The Challenger Sale

Summary Written by Jill Donahue
"Imagine a world where all your reps- or at least many more of them – performed like stars. What would that be worth to you?"

- The Challenger Sale, page 15

The Big Idea

One, two, three, four... Five!

"The five profiles are statistically derived, but they accurately and completely describe the five most common profiles found in the real world."- The Challenger Sale, page 19

After a massive and sophisticated statistical analysis, Dixon and Adamson discovered that every sales rep falls into one of five distinct profiles. Think of reps you know. Do you know these types?

1) The Hard Worker

  • Always willing to go the extra mile
  • Doesn’t give up easily
  • Self-motivated
  • Interested in feedback and development

2) The Challenger

  • Always has a different view of the world
  • Understands the customer’s business
  • Loves to debate
  • Pushes the customer

3) The Relationship Builder

  • Builds strong advocates in customer organization
  • Generous in giving time to help others
  • Gets along with everyone

4) The Lone Wolf

  • Follows own instincts
  • Self-assured
  • Difficult to control

5) The Reactive Problem Solver

  • Reliably responds to internal and external stakeholders
  • Ensures that all problems are solved
  • Detail-oriented

Which category do you think houses the most successful reps? Well, maybe the title of the book gave it away but yes, the Challenger. Shock of all shock, it was not the relationship builder that we had put our bets on for so long. They were the loser category!

Insight #1

One clear winner and one clear loser

"In our study, only 7 percent of all star performers fell into the Relationship Builder profile, far fewer than any other. And this finding should be a real red flag for all sales leaders encouraging their reps to simply go out and ‘build deeper relationships’ with customers."- The Challenger Sale, page 24

Have you ever heard a senior Sales Director say “It all boils down to the relationship”? And people nod in agreement. After all, who are they to argue?

But maybe after reading The Challenger Sale they would!

Conventional wisdom has long held that in complex sales, relationships are the basis of all sales success. Over the last ten years however there has been a flip-flop. Customer relationship is the result and not the cause of successful selling. I hear reps say all the time “I have such a great relationship with him but he just won’t use my product!” That’s because customers today are likely to say “I have a great relationship with her but her competition delivers better value so I buy from them.”

Reps traditionally have felt they are there to serve and support their customers. Their goal was to keep things friendly, and not rock the boat. The research presented here suggests that customers are looking to suppliers to challenge their thinking and bring new ideas to address their toughest problems in ways they would not have thought of on their own.

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Insight #2

What makes the rock stars rock?

"When you ask people to compare their rock stars with their losers, you find that they can dissect the losers with surgical precision but find it hard, if not impossible, to put their finger on exactly what makes their rock stars rock."- The Challenger Sale, page xiii

So let’s capture a clear picture of what this ideal Challenger rep does. The three pillars that make a Challenger is their ability to teach, tailor, and take control.

They outperform their colleagues in the following attributes:

  • Offer the customer unique perspectives
  • Have strong two-way communication skills
  • Know the individual customer’s value drivers
  • Can identify economic drivers of the customer’s business
  • Are comfortable discussing money
  • Can pressure the customer

The traditional rep is busy telling endless facts and features and resolving tension while the challenger rep creates constructive tension with unique insights tailored to the customer’s specific needs and objectives.

Challenger reps are successful because they teach – or reframe how the customer sees things. They create a disorienting dilemma that moves the customers out of their comfort zone and pushes them to see things in a different light.

So what do you need to do? Reframe the goal of the rep. They should be making their customers think, bring new ideas and find creative and innovative ways to help the customer win. It’s time to rethink how we sell (especially in the complex sale) and Dixon and Adamson have some excellent food for thought – pushing the average rep out of their comfort zone to a success zone! There’s a lot to learn here. If you are a sales rep or manage reps, I highly recommend you roll up your sleeves and dive into this great read!

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Brent Adamson

With more than 20 years of experience as a professional researcher, teacher, trainer, and facilitator, Brent learned long ago that even the world’s best research only drives action when wrapped in a compelling story. Well known for both his passion and excitement for great ideas, Brent is a sought after speaker and facilitator. In his nearly 10 years at CEB he has worked with tens of thousands of sales leaders all over the world in meetings, seminars, workshops, and retreats, to redefine what good looks like when it comes to commercial excellence. He has been privileged to work with some of the greatest thought leaders in B2B sales and marketing to further the professionalization of sales as a function. Brent is a frequent contributor on sales topics on the Harvard Business Review’s blog as well as the Sales Executive Council blog.

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