To Be Correct, Stop Trying to Be Right

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This post is inspired by the debate and hubub that is ensuing around the CEB’s Challenger Sale research.

I’d like to start with some personal opinions of my own, but I’d like to end with something I think is more important, so please allow me to fast-forward for a moment. I remain largely solution agnostic and open to see where all of this leads us (this = the CEB’s research, other research, varying interpretations/opinions, and our ongoing efforts as a community of sales researchers and practitioners to further our practice, methods and most importantly, improve sales results). I think we should all step back and remain open to possibilities, learning what we can from every source, rather than arm-wrestling our way through this.

Thank You, CEB. Thank You, Others. Uh… Thank You, Me?

From what I’ve read about it, I am quite impressed by the research that the CEB did and the way they did it. Fascinating stuff, really, or at least to me. Anytime someone says things like multivariate regression models, Pearson’s chi-squared test, or mentions research controls and sample sizes, I do tend to perk up a bit and read closer.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve conducted a ton of research on what separates top producers from the rest of us, always inside of employer or client organizations, and have read the work of various other more formal researchers, as well. To be clear, I don’t sell myself short – I think my research is largely accurate, especially inside the companies where I did it, and led to compelling insights and real-word results (see page 2 of link) – again, inside the companies in which I was working at the time.

At the same time, from a research perspective, I don’t compare my work as an internal consultant and practitioner to the larger, more formal research conducted by organizations like the CEB and others. I gained a deeper respect for research methodology in my last round of performance lever analysis, when I was working with a university researcher/professor/Dean from the University of North Texas, who was an awesome researcher. I learned a lot. In corporations, I simply haven’t had the luxury, time, support, audience, understanding or budget for research that fully adhered to scientific protocols. I appreciate and respect the scientific method, though, the power of sound statistical analysis, and am grateful for those who do this fuller, more controlled research and share their work.

.2 x .2 = .04

Interestingly, the CEB’s Challenger findings do sync with what I’ve learned about a segment of top producers whom I’ve studied as part of my efforts – the top 4% (top 20% of the top 20%).

I’ve consistently found these top reps to be wired differently, to operate differently, and to get far better results, than not only the average reps, but even the remaining 16% of the top 20%.

Build or Buy?

In my work, I have always tried to help companies HIRE more people like these reps. I haven’t, however, had as much success replicating what these reps do among the rest of the organization. I find that they often sell based on larger-than-life personalities, true situation-centered insights, or other types of “horsepower-dependent” traits or behaviors that most can’t imitate successfully. Sure, they have skills, and often very good ones. (The CEB says Challengers still have great relationship skills, for example). But it’s their make-up that makes them successful. And yes, I often see these reps making insightful, “challenger” recommendations, disrupting the sales process or customer thinking, and educating the customer as much as listening to “what they want,” etc. If you work with the real top producers in organizations, I’d be surprised if you haven’t seen the same thing. This isn’t news, right? These are powerhouses. Movers, shakers, rainmakers. They can pull off the challenge, the education, the delivery of insight.

Zeus, Perseus and the Mortals

The remaining 16%, however, I’ve found to be somewhat a blend between mortals and gods (no hate mail, please, it’s just a metaphor). I have found them to be wired more like average or above-average producers, who have simply figured out the “magic sauce” in that industry, company, and product set. For this group, in varying degrees, I’ve seen that it’s often a matter of being somewhat smarter (having “learned the ropes”) and being willing to work harder – the willingness to do what others won’t do… a simple blend of learning what works, often through trial and error (sadly not always through company-provided training), and then working very hard at it. Which, I should add, I find to be very replicable among others, if they are also willing to learn and work hard. (Worth noting as hiring criteria, eh?)

I Did It My Way

So, in short, previously without the benefit of the Challenger research, I’ve tried to get companies to source, recruit and select more “Challengers” or top 4-percenters when possible, to accept and hire those like the next 16% as a more common profile, and then to train the replicable best practices of both groups, but largely the 16%. Using this information and approach, you can lift performance by 1) having more top producers overall, and 2) getting more producers in the middle performance group (not the top 20%, not the bottom 20%, but the 60% in between) to raise their production levels. I can’t speak for anyone else, but this has worked exceedingly well for me.

A Challenger is Born. Maybe.

This is where I have some challenges with Challenger. Not the research or what they’ve learned, but the execution plans I hear about. I don’t believe that trying to orchestrate Challengers organizationally will be wildly successful. It may work to a degree – especially by staffing a Deal Desk with Challenger-trained, insight-laden pros that can assist other reps, or perhaps for those reps who are wired more like a Challenger to begin with (or close). I think it may be disastrous for others, though. But while I do believe this, it remains my opinion. I’m also openly curious to see whether I’m wrong or right, which will only be proven over time, with additional research, observation, trial, error, learning, adjusting, and by following the real-world case studies and results of companies who are trying to do it. My guess is that there will be cases where it is right or possible, and others where it isn’t. It will become another possible solution in search of a good fit. And perhaps I’m reading into it what I want to hear(?), but I am hearing at least a little of that sort of balanced perspective in this post. In any case, I am not likely to throw out the baby with the bathwater and go try to convert an army of sales professionals into Challengers. But I remain fascinated by what the CEB is researching, learning and trying to do.

