ought to be doing is: go and find that Mobilizer, and then engage in primary research to really map how what we call their mental model—what they view as the drivers of the key objectives in their world to understanding where they might have…where that mental model might be wrong in a way that could uniquely lead back to you. That requires a lot of very specific primary research.
On what’s next:
Glen: Okay, so I have one last question for you Pat… I’m curious about whether the seeds of a new book are found in this one and in particular, is there any question that you discovered through the course of writing this book that you think is more interesting to you than it was when you started, and that could be the basis for the next thing you tackle?
What is it that makes some Mobilizers most effective and sparks them to want to go and drive change?
Pat: Oh boy, that’s a great question. It actually feels like this book on its own was several books and so I think we are all taking a breath and are taking a break for now. But the CEB is a research engine at heart, and so we are continually spinning out new insights so I’m sure there will be fodder for future books. But to me the book opens up a number of questions, some of the most interesting ones we have started to do research against… is what charges up a Mobilizer… to get the courage of convictions to go out and put his or her neck on the line to try to drive change in their organization, to bring together the other 5.4. So, what is it that makes some Mobilizers most effective and sparks them to want to go and drive change? That’s an interesting question. I think there’s all kinds of questions around what are the right ways, at the ground level, for marketing and sales to interact and collaborate differently together. It’s a very practical set of questions. I think we get at some of those in the book, but I’m sure that there are aspects of that that we don’t touch on in the book where there is space to go as well.
So those are a couple of the ones, but it’ll be interesting to continue to get feedback from readers of the book because I think the book appeals to marketers and sales folks alike, and they all see different things in the book, and they’ll come away with different open questions after having read the book. So we’re keeping our ears open at the end of the day and hopefully that will guide us to whatever happens to be next.
Glen: Well thanks, Pat. I think the book is an important contribution. I think perhaps its best contribution is going to be to bring marketers and sales teams into closer alignment, and maybe fulfill a little bit of what you’re observing in terms of the lack of alignment that takes place in a typical organization today. So, great job on this book and thanks for taking the time for this interview today.