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The Challenger Sale

By: Matt Dixon and Brent Adamson

Reviewed By: Bob Ruffolo

It's how you sell, not what you sell.

In The Challenger Sale, Matt Dixon and Brent Adamson explain the ideas and strategies that drive the most successful Sales teams in business today.

In preparation for this book, the authors researched over 6,000 salespeople and over 90 companies across a wide variety of industries to identify the exact characteristics and tactics that top performing Sales reps use in order to create a system of selling that anyone can replicate.

They call this The Challenger Model. 

The average consumer is much savvier than they were 20 years ago, yet companies continue to train their employees to use Sales strategies that are completely outdated.

While Dixon and Adamson note that certain characteristics of top performing salespeople are timeless, the most effective approach to selling today is far different than what worked in the past.

Seller Profiles

One of the key studies cited in The Challenger Sale is also one of the largest Sales studies that has ever been conducted.

In this study, a notable finding was that 53% of customer loyalty is based on the Sales experience that the customer received -- as opposed to price, quality, or branding like many companies assume. That means the sales reps for your company are playing the largest part in determining whether your customers will be loyal to your brand or not.

With that statistic in mind, are you more likely to consider a new approach for your Sales team? 

According to the research, there are five different profiles that categorize B2B Sales reps by the skills and behaviors that they use while interacting with customers. Each profile describes a sales rep's natural tendencies in regards to how they interact with people and the profiles are not mutually exclusive.

Here are the five seller profiles ranked from least to most effective:

1. The Relationship Builder

  • Classic consultative rep
  • Builds advocates internally
  • Creates relationships with prospects

Relationship Builders focus on developing strong personal and professional relationships throughout the customer organization.

These sellers are very generous with their time, do everything they can to meet customers' needs, and work diligently to resolve any tensions that arise in the commercial relationship. Ironically, while most Sales programs are designed to create and encourage Relationship Builders, it is the least effective of all of them.

2. The Reactive Problem Solver

  • Highly detail-oriented
  • Reliably responds to stakeholders
  • Ensures all problems are solved

Reactive Problem Solvers are considered highly reliable and detail-oriented from the customers' perspective. They are known for their focus on post-Sales follow-ups to ensure that service issues are addressed and solved quickly and thoroughly.

3. The Hard Worker

  • Doesn't give up easily
  • Self-motivated
  • Interested in feedback and personal development

Hard Workers are the members of your team that show up early, stay late, and always go the extra mile. These Salespeople can make more call in an hour and meet with more prospects in a week than anyone else on your team. The hustle never stops for hard workers. 

4. The Lone Wolf

  • Follows own instincts
  • Self-assured
  • Delivers results, but difficult to manage

Lone Wolves are deeply self-confident and have a natural ability to succeed on their own instincts. They break rules, are hard to manage, and do things their way or no way at all. They are the least common profile of all Salespeople, but they are the second most common among top performing Salespeople.

5. The Challenger

  • Different view of the world
  • Loves to debate and push customer
  • Strong understanding of customers' business

Challengers use their deep understanding of their customers' business to challenge their thinking and maintain control of the Sales conversation. Challengers aren't afraid of expressing controversial views and are assertive with everyone they communicate with. Among top performing Salespeople, Challengers are most common.

As I'm sure you gathered from the title, this book is all about the Challenger profile and how to implement that approach.

Here are some interesting statistics from the study:

  • 40% of top Sales performers primarily used a Challenger style, rather than one of the other four Sales styles the book identified.
  • Top performers were more than two times likely to use a Challenger approach than any other approach.
  • Over 50% of all-star performers fit the Challenger profile in complex Sales.
  • Only 7% of high Sales performers took a Relationship Building approach, the worst performing profile.

Something that's interesting to note is that as Sales complexity increases, so does the success rate of the challenger approach. However, it seems only top performers get the most benefit from this approach. Among average performers, all profiles generated about the same results.

