Not one but TWO of my recent #swipefile items ended up in the new keynote I just debuted (“Getting the Green Light“).
Both had to do with something I’ve been talking about a lot here lately: not making your audience wrong. The “Shooting the Messenger” research shows that, even if someone accepts and acts on the news you’re giving them, they’ll like you less afterward. That may not sound like a big deal, but I think it is if you or your business has adapted any variation of Gartner’s (and formerly CEB’s) Challenger sales methodology.
As Gartner describes it on its website, the “Challenger” is a type of salesperson who is significantly more effective in closing deals (according to Gartner’s own research, natch). When done well, Challengers “teach” the customer a new “commercial insight” that helps the customer understand and agree with the approach behind whatever the salesperson is selling. Those quotes aren’t ironic, by the way – they indicate Gartner’s own language.
Again using Gartner’s own language, Challengers “capture the customer’s current belief or assumption, expose the flaws or misinformation [my emphasis] in that thinking and present a better course of action.” Even if you haven’t officially used the Challenger approach, you’re likely familiar with it. You may even do something similar in your messaging or content.
On the surface, the approach is perfectly good. A well-crafted commercial insight does indeed do exactly what Gartner promises. It gets someone to realize they’ve been approaching a certain situation one way and that another, different (your) way might be better.
I’ve worked with a lot of organizations that use Challenger and even spent three years working for a great company that helped develop Challenger-friendly sales messages. From that experience, though, I’ve seen a persistent challenge with the Challenger approach: customers don’t like it. Yes, they’ll often act on it, especially if the salesperson has done their job of “making the pain of the status quo exceed the pain of change.” But afterward, they don’t like how they feel. And worse? They don’t like the salesperson who used that approach on them… and that “Shoot the Messenger” research can explain why.
By the way, a lot of salespeople don’t like the Challenger approach, either. As a Challenger-trained salesperson once said to me, it feels “too negative” to them.
After all, by “exposing… flaws and misinformation,” you’ve often told someone the equivalent of “you’re doing it wrong.” And, um, who loves to hear that? Not me. Not humans.
As we’ve talked about before, we (as humans!) are compelled, often at any cost, to maintain our public self-image of being smart, capable, and good. Flaws, misinformation, and the existence of a “better approach” threaten that self-image. And if you’re the one doing that threatening? Oof. Woe betide you.
So, what’s the solution here? How can you get the best of a Challenger approach without being shot as the messenger of it?
Share the pain.
A lot of the danger of a Challenger approach is baked right into the language of it. If you see yourself as a “teacher” (or, if you’re a StoryBrand fan, a “guide” or “mentor”) with a “better approach,” you’re automatically putting yourself in a superior, more knowledgeable position to your audience. There’s nothing inherently wrong with knowing more about something than they do. Indeed, many people may be seeking your advice, product, or service, ostensibly because you know something they don’t.
The danger lies in the “superior” part of the equation… and those kinds of teacher/guide/mentor labels can be a slippery slope in that direction. Those labels separate you from your audience and that runs directly counter to being able to create a connection to them, which in turn, can lead to your not being able to have empathy for where they are right now.
For example, let’s say you and a friend were watching that Game of Thrones episode where the coffee cup made its appearance. Let’s say they are just your average, if avid, fan. They don’t see the coffee cup the first time through, just as most people didn’t. They, like most people, were watching the main characters and the action of the scene. Like fans are supposed to.
Now let’s say you’re an expert. In fact, you’re a “continuity” expert. It’s your day-to-day job on movie or TV sets to make sure that objects are in the proper places from scene to scene and that nothing that doesn’t belong sneaks in. You spot that coffee cup right away, even though the scene is dark. You, like your fellow continuity experts, are watching everything except the action of the scene. Like you’re supposed to.
What do you think will go over better? Saying, (A) “Ohmygosh! There’s a coffee cup in that scene! I’d hate to be the continuity editor that missed that! But then again, I almost missed it, too, because the acting was so great” or (B) “Ohmygosh! There’s a coffee cup in that scene! What? You didn’t see it, fan-friend? HOW COULD YOU MISS IT? I mean, it’s RIGHT THERE! So obvious! Wow. Really? You didn’t see it? Here, let me back up and show it to you a bajillion times.”
I’m going to go with A. I’ve made this extreme, of course, but hopefully the difference, both in approach and effect, is clear. In the first, you, as an expert, are not only sharing the pain of someone else who may have missed it but also validating why the non-expert may have missed it, too (and thus sharing in that pain). You’re not prompting them to question (or defend), their smart, capable, and good-ness.
In the second, you’re widening the gap between you and your friend by emphasizing what you know and what they don’t. The coffee cup is there, of course (or it was, until HBO edited it out!), so they have to agree with you, just as the recipient of a Challenger sale similarly has to “face facts.” But they’re not going to like it, and they’re not going to feel good about them, or you, the messenger.
Maybe that doesn’t matter to you. Maybe you don’t care about the long-term relationship or how someone feels after the deal is done. You don’t always need to. I get that.
But for when relationships and audience feelings do matter, the first approach, I think, is the answer to the challenge with Challenger.
Share the pain, and do it as often as you can. Acknowledge what problem they’re trying to solve right now; validate the pain of not solving it. Acknowledge what they’ve been trying to do to solve that problem so far; validate why that approach makes sense given what they know so far. And yes, give them that new information, but not in way that makes them feel “less than” you. Share it in a way that makes you their partner in finding a solution together.How can you get the best of the Challenger approach without being shot as the messenger of it? Share the pain. Click To Tweet
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