Debates, Good. Election Rhetoric, Not So Much

Which leads to my next point. I’ve watched some of debate that is going on, and I’ve been both encouraged and a little embarrassed. I’ve seen real class from some people who have disagreed with or questioned the research, findings, interpretations or recommendations from the CEB. And in return, I’ve often seen the same from the CEB in response to others’ points, challenges or queries. In those cases, it’s been an ongoing, respectful dialogue, where points are bantered, expanded, and defended, which is what I’d expect from those interested in supporting and furthering our field.

Sadly, I’ve also seen it get ugly with some people, tossing barbs and (almost?) insults, where to me – it seems more political and about being right or pushing a personal/company agenda than trying to learn and grow as a profession. And I’ve also seen the CEB get a tad snarky in return (sorry guys, my opinion), which I know is hard to avoid when others attack, but still, is that helping? The best revenge is living well. Execute. Prove your point. Firing back with anything other than calm logic isn’t going to win the battle or the war (or at least not with me). But I will recognize that it is very difficult to respond kindly when your work is attacked, or worse, when it feels that you are. Been there, so I get that.

You’re a Jerk. No, You Are.

I have considered that some of this is occurring because conflict sells… especially on the Internet. It gets more eyeballs and drives traffic. This may be part of the reason for attention-catching blog titles such as “The Death of The Solution Selling Era,” which was bound to cause controversy in a world where so many pundits still heartily laud “solution selling” approaches. (Not to pick on the CEB on that one… many of us do it. In fact, it’s a known blog title strategy to drive traffic.).

Good, Better, Betterest

I’ve read recently that the good and smart folks at HR Chally believe their model for identifying sales producers is more accurate. Is it? I can’t answer that but I can say that there is a LOT I like about Chally’s research and approach, as well as DDI’s competency-based selection work. But I ALSO like a psychometric selection approach based on cognitive, personality, and occupational interest criteria (as opposed to competency- or position-based assessments), when it’s combined with job-matching and predictive validity studies.

But is one of these camps “right?” I’ve seen both get results. (And is there some other criterion that matters?) There are multiple arteries leading to the heart – and usually many possible GPS routes from one destination to another. Doesn’t the fact that both have produced good results in multiple organizations prove that BOTH are right? Or at least when properly applied in the right situation? I believe so.

SIDE NOTE: Interestingly, in case you didn’t know, the CEB purchased SHL a few months ago, which is a well-respected talent management firm whose products include psychometric assessments ( It will probably be no surprise where that leads.

You Better Watch Out, You Better Not Cry – Unless Crying “Caveat Emptor

This raises another point for me. As a practitioner, rather than a seller of services, I tend to be solution agnostic. Is there anyone who is 100% certain that their way is right and another’s is wrong? (Hmm. Maybe, if you’re a Challenger… 😉 I’m talking about selling and sales effectiveness here, not life and death situations. When you are selling a solution or defending your own company’s perspective, I know this gets into water that is tricky to navigate – it’s hard to remain objective (and usually it’s only the Santa from Miracle on 34th Street who ever recommends a competitor or supports their perspective). But still, we should all be working harder to dispel the consultant’s curse that when your tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Yet, since that little slice of naive Utopia is not likely to be served widespread anytime soon, those of us who are practitioners need to keep a balanced perspective. The world is a lot grayer than it is black or white.

—> The best solution, to me, is a great process to determine the best solution. After that, it’s all about execution. <—

Let’s Write About Right

And that best solution would be the “right” one, for THAT industry, THAT company, THEIR product/service set, THEIR target client base, THEIR strategy and THOSE current circumstances. (Get the point? 😉

Guess what? Even saying that, I believe there is still more than one right solution. Oh sure, there might be a “best of the best” solution – the one of the multiple choices that will produce the best results in those exact circumstances – and part of the fun and challenge, for me, is helping companies figure that out, and getting as close as possible – to get real-world, frontline results they want. But over time, I have certainly learned this… if I can help a company get a 48% lift in sales results in 18 months… almost no one cares which solution I used. Yes, that makes a passionate, detailed geek like me a little sad, sometimes, but in the end, as long as the means are ethical (or, at least that’s my criteria), it’s the end that matters. Since a C-Plan well executed often beats an A-plan that’s bumbled, there’s an awful lot of magic in great execution, too, but that will be a topic for another day.

Let’s Write About Wrong

I’ll close with this thought on being right. One of my favorite fiction books is “Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah” by Richard Bach. It’s a fascinating story of a reluctant messiah who quits the job and runs into Richard Bach in the rural fields where they both barnstorm with their planes, giving townspeople a ride in the sky for a few bucks. The messiah, named Donald Shimoda, becomes a friend and mentor to Bach. Shimoda owns a book that always opens to the exact advice you need at the moment. I’ll spare you the other details, but the story ends with Bach, alone again, opening the book whose guidance he’s come to trust, to read the words, “Everything in this book may be wrong.”

By the way, everything I’ve written here could be wrong, too. As could what you think or write about.

I can live with that.

Can you? 😉

Happy selling and be safe out there. And for goodness’ sake, let’s be nice to each other.



Mike Kunkle
Transforming Sales Results with Clear Insight & Focused Execution

mike_kunkle at mindspring dotcom

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