by Michael Idinopulos
on October 27, 2015

CEB Summit ’15: The Challenger Customer Explained

I’m writing this from somewhere high above the Rocky Mountains, flying home to Philly from the CEB Sales & Marketing Summit in Las Vegas. CEB Summit ’15 was truly a great event: insightful, inspiring, and surprisingly fun.

Lots of conferences attract great attendees to swanky hotels in sunny locations. What sets CEB apart is the strength of its content. These folks are on a roll with their “Challenger” framework. The Challenger Sale was an instant classic when it appeared four years ago, and the CEB team has just followed it up with The Challenger Customer, which picks up where the earlier book left off.

These CEB dudes are smart. And they do their homework.

The belle of the Las Vegas ball was Brent Adamson, co-author of both Challenger books and the lead presenter of the conference. If you ever get a chance to see Brent present, you should take it. He’s unforgettable. The written word cannot do justice to his ebullient and irrepressible style. Still, I think there’s value to summarizing the key points that Brent and his colleagues made this week.

So if you weren’t with us in Las Vegas this week–or even if you were–here’s my Cliff Notes summary of what Brent and the CEB team told the 1,200 Sales & Marketing leaders.

Here we go…

Empowered Customers Are Overwhelmed

Brent Adamson’s Day 1 keynote was built on a paradox.

We’re living the in age of the “empowered customer.” Corporate buyers have more power than ever before. They have more options than ever before, as multiple suppliers compete tooth-and-nail to win their business. They have more information about each of those options than ever before. CEB’s oft-cited statistic (which was cited a couple thousand more times this week) is that 57% of the typical decision process is made before a buyer contacts anyone in sales. That’s because buyers have access to information from new sources. Company websites, blogs, analyst reports, social media, and review sites deliver an unprecedented amount of information to corporate decision-makers about what’s good, what’s bad, what’s cheap, and what’s expensive.

Equipped with all this information and all these options, you would think that corporate decision making is better than ever, right?


When Brent and the CEB interviewed corporate buyers, they discovered that the process is not getting better. In fact, it’s getting worse. A lot worse.

Brent put up a word cloud to describe the current state of corporate purchasing processes. It included adjectives like slow, frustrating, painful, annoying, exhausting.

The word that Brent chose to focus on was “landminish”. (If you don’t have your dictionary handy, that’s the adjectival form of “landmine.”) Today’s buying processes are riddled with landmines. Those landmines make the process a nightmare to navigate.

What’s paradoxical about all this is that Brent was speaking from the standpoint of buyers, not sellers. You would expect salespeople to be frustrated by today’s purchasing processes. Buyer empowerment came at the expense of sellers, who no longer controlled access to information. But that’s not what Brent’s talking about. The buyers are unhappy. The buyers are frustrated. The buyers find it landminish.

Buyers are empowered but they’re miserable.

What gives?

Overwhelmed People Are Paralyzed and Regretful

To answer that question, CEB brought in psychologist Barry Schwartz as the Day 2 keynote. Barry literally wrote the book on this subject. (It’s called The Paradox of Choice, and I highly recommend it.) He also happens to be as witty as he is insightful, and his keynote brought the house down. It was similar in both form and substance to his TED talk on the same subject. Watch that talk, and you’ll get a pretty good sense of what we experienced on Wednesday (minus the braised short rib.)

What Barry showed us is that too many choices and too much information about those choices always makes people unhappy.

For example, in one experiment grocery shoppers were given free samples from 7 different flavors of jam. On another day, they were given free samples from 30 different flavors of jam. While the 30-flavor scenario attracted more tasters, fewer of them wound up buying jam than their counterparts who chose from 7 flavors. There were just too many options.

It’s not an isolated example. Barry trotted out dozens experiments over decades. While the setup details varied from one experiment to the next, the moral of the story was always the same: too many options make decisions difficult and painful for the decision-maker.

Moreover, Barry argued that more options increase buyer’s remorse after the decision has been made–even when the decision itself was the best one available. The more alternatives we’re presented with, the more we fixate on all the ways in which, we imagine, things could have been better.

The studies that Barry cited all operated at the level of the individual.  They were individual consumers making quick and relatively simple decisions. (That’s how psychology experiments work–you strip behaviors down to their simplest components so you can isolate the forces that drive them.)

When you put Barry’s talk together with Brent’s, the moral of the story is clear: Too many choices, too much empowerment is a bad thing for decision-makers, whether those decision-makers are individuals or committees.

In a way, though, corporate purchasing decisions are even worse than individual ones. As Brent pointed out, corporate decisions are now made by committee. In another oft-cited statistic, he reminded the audience that 5.4 decision-makers now participate in the average enterprise buying decision.

So not only do today’s “empowered” corporate buyers have to wade through an ungodly amount of options and information; they have to do it somehow arrive at consensus with 4.4 of their colleagues.

No wonder the process is “landminish.”

Prescription Eases the Decision Process

What’s a salesperson to do? Be prescriptive, according to CEB.

In the age of the empowered/overwhelmed customer, the most successful salespeople are the ones who can make the decision process easier. (In one breakout, Carlos Guerrero presented data that ease of purchase is more important than brand, delivery, and price COMBINED.)

But salespeople can’t expect to ease the decision process by presenting buyers with more data on why they are better than the competition. That just feeds the paralysis and regret. (When CEB asked corporate buyers what suppliers did to make their most recent purchasing decision easier, the overwhelming response was: Nothing.)

The solution, Brent told us, is to make the decision process easier by being prescriptive.

Prescription, as CEB defines it, is:

“A credible and influential set of do this/don’t do that recommendations, provided to customers across the purchase process, deliberately intended to ease the customer’s movement toward purchase.”

Prescription is a shift from talking about what a customer wants to what a customer should want, from what a customer is doing to what a customer should be doing.

Rather than dutifully responding to a customer’s request for information on product features X, Y, and Z, a prescriptive seller will explain to the customer why they’re right to ask about X and Y, but should stop thinking about Z.

In one of the most insightful comments of the conference, Brent said (I’m paraphrasing here): The most powerful words a salesperson can say are “based on what we’re seeing with other companies in your industry, this is what I think you should do.”

If all of this sounds a lot like the Challenger Sale, that’s no accident. The Challenger Customer picks up where The Challenger Sale left off. The Challenger Sale told us that a particular type of salesperson (challengers) outperform other salespeople. The Challenger Customer explains why that is: because today’s overwhelmed buyers need guidance through the minefield.

My Point of View

I love the Challenger stuff. I think it’s smart, insightful, and…wait for it…probably true.

But I wonder how many sales organizations are ready for it. Or ever will be.

In order to be prescriptive sellers, salespeople have to climb over the table and get on the same side as their buyers. They have to put their own agenda and their own needs aside, and give their buyers honest, impartial advice. (Without that, the “challenger” is just a bully who browbeats customers into bad decisions.)

A true prescriptive seller must have the guts to walk away from a winnable deal, if it’s not in the customer’s best interest. She must have the guts to say to a ready and eager buyer, “based on what I’m seeing the industry, we’re not a good fit for you.”

We all like to think we have that kind of courage. But on the last day of the quarter, how many salespeople can really sign up for that? How many sales leaders can sign up for it? How many CEO’s?

If I can presume to offer Brent and the CEB team one suggestion, it would be this: For your next book, tell salespeople and their leadership how and when to walk away from winnable deals. Then show them data that gives them the confidence to actually do it.

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