The Challenger Sale model goes against traditional thinking that sales is all about relationships. Or sales conversations are all about asking good (SPIN?) questions. Today’s complex business-to-business sales requires salespeople to be teachers and (trusted) advisors, daring to teach and provoke their customers to change their way of working – of course using the offered solution.

Additional Competency

While the model is presented as “really new, replacing all other models” it is using Herb Cohens material from the 80’s. It’s not the “what”, it’s the “how” to impact client conversations. You still have to connect with your customers, and ask great questions to get to the key of their pain & gain before you can ‘challenge’ them. But daring and being knowledgeable and able to challenge them is certainly a quality that can set you apart.

New Purchasing Process & New Buyer Behavior

Today’s customers contact a salesperson when they are already 57% through the purchase process. They do independent research and set their own purchase criteria, all before the first sales interaction. They know more about the seller than the seller knows about them. How you sell – the way you interact and the resulting sales experience drive 53% of customer loyalty – more so than by the brand, product, service and price combined. 

5 Types of Sales Professional Profiles

The book distinguishes 5 sales professional profiles:

  1. Relationship Builder: Builds strong customer advocates, is generous with time to help others, gets along with everyone. The Relationship Builder is least likely to be a high-performer in a complex selling environment.
  2. Hard Worker: Goes the extra mile, doesn’t give up easily, is self-motivated, likes feedback and development 
  3. Lone Wolf: Follows own instincts, is self-assured, independent (difficult to control). Not everything can be a team event. Sometimes you need a sharpshooter to pick off a really tough account.
  4. Problem Solver: Responds reliably, ensures all problems are solved, is detail-oriented
  5. Challenger: Has different view of the world, understands the customer’s business, loves to debate, pushes the customer. Challenger reps outperform all other profiles and are most likely to win. More than 50% of all star performers in complex sales environments are Challengers. These reps successfully make customers-instead of just finding them.

3 Key Challenger Sale Behaviors

Key Challenger selling behaviors are: 

  • Take Control – of the commercial conversation, including the money aspect.
  • Tailor – for resonance. Challengers capture the customer’s current beliefs or assumptions, then expose the flaws or misinformation in that thinking. They adapt their approach to varying customer stakeholders and their value drivers.
  • Teach – for differentiation. Challengers teach the customer something new about their business (how to save money, make money or mitigate risk).  They offer a unique perspective, building constructive tension while maintaining two-way communication, lead with insight about an unknown problem or opportunity in the customer’s business that they are uniquely positioned to solve.

Commercial Conversations: Take Control, Teach & Tailor

The biggest incremental opportunity for driving customer purchase and loyalty lies in the rep’s ability to differentiate the sales experience. Challengers lead with insight, reframe the way customers think about their business, and offer solutions tied to the supplier’s unique strengths and capabilities. This is called Commercial Teaching.

Element Common Approach Shortcoming Better Approach
Take control of Negotiation Passive, amicable approach, avoiding tension, encouraging collaboration. Customers control the interaction and often force price-based negotiations; delays in decision making. Take control of the conversation and broaden the customer perspective beyond the price 
Take control of Stakeholder Selection Searching “true” decision-makers (‘ economic buyers’) who can overrule an indecisive group, advocates (‘coaches’) who can guide them through the organization and champion their solution internally. Consensus decisions are the trend, but true advocates rarely exist. Focus on ‘mobilizing’ stakeholders that drive consensus around good ideas
Take control of Driving Momentum into a Deal Search a “coach” or advocate on the customer side to help the deal move forward and build consensus Loss of momentum because customers have difficulty in their buying process (stakeholders, timelines, decision milestones, objections) with new/complex offerings Take control of the sale by actively guiding customers through the consensus building and buying process

Lead To, Not With, Your Unique Differentiators

Reps are most comfortable talking about what they know best—their organization. They typically start their pitch describing their company’s capabilities, history, or products’ features and benefits. In other words, they lead with their unique strengths. Customers have difficulty distinguishing suppliers (what they sell, brand, product quality, even price) Lead to, not with, our unique differentiators. Challengers do this by first teaching customers something new about their business and their needs.

Modify Pitches to Account for Individual Stakeholders’ Role and Function

Reps often spend a lot of time memorizing their pitch, and then re-using that pitch with various customer stakeholders, regardless of the individual’s role or function. Customer stakeholders have different functional responsibilities, goals, and day-to-day worries. As a result, their priorities and measures of success differ. Even the best insight, if positioned poorly, will have little commercial impact. First focus on uncovering and understanding the outcomes each customer stakeholder is trying to accomplish. Then create a sense of urgency with each customer stakeholder by framing the implications of action vs. inaction in terms and objectives that are relevant to that individual.

