The Challenger Sale Review – An Independent Assessment and Best Fit Analysis

Highlights

  • The Challenger Sale model is the fastest growing sales methodology and is particularly well suited to selling complex solutions with long sales cycles and recurring customer engagement.
  • It was born from extensive research that identified the actions of top producers so their results could be replicated by others.
  • A Challenger salesperson demonstrates understanding of the buyer's business, offers unique perspectives, and introduces commercial insights to challenge the customer's view.
Johnny Grow Revenue Growth Consulting

The Challenger Sale is a research-based sales methodology that sought to discover what top performing sales reps do differently than their average performing peers. Authors Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson of Corporate Executive Board (CEB) released their book in 2011. CEB was later acquired by Gartner in 2017.

Challenger Sales Methodology

The research identified five sales personas.

  1. The Hard Worker is a self-motivated sales rep with tenacity and a penchant for self-development
  2. The Lone Wolf is a highly confident sales rep that plays by his own rules and delivers results
  3. The Relationship Builder uses social skills to build relationships and create advocacy
  4. The Problem Solver is reactive, focused on the details and motivated to solve customer problems
  5. The Challenger has a solid understanding of the buyer's business, offers unique perspectives and introduces commercial insights to challenge the customer's view

The research found more than 50% of the top producers in complex sales environments are “challengers” — by far the most successful sales archetype. The highest performers were more than two times as likely to use a Challenger approach than any other.

I've noticed this finding comes a shock to many average sales professionals who prior to digesting the research, naïvely pursued a relationship strategy. Relationships matter, but not nearly as much as most sales reps believe. The research also found that only 7% of top producers used a relationship-building approach, the worst performing profile among the five types.

This methodology follows a three-step framework of teach, tailor and take control. Teaching often begins with insights that bring realization to larger problems and new ideas. Tailoring puts the customer at the center of the problem or opportunity and contextualizes everything to them. Taking control includes driving the agenda and creating constructive tension with the customer in a way that forces them outside their comfort zone. Challengers are more interested in being insightful than liked.

Within those steps, the Challenger delivers six types of sequenced messaging.

  1. The Warmer: The seller first frames the problem and gets initial confirmation.
  2. The Reframe: Here the seller shares commercial insights about the problem that the customer had not considered. This gets the buyer to think about the problem in a new way.
  3. Rational Drowning: The seller drills down and expands on the problem and its many consequences to the buyer in a way that creates great discomfort.
  4. Emotional Impact: The seller shares stories about how this same problem negatively impacted others. The buyer sees himself heading for the same outcome.
  5. A New Way: Here the seller shares an alternative approach, and the criteria to avoid the problem or capitalize on the opportunity.
  6. The Solution: Finally, the seller introduces and shows how their solution achieves the criteria in the prior step and is uniquely positioned to solve the problem.

When to Use the Challenger Sale Model

This model stands apart from most other sales methodologies which foster relationship-based approaches. CEBs sales research was likely the most extensive ever done. It clearly found that the Relationship Builder sales archetype was the least effective of the five profiles.

The best fit for this sales methodology includes the following:

  • Business to Business (B2B) selling environments with long sales cycles and recurring customer engagement.
  • Sophisticated or complex solutions such as enterprise software or other technology. In fact, this book is required reading for many technology company new hires and is by far the most popular sales methodology in Silicon Valley.
  • Innovative products and new product categories where buyers are more open to insights and more receptive to commercial teaching.
  • Salesforces that struggle to find and articulate meaningful differentiation. This is particularly true for highly competitive industries with many solutions that become marginalized in the eyes of buyers.
  • Team-based selling environments.

See The Challenger Sale model review with strengths, weaknesses and recommendations where this sale methodology best fits.

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While this methodology suggests anyone can become a Challenger, it's been my experience this method is best adopted by mature salesforces. Teaching customers, taking control of the conversation, being provocative and creating constructive tension, without being perceived as aggressive, may be difficult or uncomfortable for some sellers.

Additional considerations include the following:

  • This method fits well for sellers that are industry focused. Challenger reps must demonstrate expertise with the buyer's industry and company. Domain knowledge and experience are needed to achieve credibility.
  • This sales methodology requires seamless integration with your sales process as it significantly alters the goals for most sales steps. Challenger sellers are more memorable than agreeable which requires unique guidance for the sales qualification and discovery steps. Instead of taking the clients self-diagnose at face value, reps apply insights to redirect customer thinking. They reframe the problem to be solved and personalize the implications of failing to solve the problem.
  • Similarly, middle stage sales process steps such as the presentation and proposal require a unique focus. Instead of leading with their solution, reps introduce new thinking which ultimately leads to their solution. Where competitors will have marginalized themselves by all satisfying the same challenges, the Challenger rep will have introduced different challenges that can only be satisfied with their solution.
  • This sales model requires Sales and Marketing integration. It's inefficient for sellers to develop meaningful customer insights. This is a job typically best done by Marketing, who performs the research to develop personas, customer intelligence (especially pain points) and commercial insights. Those insights are then categorized and catalogued so they can be easily retrieved by the sellers on demand. It's marketing that makes this method scalable.

This sale methodology is the fastest growing for good reason. It works. If the above fit criteria align with your company, you may be well advised to consider this method.