How the Challenger Sales model can make champion sales staff

07 September 2015 Kieron Johnson

Some books change the way we look at things forever.

In business, there’s How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie. How about Stephen R. Covey’s The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People? Then there’s the hugely popular Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson. In this article, we look at The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, which some say has shaken-up the B2B world. Get ready to be shaken, not stirred.

Over the last few years, the Challenger Sales model has become one of the leading schools of thought in terms of effective sales techniques. The assertive stance of its practitioners turns conventional sales thinking on its head, casting doubt on the long-held view that relationship-building is critical to the customer experience.

The Challenger Sale isn’t just a book, it’s a B2B sales model.

In this article, we look at how The Challenger Sale model works and what titbits your sales team can take away from it.

Prepare to move your sales team through the ranks – from challenger to champion.

The Challenger Sale: the book

The Challenger Sale was published in 2011.

Since 2012, it has consistently been the number one best-selling sales book on Amazon and has become an obligatory read for many fresh-faced sales crew members.

The book is based on research carried out by the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), which tapped into more than 6,000 sales reps selling to B2B customers.

The CEB looked at 2008 – the start of the credit crunch – and found that, whilst most sales reps felt like they were trying to flog sand to a beach owner, a select few continued to enjoy phenomenal success. Their research set out to discover what put these high-performing sales reps head and shoulders above the rest.

Despite tough economic times, an elite group of sales pros pressed ahead relentlessly, closing deal after deal. They were a different kind of animal, which became known as the ‘Challenger.’

According to the authors of the book, all B2B sales reps fall into one of five profiles:

  • The hard worker.
  • The relationship-builder (the age-old, conventional approach to sales).
  • The lone wolf.
  • The reactive problem solver.
  • The challenger.

The CEB has very conveniently distilled the profiles into table form.


Image credit: Corporate Executive Board

The CEB study showed that approximately 40 per cent of all high-performing sales staff were of the ‘Challenger’ type while a mere seven per cent were ‘relationship-builders.’

It found that the more complicated the sale, such as professional services (law, accountancy, etc) where sales reps are selling solutions, the more dominant the Challengers were.

When looking at what sets Challengers apart, the authors highlighted the following characteristics:

  • Challengers “approach customers with unique insights about how they can save or make money.”
  • Challengers have advanced two-way communication skills.
  • Challengers know the customer’s value drivers (and can identify their economic drivers, too).
  • Challengers are completely at ease discussing money.
  • Challengers have the ability to apply pressure to the customer.

The Challenger Sale: the model

So, what lessons can your sales staff learn from the Challenger Sale model?

We’ve come up with three.

1.Make the buying experience your main priority

We know “the customer is always right,” but two pieces of research stand out in this area.

McKinsey research shows that “70% of buying experiences are based on how the customer feels they are being treated.”

To top it off, a CEB survey of more than 5,000 people at members’ customer organisations found that 53% of customer loyalty is attributed to the customer’s buying experience. This compares to:

  • Company and brand impact (19%).
  • Product and service delivery (19%).
  • Value-to-price ratio (9%).

So, what does a second-to-none buying experience look like? It all boils down to your sales maestros laying it on thick when it comes to adding value. An ongoing customer conversation is always a good way to go and it can take the form of:

  • Free advice.
  • Consultations.
  • Marketing tools, such as blogs and eBooks.

2.Challenger reps make the best sellers

In terms of the Challenger model, Challenger reps have no rivals in the complex sales stakes.

While conventional (‘relationship-builder’) reps only focus on building strong customer relationships, Challengers often devise ingenious solutions to their customers’ problems.

They take the reins from the start of the sale process (not just at the negotiating stage) by creating a need that only they have the solution for. In short, Challengers adapt their sales strategy to the needs of their customers.

3.Innovation is a sales manager’s key asset

Innovation is a sales manager’s pièce de résistance.

According to the CEB, four things make a sales manager effective:

1.Sales innovation: think of new ways to solve high-level problems and gear offers to customers’ individual priorities. Understand what’s holding up the closing of a deal and be creative about moving it forward.
2.Coaching: show sales reps how to adjust their message to each opportunity and demonstrate how and when to control the sale.
3.Selling: create bespoke offers and help your reps to close the biggest, most complex deals.
4.Resource allocation: stress the importance of sticking to the sales process and sort out any issues, as required.

Now your sales team know how to become Challengers, perhaps they can go on to become champions of the (sales) world.