They help scope bigger opportunities during the discovery phase. When armed with the right champion content, they build consensus across influencers. Above all, they keep complex deals from stalling out.
The good news is that your best reps know the importance of champions. They’re actively partnering with champions on their opportunities. And the best managers coach their teams on this. Literally, the first question asked in a deal coaching session is: Do you have a champion?
But the biggest gap we see in actual practice is not if, but who.
Champions aren’t created equally. Too many sales teams aren’t thinking enough about what makes a good champion. Even the best reps fall for happy talkers – enthusiastic customer contacts who want to spend time with you. They always take your calls and quickly return your emails. They might even be open to your coaching. But despite the positives, this person might be completely worthless as a champion. Without internal credibility, they’ll probably struggle to navigate organizational politics.
Reps need to look deeper and take a more objective approach to choosing a champion. Is this person a strong champion candidate? What are his or her strengths and weaknesses? And more importantly, how can you shore up any gaps so to maximize the champion’s effectiveness?
Picking the Right Champion
Helping sales teams find the right champion in deals is a critical strategy to win in 2020. To help make this happen, we’ve identified 10 characteristics of the very best champions. These items go beyond the surface to cover all the things that make a champion-led deal strategy work.
It’s highly unlikely your champion scores high on every one of these items. You will always find opportunities to improve their effectiveness as a champion. Gaps help prioritize and target your coaching and support.
As you read through these items, don’t think in terms of ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Rate your candidates along a 5-point scale from weak to strong:
1. This person is highly competent in his or her role and job responsibilities.
This is a base requirement of a champion. They need to be effective in their ‘day job’. If not, move on. Don’t burn sales calories on incompetent, but friendly contacts. Any ‘insights’ on the selling situation and players will be suspect. Their judgment can’t be trusted.
2. They are seen by other executives as a valuable contributor (as credible and respected).
Another need of a champion is perceptional. Your champion candidate needs to be respected so their recommendations carry weight. Like role competency, this is a tough issue to deal with if your candidate scores low on this factor. Your short-term options are limited. It’s probably best to focus on another potential champion with greater internal credibility.
3. They understand the full strategic and business value of your solution.
An effective champion sees the big picture of the issue and your proposed solution. They should be able to connect how your offering ties to the organizational priorities and the business impact. Champions will always vary on this item. Use the rating on this question to determine practical ways the rep can help the champion connect the dots. If a champion can’t advocate for you beyond feature differences, they will fall short.
4. They prefer working with you over the competition.
As simple as this seems, this question isn’t asked enough. A champion might be open and forthcoming with information and offers to help. But are they also offering the same to your competitors? The champion needs to be ‘in on the strategy’ and understand their job is to help you – and only you – get this deal over the line.
5. They have a highly collaborative work style.
Modern selling is collaborative. And this is especially true when it comes to partnering with a champion on the deal strategy. It’s great to have a champion that takes your direction without question. But even better, is a true partner who co-creates the plan. This means they’re open to new ideas, but they are also comfortable pushing back.
6. This person has a bias for action.
A thinking and reflective champion is good. But more important, is the champion’s sense of urgency. Complex pursuits are always at risk of stalling out. Great champions understand the need to maintain momentum. When your champion scores low on this item, make sure you communicate any personal and professional risk of the status quo.
7. They have high institutional “EQ”.
Organizations are complex networks of informal and formal power structures. Your champion should have a savvy knowledge of these structures. Champions who score highly on this item know the hidden agendas and personal motivations of the key players.
8. They know how to influence others without overuse of control or status.
The key goal of a champion is to influence other stakeholders. Their guidance can’t be abrasive, and it can’t come across as flaunting of power. The very concept of influence means using indirect vs. formal power strategies to change others. Champion candidates that rate lower on this item often need coaching on how to soften or tone down their messages. Encourage them to use your champion content, which can deliver your message in a more subtle way.
9. They are open to coaching from you.
An obvious, but sometimes overlooked criteria, is the champion’s openness to your coaching. As you rate your candidate on this point, think about all the different areas of coaching. This will include coaching on how they might define problems or issues and how they should frame the solution. It will also include traditional ‘sales coaching’ strategies: how to navigate stakeholders, respond to an expected objection, and position your solution to their boss.
10. They are able and willing to confront difficult issues and play ‘‘hardball’’ when necessary.
This is a final major factor to rate as you consider your champion candidate. As deal momentum slows and difficult stakeholders emerge, champions must demonstrate organizational grit. This might include confronting resistance with direct language and comfortably calling out others. Those that score high on this criteria have a practical shrewdness that makes them invaluable to your deal strategy.
The reality is, there are no ‘unicorn’ champions – at least we’ve not seen one yet. But knowing their areas of weakness is powerful insight. This gives the sales team clear direction and defines tangible next steps in executing the champion strategy. This includes coaching, messages, and content to drive awareness, education, and consensus building.
Be careful to not overinvest in poor champions – those consistently scoring 1's and 2's on these criteria. This is a clear indication that this person isn’t really equipped to be your champion.
Enabling the Champion Strategy
A champion is our ultimate sales resource. As a sales or enablement leader, your role is to continue emphasizing champion-led deal strategies. And a big part of this is helping your teams map the stakeholder landscape of every opportunity, making sure they’re working with the right champion. Use these questions to define more specific actions, content, and messages so your champion is most impactful.
We tailor our Pivot Points Methodology to help clients develop and optimize deal champions. Click here to download your free Champion Evaluation and Coaching Guide to help your teams make the most out of this strategy. Contact us to learn more ways to drive stronger results in uncertain times.
About The Author
Researcher, consultant, and sales leader, Brian uses a data-driven approach to drive sales effectiveness. His clients include leading sales organizations in financial services, technology, healthcare, and professional services. Using insight from academics and change management, Brian helps senior leaders and sales enablement teams understand and succeed in today’s more demanding market. His research has been published in Harvard Business Review and other outlets.