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The challenger approach – 5 steps to mastering digital B2B marketing

In today's dynamic digital age, the majority of your customers' buying journey is complete before they even start talking to sales. This requires a new look at your sales philosophy, but also adapting digital B2B marketing strategies. Read how you can meet the challenge.

You probably recognize this common scene from old Hollywood movies: A salesman successfully completes a cold sales call, loads a bulky briefcase into his car and drives off to meet the customer. On site, he explains the features and benefits of his product (yes, it’s always a he), and finally leaves a leaflet behind which ends up in the customer’s wastebasket.

In the not-so-distant past this was the common way to sell industrial goods to a business buyer (Wind, 2006). But in today’s digital B2B marketing age, the sales process has changed dramatically. It has become highly complex, with fast-paced P-2-P driven marketing dynamics and with search-engine powered product information, intelligence, peer evaluations and comments available to the customer literally at a fingertip (Labrecque et al., 2013).

Most importantly, customers have gained much more influence, ranging from demand-based over to crowd-based power (Labrecque et al., 2013). The ability to measure customer communication, browsing or purchase-related behaviors in detail is another key characteristic (Henning-Thurau et al., 2010).

Here’s a look at five key steps to mastering B2B industrial marketing in today‘s digital, 24/7 media landscape.

#1 Know your customer

While there is a shortage on hard-data based research depicting the „new“ consumer, we do know one thing: the use of digital technologies are vital to industrial buyers today, how they research, interact and literally buy. So, it is equally critical to understand what digital tools your customer uses, when, and how (Hennig-Thurau, 2010).

Even more importantly you need to know and comprehend your customers‘ proverbial pains, desires and aspirations. Then go straight to the heart of things, educating them on something new, or challenging him with the things that move them.

#2 Create digital B2B content that evokes curiosity

In a world where all types of product information and peer reviews are abundantly available online, the business buyer’s journey is already 70 percent complete before he even talks to your sales crew (O’Brien, 2017). So, ensure that you are sufficiently visible online during that initial research phase.

More importantly, build your strategy around active content and messaging that evokes curiosity and disrupts the customer’s thought process early on. Brett Goodyear of Sales and Marketing Solutions Practice CEB Gartner recommends that „by generating demand and sparking interest around the insights you are building, chances are you will make them aware of the true challenges they face, ultimately leading them to your message“ (Atlas Copco AB, 2017).

digital B2B marketing

Digital tools vital to your customers’ buying process. Your Marketing to adapt to that fact.

#3 Teach, challenge, consult

Conventional wisdom suggests that especially in complex product sales, relationship is everything and relationship selling is still a succesfull sales approach. But studies indicate that nowadays, relationships are actually surprisingly unimportant to customers (Dixon and Adamson, 2013).

The post-2008 financial crisis world is an information-flooded buying environment where it’s all about one thing: creating value for the customer. This especially holds true at the one-on-one sales level.

Teach, challenge, consult – that’s the formula: teach something new, challenge existing the status quo and conventions (i.e., those of your competition), and provide consultation centering around the value of your solution.

#4 Adopting a human-to-human marketing approach

Per definition, the challenger approach exerts its main influence at the face-to-face level – at the human level. But marketing comes into the picture well in advance: it must actually help pave the way to get that personal meeting arranged. Let’s understand this: The lines between B-2-B and B-2-C buying are blurring, converging, arguably vanishing altogether, making way for new fluid style of communications and sales mechanism.

At a fundamental level, though, it’s about understanding and applying a H-2-H (human to human) approach to marketing, which blends B-2-C principles with a highly personalized focus on the human your company want to sell to.

#5 Control the customer journey with the right tools and messages

Scholars such as Hennig-Thurau have compared digital-age marketing to the dynamics of pinball: In the social arena, messages are bouncing in different, uncontrollable directions (Hennig-Thurau, 2012). This metaphor is certainly viable, and your marketing strategy absolutely needs to adapt to that reality. But that’s not to say you’ll fall helpless victim to your message bouncing around.

The challenger approach assumes a good degree of „control“ over the process (Dixon and Adamson, 2013). A perfect (and critical) example is the customer journey: Maximize your control by blending the right digital tools with the right messages that reach your customers at the right time within buying cycle.


In today’s corporate world, aren’t many of us anyway talking about „alignment“ and „getting on the same page“? Well, then let’s actually walk the talk. In stepping up to the plate and facing a new type of customer in the digital arena, it’s more critical than ever to get your marketing and sales pulling towards the same big-picture business goals.

Build or shift the appropriate resources (personnel and budgets) and expertise so that you can anchor your digital-era sales processes. Drive the internal culture change to position yourself for one thing: creating value for your customer. Digital channels pose a challenge, and initially they may mean extra legwork. But they also provide a whole new, fasincating world of opportunity for engaging, challenging and ultimately winning over your customer.


Adamson, B., Dixon, M. (2013). “The Challenger Sales – How to take control of the customer conversation”, Portfolio Penguin. Atlas Copco AB (2017). “Challenging customers to drive loyalty and growth” in: Management Contact magazine.

Hennig-Thurau1, T., Malthouse, E., Friege, C., Gensler, S., Lobschat, L., Rangaswamy, A., & Skiera, B. (2010). “The Impact of New Media on Customer Relationships” Journal of Service Research.

Labrecque, L., Esche, J., Mathwick, C., Novak, P. & Hofacker, C. (2010) “Consumer Power: Evolution in the Digital Age,” Journal of Interactive Marketing.

O’Brien, C. (2017). „The Evolution of Digital Marketing: 30 Years in the Past & Future,”

Wind, Y. (2006). “Blurring the lines: is there a need to rethink industrial marketing?” Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing.

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