An outside-in look at how CEB changed the marketplace conversation on how selling gets done.
If you work in the sales and marketing arena, I’m fairly confident you’re familiar with The Challenger Sale. But, have you ever stopped to think about how the book came to be? How it was marketed? Or, the impact it’s had on CEB, the firm that published it?
I alluded to CEB in my recent article on demand generation as a best practices example of a firm that has redefined the entire conversation in the marketplace. The selling philosophy put forth in the firm’s 2011 book, The Challenger Sale, hasn’t just created interest in the firm’s services, it’s entirely re-written the thinking on how salespeople sell. For a lot of companies, this new insight has forced them to re-think everything they knew about how they hire, train and reward sales people. And, as you might imagine, it’s created a lot of demand and catalyzed growth in the firm’s Sales & Service practice over the last 7 years.
If you’re looking for a summary of the thinking put forth in the book, I’d invite you to look elsewhere. There are literally hundreds of blogs and even a few published books that summarize the research. The balance of this post, will look more closely at how the firm derived the insights, took them to market and the impact its all had on its business.
How the Insights Came to Be
Published in 2011, The Challenger Sale was co-authored by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson. According to this 2017 podcast interview with Brent, the insights started as simple curiosity from the subject matter experts. During the recession, the consultants at CEB noticed a trend through their client conversations. Sales leaders from across industries and countries were sharing similar stories. Given the state of the economy, the vast majority of their sales reps were understandably way down in their performance; making only 30-40% of their quota. Yet, those very same organizations tended to have 1-2 extremely high performing sales reps. These folks weren’t just doing well, they were far exceeding expectations; selling 130-140% of their quotas. As these stories emerged again and again, the CEB consultants started to ask “why?” and “how?”.
What followed was a tightly bound research inquiry that asked the question, “what do these star performers do differently?” What behaviors, skills, knowledge, attitudes and activities do they bring to the job that enable them to dramatically outperform their peers in a very difficult selling environment?
To start, the firm surveyed over 6,000 executives on both sides of the buying process. From within the data set, they identified a group of star performers. Star performers were defined as sales people who consistently met or exceeded their quarterly goals for a number of years. From there, they used multi-factor analysis to group all the people in the data set into 1 of 5 profiles. Each profile represented a different approach to selling. Then, they identified the likelihood that a star performer was found in each individual profile. Here’s a sample of what they found from their presentation of research findings:
How the Insights Went to Market
According to the firm’s 2011 Annual Report, the firm published the book and “positioned [it] at the center of a major multichannel communications effort that drove unprecedented engagement with our content across major social media platforms.” The book spawned at least 7 HBR articles. By 2013, Dreamforce had dedicated an entire day to Challenger-related content (i.e., the firm’s subject matter experts were sharing the findings to over 250k sales and marketing executives in-person). By 2015, the thinking spawned a companion book, The Challenger Customer and the firm created its own Sales & Marketing Summit. As of today, the firm has sold over 500k copies of its books.
The firm now has now built a topical landing page for the initiative within the insights section of their website. It mostly follows our recommended best practices for the structure of a thought leadership landing page. The page follows this progression:
- A high-level summary of the thinking via a 3-minute video.
- A link to a short presentation on the research findings and an accompanying infographic.
- A call-to-action that pushes the visitor to the solutions the firm has built as an extension to the thinking.
- A collection of named case studies showing the impact of that work (notably, work with GM and SAP among them).
- The page closes with a call-to-action to buy the book, meet the authors and access other related content.
The solutions section of the site, which links directly from the thought leadership section. also mostly follows our recommended best practices for expertise pages by presenting:
- An introductory problem statement.
- A high-level summary of the firm’s solution (along with links to 7 sub-solutions).
- And, proof in the form of 9 named case studies.
What The Insights Returned for the Shareholders
It’s hard to put exact ROI numbers on the firm’s investment from the outside looking in. CEB is a relatively large, diversified membership-based, training and advisory firm. But, the firm is publicly traded. And, based on a review of the firm’s annual reports, it seems clear that CEB has re-shaped the entire conversation in the market on how selling gets done. We do know this:
- CEB sold over 500k copies of its books making The Challenger Sale a monumental best seller in the world of business publishing. That likely generated upwards of $10M in revenue.
- The firm claims to have trained over 80,000 sales professionals on the Challenger methodology.
- CEB can show significant impact from its training on the sales performance of major companies like SAP (26% more deals, 27% more revenue for Challenger-trained sales representatives according to the 2015 Annual Report).
- The firm’s stock price gradually grew from $37.39 per share on November 10, 2011 when the book was published to $75.90 on 1/10/17 when it was officially sold to Gartner in a $2.6B transaction.
- Over that same period, CEB consistently grew revenue from ~$485M to over $950M. While the Sales & Services practice is just one piece of the firm’s diverse practice, one has to assume it had a significant contribution to that growth given the prominent place the initiative had in the firm’s corporate annual reports in 2011, 2013 and 2015.
CEB’s work on The Challenger Sale is a high-profile, best practices example of what demand generation can look like in a professional services firm. The firm began with a tightly bound research inquiry driven by curiosity to find answers to a burning question. Fortunately, the research yielded new and interesting insights on how the top performing sellers approach their work. The firm packaged the thinking in a provocative way and took it to market via a multi-dimensional, multi-year marketing effort. In the end, the results speak for themselves.