The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation

If you’re in sales management or especially in a higher level sales executive position and you don’t know who the Sales Executive Council (“SEC”) is, you should. They’re part of the larger Corporate Executive Board, a $440 million public corporation that provides insights and tools to executives of large corporations through a participatory membership-based model. SEC is one division of that company.

SEC is involved with ongoing research among their member companies and regularly analyzes, interprets, and disseminates that information on sales effectiveness back to their members. Several years ago, SEC determined that they should form a sales performance improvement team, SEC Solutions, which would focus on improving the sales performance of organizations based on best-practices and approaches that SEC gathered over the years from their members.

In August 2010 both Brent Adamson, a co-author of The Challenger Sale and I presented separately at a sales conference.  Although I was somewhat familiar with some of SEC’s research, they were in the process of launching the Challenger Model and I had the opportunity to hear about it first hand from Brent in a group setting.

The Challenger Sale asserts that there are five profiles of sales reps (click on the graphic for full-size):

  • The Hard Worker (21% of their sample)
  • The Challenger (27%)
  • The Relationship Builder (21%)
  • The Lone Wolf (18%)
  • The Problem Solver (14%)

The clear winner, from SEC’s perspective, is the Challenger.  The loser, in terms of sales performance, is the Relationship Builder.  Surprised?

SEC points out that the Challenger rep has six significant attributes:

  1. Offers the customer unique perspectives
  2. Has strong two-way communication skills
  3. Knows the individual customer’s value drivers
  4. Can identify economic drivers of the customer’s business
  5. Is comfortable discussing money
  6. Can pressure the customer.

Can pressure the customer?  That’s certainly a behavior associated with the concept of a Challenger.  In fact, SEC goes on to assert that the Challenger is really defined by their ability to do three things: teach, tailor, and take control.

Before you fire off a negative comment to me about this approach to selling, understand I’ve heard them all.  SEC Solutions is an ESR sales training/consulting provider subscriber.  We’ve assessed and analyzed their approach, been briefed by their principals, checked their references, and have spoken to dozens of people about this Challenger Model.  Some of the more traditional sellers and sales experts were actually offended at the idea that a salesperson should pressure, challenge, and control the customer. They cited examples of how that approach would never work among their customers or anywhere in the industry into which they sell. Many of these people are Relationship builders, however quite successful in their own selling situations.

Others see this Challenger Model quite differently.  Once the nomenclature is explained, some see themselves selling this way and are at once amused and appreciate that someone assigned the label of challenger to behavior that is part of their everyday practice of selling.

This is a serious book.

You know I’m not only bored with books about sales tips, tricks, silver bullets, and shortcuts.  I believe they hurt, rather than help the salesreps and their managers that are in trouble.  The Challenger Sale is a serious book for those serious about selling more effectively.  There is enough research-based content for everyone to, at a minimum, at least consider.   Adopting the model, however, involves a willingness to reorient your thinking, approach, and behaviors to what might be opposite from your present selling and management style and, in fact, your company’s entire customer-facing philosophy and orientation. One risk is that the pendulum can swing too far and your sales team can become glib and arrogant.  I’ve seen it happen before.  But that can be managed like many other risks associated with behavioral change.

The book’s impact on a sales manager could be significant. Authors Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson provide some real insight into management and coaching, even going so far as providing a powerful coaching guide excerpt and a Challenger Hiring Guide in the appendix.  If you buy into this Challenger Model, you’ll certainly need that hiring guide.  Since you can’t change people’s inherent characteristics, if you want challengers working on your team, you better have a solid process for making sure anyone you hire has the requisite challenger traits.

Aspects of the Challenger approach can work with an existing sales methodology.  In fact, Huthwaite founder Neil Rackham wrote the forward to the book.  ESR sees the potential for sales training/methodology firms to provide the how and the Challenger Model to provide the what so far as the customer conversation is concerned.  More on that we see the Challenger model being adopted by more companies.

Here’s the bottom line

Dixon and Adamson offer here an absolutely stunning whack on the side of the head to any sales leader who is perplexed and paralyzed about how to get their whole team performing in the never-been-so-tough world of complex, B2B sales. It’s a must read. That’s M-U-S-T.

There is more information about the Challenger Sale here.  And here is a preview of the book.

Graphics source: SEC Solutions




  1. says

    Hey Dave, great post.

    I am also really impressed by the SEC’s work here and the book.

    I don’t think I ever used the same words (challenger) to describe this debating/educating style, but over the years, I’ve seen the same behavior patterns from the top producers I’ve studied at various companies across multiple industries.

