Reflections on a Challenger implementation

Interview with ThoughtWorks’ Adrian Jones regarding The Challenger Sale

“ThoughtWorks is a global technology company and community of passionate, purpose-led individuals that specialize in software consulting, delivery and products. We think disruptively to deliver technology to address our clients’ toughest challenges, all while seeking to revolutionize the IT industry and create positive social change. We make pioneering tools for software teams who aspire to be great. Our products help organizations continuously improve and deliver quality software for their most critical needs.”

Adrian Jones, ThoughtWorks Studios

Challenger Champion

Adrian is the Vice President Global Sales for ThoughtWorks Studios, who in 2012 championed the transition to Challenger concepts in his sales team.

What sales and selling process was in place before you implemented Challenger?

For larger high touch bespoke projects we had a system based on Miller Heiman with “agile flavours” suited to the agile style and culture of the business. The result was less prescriptive hence allowing sales people scope for innovation and creativity.

For smaller low touch deals we used a cut-down version of this sales work flow. This provided a higher level of structure which suited the more predictable sales cycle events and also helped the sales people who were typically less experienced and less able to engage in the full sales cycle due to geographical distance.

Both approaches were based on the philosophy of collaboration and we encourage people to bring forward their problems as a contribution to our philosophy of continuous improvement.

What made you decide to change?

Three reasons;

  • buying was changing and we had to change to match it
  • we wanted to break down internal silos; sales, marketing, product, support
  • we needed something to match our approach to business which is to challenge our customers who have ambitious missions for their businesses. ThoughtWorks is definitely viewed as a leading-edge company that helps customers solve their most pressing problems.

We found that our existing rigid processes were becoming counter cultural. As a company we hate the “hard sell” and we see ourselves helping our customers to make their own informed decisions to buy. Our aim is always to under promise and over deliver. Traditional sales processes that glorify or concentrate on selling at any cost were seen as very culturally unaligned at ThoughtWorks.

What outcomes were you seeking by changing?

To satisfy the needs described in the answer to the previous question; we wanted to inform customers encouraging them to want to buy from us.

A second outcome was to equip us to more effectively find and win larger deals. We had already been winning big deals but felt that our existing processes and approaches were inadequate so we needed something to improve our effectiveness.

What other options did you look at other than Challenger?

We looked at Solution and Customer Centric selling but found them a bit “old school” and felt they were unlikely to offer any significant improvement over what we already had.

As soon as I found The Challenger Sale it felt right so we stopped looking.

What were the main reasons that led you to choose Challenger?

We already knew that customers wanted to be challenged and they had come to expect this of ThoughtWorks. We had been gaining a reputation in the market for this approach so we needed a selling process to match enabling us to engage directly with customer thinking.

Did you have any specific reservations regarding it as the chosen solution?

We were concerned that it would not be applicable to our inside sales team who handle the smaller shorter sales cycle and deals. This proved to be the case but we were already operating two different systems for large and small deals so this was not a major issue for us.

What was the (geographic and organisational) scope of your Challenger implementation; just UK?

Challenger was installed just in the software tools side of the business; ThoughtWorks Studios. I have a total team of 20 spread between the USA, UK and India.

To what extent have the results fulfilled or exceeded your expectations; good and bad?

Messaging and alignment of business with our philosophy and actions has improved a lot. The silos have largely been broken down and people across the teams; sales, marketing and product, are using Challenger language when talking about opportunities and customers.

There was an initial large influx of ideas as we had a five year backlog of design decisions in our products that required articulating and explaining to our customers in challenger terms but this has now slowed so it needs re-invigorating.

It has helped us to articulate our proposition and its USPs and to gain increasing visibility in the market. It has helped to change the perception that customers have about ThoughtWorks and it has heightened their expectations as to what we are able to deliver to their businesses.

It is not yet seen as business as usual and is considered as the way to deal with difficult situations rather than the standard way to do everything

How did you implement Challenger; e.g. internal resources based on the book, through an external expert, combination of the two or other?

Purely internal; we drove the whole project using the book as the foundation. We created a book club for “theme” teams consisting of a mix of all the key functions. The process was to read a chapter each week (the theme), the team then worked through actual examples and we then had weekly conference calls for each region where the teams presented their approach to the theme. I developed a template so that themes would be prepared and presented consistently across the regions and as we progressed through the book.

Would you do it the same way again?

I would for a team of a similar size but it was a large additional workload for me so I would need to re-think the approach for a larger team. The team were largely behind the initiative so there was little push back which made the project easier from my viewpoint. I spoke to a number of other Challenger users who, in some cases, reported resistance from their teams including blaming the introduction of Challenger for them losing deals.

After the initial training programme how have you continued to train & develop established sales people?

It is an on-going process of top up training sessions and coaching. In fact I am in the process of planning the next set of training sessions to move things forward again. The market continues to change and evolve and so must we.

How important is coaching to maintain standards of usage and application?

Very, but this applies to any selling process; coaching is the key role for a sales leader.

How has Challenger been received by the sales team?

Very well with the sales people working on large complex deal; no one has left in the two years we have been using the system and it is used with genuine enthusiasm.

Although we have not fully implemented Challenger in the inside sales team there are concerns from team members about the things we have introduced. The main concern is the risk they perceive that the approach will lose deals.

What are the distinguishing traits of people who responded best and worst to the new approach?

Those people who already understood the domain that we sell in to, which is about improving software delivery, took most naturally to Challenger; they understand the business environment and the benefits that we deliver so they would embrace anything that helps them to sell in their way but more effectively.

For those who come from a more conventional professional selling background and who are used to using technical people throughout the selling cycle it is more difficult to adapt to Challenger and gain benefits from using it.

Is Challenger used in its entirety or does each person use it selectively? On what basis have any parts of Challenger been omitted or dropped?

I see Challenger as an approach not a complete process. We have amended it to our needs and we still have our own processes covering for example; deal management and deal progress.

As I said before we are not really using Challenger with our inside sales team who handle smaller short-sales cycle deals.

What effect has it had when recruiting new sales people?

None observed as we have not recruited anyone into the team where it is used.

What pearls of wisdom can you share for others considering Challenger?

I have covered some things already but I would like to share a couple of other thoughts.

Firstly, implementing Challenger is potentially a big change and as with any other change you need to get buy-in and genuine commitment from your people otherwise it will probably fail. It cannot be imposed from above and this is why I have remained the champion throughout the project.

Secondly, if you have already decided you need to make changes in the business, as we had, then introducing something involving a major change in approach is easier to justify and explain.

Overall how would you rate its benefits?  Negative, negligible, positive, fantastic, …

Positive but not yet fantastic. It has moved the thinking of the sales people a long way and it is helping us to align all the functions involved in sales and selling. It is definitely helping us to differentiate ourselves against competitors.