Exchanging Order Taking for Challenger HR Approach
Chris E. Vokaty, Senior Director of Business Services Learning Delivery, Time Warner Cable

We have all been there. As an HR business partner, our existence and success is tied directly to the success our clients achieve. In our efforts to be outstanding business partners, we run the risk of moving into a large “order taking” and implementation role versus having a healthy balance of strategic importance and tactical execution.

While being responsive to our clients through successful execution of requests, projects or initiatives may not be inherently bad, I question if this is the best way to define success and ask are we limiting our true potential and utility in services to our organizations, clients, teams and to ourselves?

Coming from a sales operations background, I am fortunate to have a deep understanding of both sales operations, customer operations and HR experience that provides a unique perspective into the needs and opportunities for both. While many think that HR and the world of operations are vastly different, in effect, they are very much alike.

If I were to ask you what is one main ingredient to HR success, like many HR leaders you would say it’s fundamentally about relationships. If I were to ask what the secret to sales or customer operations success is, many would also say it was building and establishing relationships. While relationships are important, the best sales people, and I posit the best HR people, don’t just build relationships with clients. They challenge them. If done correctly, challenging our clients will drive increased success and stronger relationships.

A key responsibility of HR professionals is keeping current on trends that have application to clients and to our team’s growth and development. A recent trend in B2B sales is the birth of a sales process called The Challenger Sale that has equal application to HR as well.

In their book, The Challenger Sale—Taking Control of the Customer Conversation, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson provide a detailed analysis of this sales model. Describing the five types of sales reps, their theory is The Challenger Sales professional is the most effective in terms of long-term sales success. The Challenger Sales professional has the ability to teach for differentiation, tailor for resonance and take control for results, all while leveraging constructive tension with their clients. 

Challenge Thinking and Offer New Insights

Their success hinges not on touting what their company can do for a client during the sales process, but rather challenging the client’s thinking and providing new insight into issues or opportunities that the client has not considered. Once this teaching moment has occurred The Challenger Sales professional, with the interest and attention of the client, can build a case for how they can deliver solutions that are integral to the client’s success.

If the conversation ends up with the client stating, “That is exactly what has been keeping me up at night,” then the sales rep has failed, as no teaching or differentiation has taken place, and, furthermore, if the client has already thought of this so have all of the sales reps competitors. Value is added when a new issue or opportunity is surfaced that can be met by the sales professional.

Serving as boundary and business partners, HR professionals can greatly increase their value by adopting The Challenger Sales methodology. Too often I have seen HR professionals adopt The Relationship Builder model where nurturing strong personal and professional relationships while advocating across the client’s organization is their main agenda. While building relationships is important, by adopting The Challenger Sales model, HR professionals can earn even greater respect and a more prominent seat at the table with clients.

This can be achieved by teaching clients to think differently about their business and opening their eyes to situations or issues they may not be seeing for themselves. We have all been there, seeing issues or opportunities that adversely affect our clients, but we haven’t been effective in connecting solutions to these issues and opportunities. By taking a more constructive and aggressive teaching approach, HR professionals can leverage greater exposure and engagement with clients that will benefit both clients and HR in achieving business objectives.

Let me provide an example of how the Challenger Sales model easily adapted to a successful HR strategy for learning delivery. My team was responsible for providing all new hire training to our residential sales client. In December, our direct sales leadership informed us they were going to nearly double the sales force by mid-year the following year.

Using the basis of the Challenger model of teach, tailor, take control and keep constructive tension, this was a prime opportunity to apply these concepts to produce a successful outcome for our clients and our team that equaled success for the organization. 

Using this opportunity to take control of the situation, we surfaced the issue of expenses for travel, onboarding challenges, timing restrictions of traditional in-person training delivery and need for incremental resources to complete the initiative based on the aggressive head count additions. This was the “I never thought of that” moment that definitely led to constructive tension. 

With our client’s attention, we used the teaching and tailoring elements to provide a solution that served our client’s needs, which we could support, and provided success for the organization. We outlined a strategy to transform the new hire training delivery experience for direct sales to a virtual strategy. We taught our client what virtual delivery was and more importantly how virtual delivery would help it achieve its goals.

While this was a radical departure from our traditional training delivery model and one the client was eventually comfortable with, it was not an easy sale. As in any sales exchange, there will be resistance, and the key here was to keep focused on the issue and opportunity. We led with our strengths in terms of creativity, expertise and speed to solution. We challenged our client’s assumptions that a virtual strategy would not provide as good a learning experience through research and experience. We maintained control of the situation and by being assertive, not aggressive, and were able to move to agreement on the virtual solution.

How Did Our Foray Into Challenger Sales for HR Turn Out?

  1. Our virtual solution saved over $2 million dollars in unbudgeted travel expense for the client and our team.
  2. It was executable by our current facilitator head count.
  3. It provided an asset to talent acquisition in that the client could provide more offers with faster time to class, thus alleviating lost candidates due to long start dates.
  4. It provided the learning delivery team the opportunity to learn a new skill and help us improve our effectiveness. 
  5. Our clients met their hiring goals and were champions for the learning delivery team in helping other clients recognize the benefits of a virtual learning solution.

My experience has been that the Challenger Sales model can be an extremely effective strategy for HR professionals. Being an effective Challenger partner will earn you a higher level of credibility and a more pronounced and engaging seat at the table as an integral thought partner regarding strategy and execution. It will also strengthen relationships, which makes the model that much more effective every time you use it.

Challengers Are Not Born, They Are Made With Education, Preparation and Practice.

To be a successful Challenger HR professional, I will borrow from Dana Perino from Fox News. When referencing candidates that are successful in head-to-head elections, Dana identified that the key element is knowing your competitor better than she or he knows herself or himself.

To successfully execute the Challenger HR strategy, you need to know your clients’ business as well or better than they know it. While asking questions is important, I recommend investing time in the field with your clients to learn every aspect of their business. Add to that a rigorous study of their industry and trends, and you will be poised to be a successful Challenger. 

Clients are not looking to answer a ton of questions, they are looking to you for solutions to issues they don’t yet know they have. Are you up to the Challenge?

HR Pulse is a bi-monthly resource published exclusively for the members of the Cable and Telecommunications Human Resources Association.

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