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How SAP Implemented the Challenger Way of Selling

In 2012, software group SAP decided to launch a new way of selling worldwide. In just three years, it turned 5500 salespeople into creative marketers, who closed significantly more deals

In the past, SAP predominantly sold conventional business software to help with enterprise resource planning or supply chain management. But over the past decade, SAP’s business has changed markedly, and its products now help companies develop digital ways of doing business.

And this means customers’ requirements have also changed. SAP’s salespeople can no longer rely on finding a challenge or problem that they can then match to a software solution. Rather, customers expect SAP’s sales staff to have in-depth knowledge of their sector, industry challenges, business processes, and relevant key performance indicators.

For instance, SAP helped one sanitary product supplier move from simply selling pallet loads of soap and paper towels to guaranteeing their customers that their sanitary facilities will always be adequately stocked.

In response to this shift in what’s expected of sales reps, CEB published “The Challenger Sale”, which showed that there is a specific type of salesperson that is good at selling complex products and pushing customers to move out of their comfort zone. This salesperson is called the “Challenger” and their selling approach tends to center on three main steps: they clearly lay out the risks and new opportunities for the customer’s business, teach them something new about their operating environment or how to capitalize on it, and develop tailor-made business strategies using their customers’ products and their own knowledge.

CEB data also underline the success of this approach. There are 4.5 times as many top salespeople in the Challenger group than any of the others, and their close rates are on average 14% higher than those of other types of salespeople. Supported by CEB, SAP conducted an analysis of their sales staff and found that around half of them were not fulfilling their potential – simply because of the way they worked.

Four Step Global Training Program

SAP decided at the end of 2012 to retrain 5500 sales staff worldwide to use the Challenger model of selling within three years and then developed a four-step global training program.

  1. Teach the basic principles of the Challenger method: The training focused on two groups of employees: individual salespeople and their supervisors, the sales managers. The aim was to teach salespeople to sell using the Challenger methodology and coach managers to lead their teams using these sales techniques.

    The training began with a two-week preparatory phase, and was then followed by a two-day group workshop that included practical exercises. After that, participants were given 90 days to practice and improve what they had learned in their day-to-day jobs.

  2. Rolling out the training program: The most crucial part of the process was to get established salespeople and their managers to spend two days away from chasing sales and attend the training session.

    Therefore, SAP designed all its training material and events to highlight how relevant it was to reps’ personal work. From concrete real-life examples, participants discovered how to gain more time to do their actual job, how to sell at higher contract values, and how to close more sales.

  3. Communication throughout the training session: One of the key tasks throughout the project was communicating at various levels to ensure sales staff and managers understood purpose of the training and to keep senior managers informed about progress.

    Good communication was particularly important when things did not run smoothly. Salespeople often did not want to sacrifice their time for training, even when their managers told them to. At times, the team running the training stepped in and imposed penalties via regional managers. For example, if sales staff in a particular region did not give advance notice when cancelling participation in a workshop, they had to bear the costs themselves.

  4. Measuring success at each level: While rolling out the training session across SAP was the main requirement for the continuous development team, the entire program could only be considered a success if there was hard evidence that it helped improve sales.

    What pleased SAP the most was that 95% of course participants said they would approach their customers differently from now on, and the sales data show this was not just an empty promise. For example, those who had been part of the training session closed 26% more deals than before they were trained (the win rate) and those who had been part of the training program generated 26% more sales opportunities (pipeline) on average (by way of comparison, salespeople without training made just 9%).

This post is a summary of a translation of an article published in German under the headline “Die Erneuerung des Vertriebs” in Harvard Business manager 2/2016.

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