In Sales, the One Big Difference Between a Coach and a Champion

In any complex sales process, whether it’s selling your product to a company or selling yourself in a job interview, you have to have a Champion.

Most popular sales methodologies include the concept of a Champion, sometimes called a Sponsor or even a Fox. The Champion, simply put, is the person that sells you or your product when you are not in the room. He or she is your “person on the inside” and is absolutely essential. When I have managed in enterprise sales, I haven’t allowed an opportunity to be forecasted at more than a 50% likelihood to close without an identified Champion.

The Champion is by definition not the Decision Maker / Economic Buyer, since when the Buyer and the Champion become the same person then it’s game over and you have won. The Buyer is undecided or objective, and the Champion thinks you should win and is not afraid to say it when appropriate.

But not everyone who likes you and your product at a prospect is a Champion. Oftentimes they are a Coach. What’s the difference?

Both a Champion and a Coach want you to win, but the Coach doesn’t have the influence on the Buyer to make it happen. The Champion does.

When recognized as Coaches, Coaches are great because they can guide you on who’s who in a sales process, what the true decision-making criteria are, and even what competitors are up to. They are often good people who you have a lot in common with — since you both clearly agree that you and your product are awesome.

But they can also be a dangerous distraction, because they can suck up time and resources that you could be using to build a Champion or access the Economic Buyer. And sometimes they might position themselves as your Champion, telling you they have the influence to help you win, when in fact they don’t. (By the way, this is not usually intentionally misleading, most of the time they really think they can help you win).

So how do you really know if you have a Coach or a Champion on your hands? Here are some hints:

  1. Coaches typically have more time for you. Coffees, lunches, calls. Champions typically don’t. Champions tend to be less available. This is not because they want you to win any less, it’s because they have earned a Buyer’s trust they are careful not to damage it by being too buddy-buddy with you.
  2. Champions can get you appropriate, direct access to the Buyer.Champions don’t feel threatened by the possibility of being “out of the loop” because they know the Buyer will involve them in any decisions anyway. Coaches may hinder your access to the Buyer because they know if they don’t keep themselves in between the Buyer and you they might not be involved at all. Coaches may be using this process to build a relationship with the Buyer, Champions already have one.
  3. Champions lead you. Champions tend to have leadership skills and you will sense this in working with them. One of the best Champions I ever worked with had me put together a whole custom ROI model for her to use with her boss (the Buyer) to sell our product. I was more than happy to do it, as I knew to trust her instincts on what would work to get the sale. Coaches will tend to have great information but won’t be proactive about what to do with it — you’ll need to lead them.

Ultimately, beyond these tips you just have to use your intuition and look for clues that tell you whether you have a Champion or a Coach on your side. If you aren’t sure, don’t be afraid to challenge your new ally to help you get to the next step — the way you would challenge a good teammate. If they respond and you make progress together, it’s a great sign.