    I certainly see this in play frequently in my current company (primarily B2B health and life insurance), where we educate customers about alternative solutions to standard health plans, which are often less expensive and almost always provide lower risk exposure and higher benefit levels, with more benefit fund control in our clients’ hands. Compared to what clients normally think they want (based on their present awareness), it’s a fairly radical departure, takes some education effort and, often, a challenger nudge, to help people make the leap and connect the dots. In the end, it’s in our clients’ best interest, and interestingly, the education effort usually deepens trust and builds a stronger relationship… which isn’t completely intuitive. It has to be done well, with tact and solid interpersonal skills and communication skills, but it works and yields multiple positive outcomes… a real win-win.

    Anyway, fascinating stuff, for sure. Keep the good content rolling…


  2. says

    Our entire team love this book. It will be reread and discussed around here for quite a while.

    Our concern is that the fuel behind the Challenger model is the ability to bring keen, valuable insight and challenge to the customer. I believe that the book recognized that each organization must equip its salespeople with these valuable business insights and direction and that ideally they can be applied to all customers in a sales territory that have similar business needs.

    It has been our common experience that those insights, business enablers and directional challenges are not part of the knowledge base for most sellers. Many have only recently graduated from features, functions & benefits selling. While the Challenger extends by inference to commodity selling, many of these firms, by and large, are clueless about their customer’s business. Grainger notwithstanding.

    It’s been our experience that many companies don’t currently have the kind of valuable business specific, game changing insights for their Challengers to deliver. Our other concern is the time-perishable nature of those insights. All businesses are in rapid transition, so the value of any business insight, business strategy or challenge to the customer’s current direction must be continuously and effectively updated. Most companies have a hard time managing their own transitions. Where do they find the flow of insightful information that the customer does not have access to themselves? How to they stay ahead of the curve?

    Another question that I think a company should ask itself, is something I don’t remember being addressed in the book. What happens when the information/insight/challenge delivered by the Challenger sales person is dead wrong? I don’t think you expect perfection from the Challenger salesperson, so what is the downside when the Challenger salesperson is contesting with the customer to “go, left, go left, go left….and “left” turns out to be a business disaster. The implication is that the information and insights delivered by the Challenger salesperson are so important and potentially so valuable to the customer that they are a business game changer. But is it possible to expect an unbroken record of hugely successful business successes fueled by the Challenger salesperson without the possibility that they will become the scapegoat when their recommendations lead to failure? That can happen even when the Challenger is right but the implementation or timing on the customer’s part leads to failure. As we all know, success has a thousand fathers while failure is always an orphan.

    • Dave Stein says

      Thanks Tom, for your thoughtful comment.

      You make some excellent points. Clearly the one about companies not “currently hav[ing] the kind of valuable business specific, game changing insights for their Challengers to deliver,” is right on target. This again highlights the significant challenges B2B salespeople have when it comes to support from Product Marketing, Sales Enablement, etc.

      And when the Challenger salesperson is dead wrong? Another good question.

      Let me reach out to Matt and Brent to see if they’d like to jump in here with a response…

  3. Dave Stein says

    I heard from Matt Dixon, one of the authors. He sent me this in an email:

    Tom, thanks for your thoughtful questions!

    To your first point, this is hard work and there’s no getting around that. Our advice to companies is that they shouldn’t leave insight generation to salespeople (you allude to this in your comments) and that this should be something owned by the company. Still, as you suggest, producing insight is easier said than done for most organizations. Specifically, there are three things that companies struggle with:

    1) Identifying unique benefits: The core of a Challenger approach is the ability to deliver insight…but that insight isn’t free consulting, it’s insight that leads to the unique capabilities of the supplier. In other words, it’s insight designed to get customers to buy your solutions. This all starts with a supplier answering the question “why should our customers buy frmo us in stead of the competition?” This proves to be a remarkably hard question for most companies to answer because the tendency of leaders is to run to those things that are, in fact, not unique or differentiated.

    2) Surfacing the insights required to reframe the way the customer thinks about their business: The insights used in a Challenger approach, again, must be connected to the supplier’s unique benefits or capabilities. A simple thought exercise (like the one above) would be to ask “What would have to be true for customers to value our unique benefits to a much higher degree than they do currently?” This leads to a set of hypotheses (“well, if X, Y or Z is true, then customers would have to place more value on our capabilities than they do now”). Then, of course, comes the data question: can we PROVE these hypotheses with data? In other words, we know what makes us unique, but we need a data-based case to make our customers care about these unique benefits–and, more importantly, pay for them.