The Six Significant Traits of a Challenger Sales Rep

  1. They offer a unique perspective to the customer.
  2. They have very strong two-way communication skills.
  3. They understand the value drivers of each individual customer.
  4. They understand the economic drivers of each customer's business.
  5. They are comfortable discussing money.
  6. They can pressure the customer.

These traits aren't found exclusively among Challengers, but they are most commonly seen used together among Challengers.

Challenger reps have the distinct ability to do three things well:

  1. Teach the customer something valuable and innovative on how to compete in their market.
  2. Tailor their Sales pitch to specifically resonate with the key decision maker's primary issues.
  3. Take control of the discussions around pricing and challenge the customer's thoughts about any problems.

Commercial Teaching

Commercial teaching is when the Sales rep "teaches" the customer how to think about their needs.

In the process, the rep will lead the conversation to the strengths of your company -- addressing why the customer should choose you over a competitor. They will challenge the assumption that your customer has and re-frame their problems. Challengers will give the customer a reason to act now and fill them with a sense of urgency. To accomplish all of this, your Challenger reps need to be informed across the industries of your customers.

The commercial teaching pitch can be broken down into six steps.

Step One: The Warmer

Show your customer that you understand their problems and establish your credibility.

Step Two: The Re-Frame

Make a connection between those challenges to a larger problem or opportunity that they hadn't previously thought of. Now you've got their attention.

Step Three: Rational Drowning

Show the lead actual numbers that back up your re-frame and affirm why they should think the way you do. At this point they are starting to draw their own conclusion and a logical argument against your pitch becomes difficult to form.

Step Four: Emotional Impact

Now you create an emotional connection between the pain points in the story you are telling and remind them of the daily struggles they face in their organization. Your story no longer needs logic, as they now desire a solution.

Step Five: A New Way

This is where you show them why your new way of thinking about their business is the right way. At this point they're hooked, but the most stubborn customers won't be completely sold.

Step Six: Your Solution

Finally, you close the sale by demonstrating how your solution is the best one out there and how it fits perfectly with the new way that the lead should be thinking about their business. When done correctly, it becomes difficult for them to say no.

Tailoring Your Pitch and Taking Control

When delivering the pitch, it has to be tailored around your customer's individual problems and goals. A recycled pitch that you deliver to everyone isn't going to resonate and doesn't perform well in B2B Sales.

A winning pitch needs to get the support of an entire organization. While your pitch has to resonate with the key decision-makers, the story you tell has to resonate with everyone in the organization for your company to get full support -- which is powerful in the long-run. Always tailor the pitch to the decision-maker you are currently communicating with and address their individual needs.

A Challenger rep must have the ability to maintain control of the pitch and stand firm on value. That means never trying to compete on price.

Challenger reps have to keep the momentum going throughout the Sales process and know when to veto prospects that aren't decision-makers or simply aren't moving forward.

The Challenger Sales Manager

According to the study cited in the book, Sales management ability accounts for 73% of management effectiveness and the last 27% of Sales management ability is a mixture of management fundamentals such as integrity, reliability and listening.

Innovative Sales managers investigate the obstacles in the way of new Sales. They find innovative solutions, and then they share those with their Sales team.

The Challenger Sale Team Uses a PAUSE Framework

  • Preparation for the coaching conversation -- managers should approach each conversation with a plan.
  • Affirm the relationship -- create a scenario where everyone feels comfortable.
  • Understand expected behavior -- managers should know what to look for of behavior in their Sales team.
  • Specify behavior change -- managers should remain objective when judging behavior.
  • Embed new behavior -- managers should provide useful action plans for their Sales team to implement coaching.

Something to keep in mind is that, unfortunately, around 20 to 30 of Sales reps won't successfully adopt the Challenger model for a variety of reasons. If you experience resistance or see a few reps drop out of the process, it's normal and doesn't indicate poor management.