Highlights & Quotes from The Challenger Sale book:

  1. How you sell has become more important than what you sell. 53% of B2B customer loyalty is a product of how you sell, not what you sell.
  2. Critical success factor: generate new demand in a world of reluctant, risk-averse customers.
  3. (Challengers have) a deep understanding of the customer’s business and use that understanding to push the customer’s thinking and teach them something new about how their company can compete more effectively.
  4. A Challenger is really defined by the ability to do three things: teach, tailor, and take control.
  5. As the Challenger is focused on pushing the customer out of their comfort zone, the Relationship Builder is focused on being accepted into it.
  6. While the Challenger is focused on customer value, the Relationship Builder is more concerned with customer convenience.
  7. The world of solution selling is almost definitionally about a disruptive sale.
  8. If you’re on the journey to more of a value-based or solutions-oriented sales approach, then your ability to challenge customers is absolutely vital for your success going forward.
  9. In a time when consensus is more important than ever to get the deal done, it’s no surprise that the rep who wins in this environment is the one who can effectively tailor the message to a wide range of customer stakeholders in order to build that consensus. The key, of course, is to do this with control, diplomacy, and empathy.
  10. Shift the discussion from price to value.
  11. Challengers aren’t so much world-class investigators as they are world-class teachers. They win not by understanding their customers’ world as well as the customers know it themselves, but by actually knowing their customers’ world better than their customers know it themselves, teaching them what they don’t know but should.
  12. Selling a well-branded, highly differentiated product, supported by higher-than-industry-average service will undoubtedly get you more loyalty.
  13. Customers, generally speaking, see significantly less difference between us and the competition than we do ourselves.
  14. You’ve got to build a network of advocacy along the way or risk losing the deal altogether due to weak support across the organization.
  15. (Prospects are) looking to suppliers to help them identify new opportunities to cut costs, increase revenue, penetrate new markets, and mitigate risk in ways they themselves have not yet recognized.
  16. What sets the best suppliers apart is not the quality of their products, but the value of their insight—new ideas to help customers either make money or save money in ways they didn’t even know were possible.
  17. The best reps win that battle not by “discovering” what customers already know they need, but by teaching them a new way of thinking altogether.
  18. They teach customers new perspectives, specifically tailored to their most pressing business needs, in a compelling and assertive enough manner to ensure that the message not only resonates, but actually drives action.
  19. What data, information, or insight can you put in front of your customer that reframes the way they think about their business—how they operate or even how they compete?
  20. There’s vastly greater value in insight that changes or builds on what they know in ways they couldn’t have discovered on their own.
  21. Rapport and reframe are not the same thing. The best indicator of a successful reframe isn’t excited agreement but thoughtful reflection.
  22. Customers are looking to suppliers to challenge their thinking and teach them something they don’t know.
  23. Logic alone is rarely enough to overcome the status quo.
  24. Rather than leading with open-ended questions about customers’ needs, you lead with hypotheses of customers’ needs, informed by your own experience and research.
  25. Rational Drowning is the numbers-driven rationale for why your customer should think differently about their business, but presented specifically in a way designed to make them squirm a little bit.
  26. A good ROI calculator calculates the ROI on solving the challenge you’ve just taught your customer they have, not the ROI on buying your solution.
  27. You’ve got to show them something new, and then show them why it matters.
  28. You’ve got to paint a picture of how other companies just like the customer’s went down a similarly painful path by engaging in behavior that the customer will immediately recognize as typical of their own company.
  29. The best sales conversations present the customer with a compelling story about their business first, teach them something new, and then lead to their differentiators.
  30. By helping customers think differently about their company, you ultimately want them to think differently about your company.
  31. “What’s currently costing our customers more money than they realize, that only we can help them fix?”
  32. Marketing must serve as the “insight generation machine” that keeps reps well equipped with quality teaching material that customers will find compelling.
  33. A move from leading with your unique strengths to one where carefully constructed teaching interactions very deliberately lead the customer to your unique strengths.
  34. The single biggest incremental opportunity to drive growth isn’t in the products and services you sell, but in the quality of the insight you deliver as part of the sale itself.
  35. When it does come time to decide, the decision maker wants to know he’s got the strong backing of his team.
  36. You can’t just elevate the conversation and cut everyone else out because it’s exactly that team input that the decision maker values most when it comes to loyalty.
  37. End users don’t think of themselves as buying from organizations; they buy from people.
  38. For non–decision makers, loyalty is much less about discovering needs they already know, and much more about teaching them something they don’t know.
  39. Customers will repay you with loyalty when you teach them something they value, not just sell them something they need.
  40. It’s not just the products and services you sell, it’s the insight you deliver as part of the sales interaction itself.
  41. Nearly two-thirds of suppliers report using customer stakeholder interactions to extract insight, rather than provide it.
  42. The best way you sell more stuff over time isn’t by going directly to the person who signs the deal, but by approaching the decision maker indirectly through stakeholders able to establish more widespread support for your solution.
  43. The rep’s ability to influence the sale in the executive suite is nowhere near as strong as stakeholders’ ability to do the same thing.
  44. Marketing can add a tremendous amount of value simply by helping sales reps to tailor at industry, company and stakeholder (value driver) level.
  45. Instead of asking, “Who needs to be involved?” Challenger reps coach the customer on who should be involved (take the lead!).
  46. Commercial Teaching puts the Challenger in a position to take control by bringing new ideas to the table.
  47. If the rep isn’t willing to convince the customer that the problem is urgent, then he won’t be able to convince the customer it’s worth solving.
  48. The rep pushes the customer, but does so with respect and sensitivity to how the customer is reacting.
  49. 75% of reps believe that procurement has more power, while 75% of procurement officers believe that reps have more power!
  50. While companies have been emphatic about their customer-centricity, they’ve been equally vague with their sales organizations about how to actually do that.
  51. While you can’t realistically change human behavior, you can help make reps aware of their natural tendencies and give them some practical tools for making sure that they don’t prematurely cave when it comes to intense value discussions.
  52. One of the biggest differentiators of high-performing reps is the amount of time they spend planning.
  53. Teach reps the importance of clarity of direction over quick closure, and teach them how to create value for the client within the sales process.
  54. The frontline sales manager in any sales organization is the fundamental link between strategy and execution—this is where change initiatives and sales force transformations live or die.
  55. Sales leadership is mostly about how innovative sales managers are.
  56. What we’re referring to here is managers collaborating with reps to understand as deeply as possible what’s holding up a deal, figuring out why and where a deal is running into trouble at the customer, and then finding innovative ways to move it forward.
  57. It is about creatively modifying deal-level sales strategy to adapt to the specific customer context—the “reality on the ground,” as it were.
  58. Innovation, on the other hand, is about driving performance through unforeseen obstacles.
  59. Sales innovation is the single biggest sales-related attribute contributing to world-class sales manager performance—more important than selling skills and much more important than a manager’s ability to allocate resources.
  60. Coaching isn’t just a huge driver of sales performance—it’s also a major factor in employee retention and what we call “discretionary,” or extra, effort.
  61. Good coaches make people want to stay.
  62. Coaching is about behaviors, not outcomes.
  63. Managers need to be taught how to emphasize personal development by separating performance management from coaching interactions.
  64. It’s about co-creation (i.e., thought partnership) without value judgment, about working together collaboratively to find a better way to advance a deal.
  65. Innovative managers are all about sharing best practices, developing and sustaining a strong relationship network inside the organization, and passing new ideas and solutions to the rest of the team.
  66. World-class managers today are defined not just by their ability to coach to the known, but by their ability to innovate around the unknown.
  67. “If we had religiously followed our sales process last year, our three biggest deals would have never gotten done.”
  68. Sales success today is much less about getting better at what you already know and much more about creating an ability to tackle what you don’t know.
  69. Your organization is designed for efficiency at a time when effectiveness is going to win the day.
  70. We can train managers to ask themselves (and their reps) specific questions to prompt thinking from alternate perspectives.
  71. Research by Neil Rackham shows that 87% of sales training content is forgotten by reps within 30 days.
  72. Coaching is a principal lever for boosting training stickiness.
  73. Ironically, the more we try to play up our differences, the more things sound the same.
  74. Be memorable, not agreeable.
  75. Build a pitch that leads to your solution, not with your solution.
  76. Before even talking about your capabilities, teach customers about a problem they didn’t even know they had—one that you can solve better than your competitors.
  77. We’ve found that the best companies shoot for 80% adoption of any change—whether a new skill, tool, process, or system.
  78. In order to get the organization to pay attention to the change you are driving, you must create cognitive dissonance

