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The Challenger Sale: the new secret to successful selling

5 min read
Conga Team
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Most sales leaders have been cultivating the least effective type of sales rep. Are you one of them?

If that statement seems surprising, then you haven’t read The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation, the extensively researched study by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson of Corporate Executive Board, a member-based consultancy.

The authors set out to discover why some sales reps were continuing to blow past their quotas in the depths of the 2009 recession, a time when buyers seemed to have gone extinct across the corporate landscape. After thousands of interviews, they found a series of insights that will last for many business cycles to come.

Creating challengers

Most organizations think superstar reps are born, not made—but CEB found that wasn’t true at all. Any sales professional can be trained to think like a challenger, the most successful type of rep.

CEB discovered that sales reps can be grouped by traits into five profiles: the Hard Worker, the Challenger, the Relationship Builder, the Lone Wolf, and the Reactive Problem Solver. While top reps can be found in each profile, just the challengers consistently and comprehensively outperformed the others.

What’s more, CEB learned that most sales organizations teach skills and reward habits consistent with the relationship builder, the worst performing profile. This fact lends a true urgency to The Challenger Sale: Companies in competitive industries that embrace this book’s findings will give themselves a large selling advantage.

Challenger reps aren’t just better in a downturn—their performance was superior in any economic conditions. And the more complex the product, the more important the challenger findings are. CEB calculated that, for transactional products, star performers are 59% more productive than average sales reps. In complex solution sales, however, the top reps are 200% more productive.

So if you can create challengers, why wouldn’t you? CEB described the characteristic behaviors of the challenger rep as teach, tailor and take control.

Five examples of the Challenger Method

 The book is an invaluable chronicle of the habits and techniques of challenger reps. Here are five specific examples of how a sales rep can teach, tailor, and take control.

1. If the sales process starts with a lower-level employee, such as a procurement specialist, the challenger rep immediately pushes for access to decision makers. If it’s not granted, the rep moves on: without this access, the opportunity is not likely to pan out, so further engagement at a low level is a waste of time better spent on other opportunities.

2. The challenger doesn’t just participate in an RFP: she offers the customer free consulting to develop an RFP that addresses issues the customer didn’t know about, such as pitfalls unique to the solution seller’s industry. This work allows the rep to tailor the RFP to her solution’s strengths.

3. When preparing to speak to a decision maker, the challenger asks her coach for direct advice about what that person’s hot buttons are and tailors the presentation to the decision maker’s interests. The challenger repeats this step for the different personalities of the customer.

4. When speaking about price, the challenger keeps the conversation focused on value, perhaps by asking the customer to rank elements of the solution in order of importance.

5. The challenger teaches the customer how to compete in the customer’s market. She challenges assumptions, provides insights that lead to action, and does it in a way that plays to her organization’s strengths.

The teaching element of the challenger method can be particularly surprising because most companies are focused on teaching a prospective customer about their product. The customer has agreed to the meeting, so presumably that’s what he wants to learn about. In fact, the best reps will take control of the sales meeting by turning the conversation to commercial insights about the customer’s industry or function that the customer doesn’t already know. A great challenger teaching pitch has six steps.

Six steps of a Challenger sales presentation

The challenger rep will give a teaching presentation with the following six steps.

1. Warm-up: A good place to provide benchmarks, industry trends the company has observed, and anecdotes. The rep shares information about the problems the customer is facing. The challenger doesn’t ask what is keeping the customer up at night—she already knows.

2. Reframe: The challenger connects the challenges just identified to a larger problem or opportunity.

3. Rational drowning: The challenger quantifies why the problem just laid out is worth solving. The challenger rep is willing to make the customer uncomfortable with the level of detail and data provided—to “drown” the customer in facts. Some organizations may refer to this type of detail as “FUD”: fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

4. Emotional impact: With the customer fascinated by new information, the challenger connects the customer directly to the problem by placing the customer in the story. This is where client success stories go. When the customer objects that his situation is unique, the challenger responds, ”That’s what my other clients say also”.

5. A new way: With the customer digesting new information, and thrown into uncertainty by its relevance, the challenger lays out the solution that will solve these problems. At this stage, the challenger describes a general solution, not her solution—that’s next.

6. Your solution: Finally, the challenger rep lays out the specific and differentiated ways that her solution provides the new way forward. If the presentation has been properly tailored the entire time, this step should be completely natural.

This teaching method is effective with both decision makers and the influencers who need to buy into the solution, but don’t “buy” in the sense of signing a purchase order. Complex solution sales in particular require broad support from the customer, and teaching these influencers something they don’t know is critical.

Become a Challenger company

 While The Challenger Sale is about selling, its insights are relevant to any part of the organization, even those with a purely internal focus. After all, your job has a “customer” even if it’s not someone who pays your company—your customer might be your internal business partners, your suppliers, your regulators, or simply your boss.

If you are in HR, be a challenger by using a teach, tailor, and take control method with job prospects you are recruiting. Give them information they don’t have, frame their job search as a larger need for career advancement, and give them facts and figures before trying to pitch your company. You’ll probably end up with a far better signing rate for top talent.

If you are in IT, be a challenger to your business partners by showing them new insights about their usage of technology and connecting insights to their key objectives before asking them to adopt a change in process. You’ll come to be seen as the knowledge desk instead of the help desk.

The same ideas can be applied to any job. So everyone can benefit from reading The Challenger Sale, the most informative and actionable business study to come along in years.

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