    3) Packaging all of this into a compelling “teaching” pitch for salespeople: As you know from the book, there’s a real art to getting this right. Grainger did a great job identifying unique benefits (greater distribution reach and inventory) and producing data-based insights around unplanned purchasing–insights that make customers care about their unique benefits in a way they hadn’t before. But the really compelling thing about their story is how they packaged all of this into a story–one that the average salesperson can deliver and one that speaks to both the emotional and rational sides of the customer’s brain.

    But you hit on the added complexity in your comments, Tom. Once you do all of this hard work…well, you need to do it again and again for different segments of your business. And then you need to go back and re-do this work periodically since things change in the customer world and on the competitive landscape and, frankly, your customers will get bored hearing the same old teaching pitch over and over. So, what’s required is that a company build an “insight generation machine” within their organization to constantly crank these insights and stories out…to feed the Challenger sales organization, in other words.

    We’ve focused a lot of our time in building out resources, tools, workshops, etc., to help companies overcome the three obstacles I cited above. But the most important thing we try to do is teach companies how to do this on their own so that they can develop a capability (one that doesn’t rely on having resident consultants) to do this over and over again…to make it a repeatable process.

    Part 2:

    OK, question #2, what about when what you teach your customer is actually wrong?

    This is a great question, Tom, and I have to be honest…just when I thought I’d heard all of the questions about Challenger, somebody comes up with a new one!

    I forwarded your question to Brent (my co-author) and to Nick Toman, my research director in SEC, to get ther thoughts and so, I’ll post additional comments if they come back with interesting food for thought.

    In the meantime, let me take a crack…even if a sobering one. My honest answer is that Challenging–like anything in business–is not a game of perfect (to borrow from the sports psychologist Bob Rotella). Let’s be honest. When we sold products, we would sometimes end up selling the customer a product that wasn’t perfect for their situation. When we sold solutions, we’d on occassion sell a solution that turned out to not be suited to the customer’s environment (how many people have been fired because they made a big bet on a solution–CRM comes to mind–that didn’t deliver near the ROI that the thought it would?). The same is true in terms of selling insights. If we are going to bring new ideas to our customers, we owe it to them–especially if we intend to ask them to take a radically different approach–to really make sure we’re confident in those recommendations. It’s not good enough for the idea to be there…the data (and, ideally, real company cases) has got to back it up. Is this diligence enough to guarantee 100% success? Probably not. I’d hesitate to speculate as to the success rate on insights, but I would bet that proper Challengers armed with robust and truly verified (and verifiable) insights will help their customers succeed much more often than they’ll steer them down the wrong path.

    Admittedly, not a very precise answer, but that was my gut reaction…

  4. says

    David, any book endorsed by Rackham has my attention. It s a great read and many “nuggets” to garner; love sales research data. I was left with many questions and would like your 2 cents on a few:

    1) This book is really a call-to-action for marketing to play a more integral role in crafting insights/messages. The authors say this model is an individual skill but an organizational capability. The authors never discussed the Challengers and how they became Challengers. For example, should we assume they all had great marketing capabilities in the company? If not, then how many years of tenure did they have to develop these ‘challenging’ insight skills (i.e., demographic of the challenger: age, years in industry, etc)?

    2) What if your product doesn’t have a “big” differentiator? Many companies are not on the leading edge of Rogers innovation curve. In fact, many companies sell “me too” products or sub-systems; is this model obsolete for them? How can they lead with a ‘disruptive’ idea when their companies only offer minor shifts in doing business?

    3) The book emphasizes that Challengers focus on companies who are “agile” and in “flux”. How can anyone really measure that? This seems so subjective and will require the Challenger to lead with “questions” and not ‘constructive tension’? I’m having a chicken v. egg dilemma here :-)

    I have other questions but I’ll only burden you with these :-) Thank you.

    Sidenote: It’s a great book and my favorite part was “Tailoring for Resonance”…I’m all about ‘what you say’ and ‘how you say it’ that guides a buyer’s perception.

    • Dave Stein says

      Hi Victor,

      I’m not in a position to answer these questions. That would make me a spokesperson for the authors.

      I can tell you that SEC, for whom Brent and Matt work, are expanding their sales training/consulting presence and this book serves to put some of their assertions and findings out there in the marketplace. I wouldn’t really expect them to disclose too much about any of these subjects. There is another practical reason. Digging as deeply into these subjects as you suggest would greatly expand the size of the book, which is disadvantageous so far as marketability is concerned.


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