My Critique – What the Challenger Sale model gets wrong

Let’s challenge the Challenger approach!

  • Challenger Sale focuses more on ‘telling’ and persuading – though in a more sophisticated package – than listening. Beware the old “show up and throw up” approach.
  • Are buyers open for teaching? Treating clients as ‘students’ risks some might find you ‘Mr. Know-it-all’-arrogant, insulting or manipulative.
  • Can salespeople really identify and develop powerful and unique insights and ‘points of view’ that are yet unknown to the client? Do they know the client’s business, value perception and way of working well enough? Do they have the required curiosity, creative, innovative and consulting skills? Is there enough teamwork and support from Marketing? –> align Sales & Marketing collaboration
  • In most organizations 70-80% of revenue comes from existing customers. Research shows that using a provocative, challenging message with existing customers—when you’re trying to renew, upsell or expand business with them—can backfire, increasing your risk of losing them to your competitors by 10-16%. Be sure to adapt your message for a customer expansion conversation.

We believe in adapting your approach to the situation. Not in ‘one-size-fits-all. And if you choose to challenge, it needs to be balanced by humility to keep the client connected. Salespeople need to have the confidence and emotional intelligence to challenge clients with comments like:
• “I don’t know if I agree with your conclusion.”
• “If I were you, I’d be more worried about X, but that doesn’t seem to be your concern. What am I missing?”
• “I think I might approach it differently by valuing X over Y.”

And at the same time it’s important to be more interested than interesting. To have a strong point of view. And also being aware that you are not all knowing. A Salesperson needs to have a Learning Mindset. Otherwise the best methodology, skillset and toolset will not work.


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