This article describes the Challenger Sale, its effectiveness as a sales methodology, and where it can fit into your sales process and sales playbook.
What is a Challenger Sale?
Challenger Sale is a sales methodology developed by Mathew Dixon and Brent Adamson at the CEB (now part of Gartner). The book titled “Challenger Sale – How to take control of the customer conversation” was first published in 2011.
Dixon and Adamson managed a research project polling more than 6,000 salespeople across 90 sales organizations. They kicked this project off when the Global Finance Crisis was causing enormous pain in B2B sales organizations in the first half of 2009. The GFC made the business of B2B sales extremely difficult, as this author remembers ruefully!
Additionally, the emerging influence of the procurement team in the B2B sales process was making a big impact. The buying process in large corporates was being decoupled from vendor relationships with more focus on governance processes and formal RFPs.
Their research project was designed with the purpose of identifying the behavioral attributes and skills common to high-performing salespeople.
The Five Selling Style Archetypes
The first part of their study was to categorize salespeople into five archetypes based on statistical research into the prominent behaviors that salespeople relied on to close deals. These were categorized as:
- The Hard worker
- The Relationship Builder
- The Challenger
- The Lone Wolf
- The Reactive Problem Solver
Each archetype neatly describes the predominant behavior. Of course, salespeople will usually exhibit a bit of all these behaviors – but it’s the predominant behavioral style that the statistical analysis uncovered that underpinned their findings.
High-performance analysis – The Challenger is way out in front
The analysis of individual sales performance delivered the key insight of the selling style that is most effective in driving high performance. The table below shows the results:
|% of all sellers
|% of high performers
|The Relationship Builder
|The Lone Wolf
|The Reactive Problem Solver
As you can see, the Challenger Sale came out clearly on top as the most dominant selling type amongst high performers – at the expense of the relationship builder.
High performers drive most of your new business sales
The study also made the important finding that B2B sales organizations selling complex solutions rely heavily on their high performers to drive new business sales. In other words, the top 20% of your sales team is driving a lot more than 80% of sales – disproportionately more so in complex B2B sales compared to transactional sales.
It is therefore crucial for B2B sales leaders to understand the principles of the Challenger Sale if they are to build sustainable success in their team.
Relationship Builders are way behind
It is also important to note the relatively low presence of the Relationship Builder in the high-performance cohort. In 2022, this might seem like a reasonably obvious finding. With remote selling, the information-rich environment, and the fast pace of business – it might seem obvious today that salespeople relying on their ‘charm’ and connections is a losing play.
But, back in 2011, this insight was regarded as counterintuitive. Until then, it was widely believed to be a given that the relationship builders were at the forefront of sales performance.
Note – this author believes the writing was on the wall before 2009 – but it was certainly a different environment. Note also that the authors are careful to point out that relationships are important – but they tend to be more a reward of successful solution selling – not a factor.
What do Challenger salespeople do?
At their core, Challenger Salespeople excel at Solution Selling; a sales methodology that emerged in the 1980s.
The research found that Challenger salespeople share six common behavioral attributes:
- They offer the customer unique perspectives
- They have strong two-way communication skills
- They understand the individual customer’s value drivers
- They can identify the economic drivers of the customer’s business
- They are comfortable discussing money
- They can pressure the customer when required
Furthermore, Adamson and Dixon grouped these attributes into three groups of sales abilities:
- Take control
These distinctive “Challenger Sale” abilities are crucial to high performance in complex B2B selling environments because they underpin what it takes to successfully execute on “solution selling 2.0” in the current environment.
Teach – there is so much information, complexity, and ambiguity
Tailor – salespeople need deep insight into the value and business drivers beyond the functional requirements; otherwise, the solution ROI won’t land the impact required to drive a consensus-based sale
Take Control – salespeople need to set and push the agenda – else they will suffer the inertia that a consensus-based approach can take
The Consensus-based sale means that every stakeholder needs to be on board with the preferred vendor selection for a deal to be signed and there isn’t a single decision-maker who can approve a deal on their own.
Challenger Sale abilities are crucial in the world of consensus-based sale.
Solution Selling 2.0 – what’s changed?
Consider that Solution Selling 1.0 is the process of going in deep with the customer to understand their functional requirements & issues so you can present a carefully designed solution.
Solution Selling 2.0 acknowledges that the current environment creates barriers that make Solution selling 1.0 a risky enterprise where deals never close or customers can’t commit to the process
– too much choice and options – solutions are inherently complex
– too much ambiguity and uncertainty regarding the success of a complex solution and its implementation inside the enterprise
– too many stakeholders are required to agree with the solution.
– too much time required to develop and approve a solution
So, the Challenger Salesperson brings a set of abilities that are perfect for solution selling in today’s environment
- Taking control
Challenger Sale methodology
The Challenger Sale details a methodology that can be used by all salespeople (chapter 3) and then details the key elements to learn and embed in a sales organization’s capability:
- Teaching for differentiation (chapter 4&5)
- Tailoring for resonance (chapter 6)
- Taking control (chapter 7)
Is Challenger Sale a Sales Process?
No. Challenger is a sales methodology. It provides a method on “how to sell” for any organization that is engaged in selling complex solutions.
Your sales process defines the “what to do” from start to finish in a deal cycle and is unique to the unique solutions that you sell to your unique target market.
Your Sales Playbook should define both your sales process and your sales methodology
ie. what needs to be done during a deal cycle and how we sell to our target customers
Example: Embedding Challenger Sale into your Sales Process
Let’s say your sales process has the following stages:
1. lead Generation >> 2. Discovery >> 3. Proposal >> 4. Negotiation >> 5. Close
Clearly, Challenger Sale principles can be used to inject a lot of the ‘know-how’ into how to execute the sales process, specifically:
Lead Generation – Teach
Discovery – Teach & Tailor
Proposal – Tailor
Negotiate – Take control
Using SalesGRID to build an awesome Sales Playbook
SalesGRID enables your team to design and execute the sales strategy with a clear and comprehensive playbook that details what to do and how to do it at every step of the customer’s buying process:
The Playbook enables you to:
1. Identify the unique Steps in each Stage of your sales process
2. Describe the purpose (the what) of each Step and the sales methodology for executing the step (the how)
3. Record the Key Actions that must be actioned (the what) in the Step
4. Capture all the Power Moves (the how) for executing the methodology on the Step
5. Present all the related Content that can be used on the Step as well as training / “how to” assets
Challenger Sale is especially strong on the power of exhibits and templates to be used in the sales process to help teach, tailor, and take control. SalesGRID is perfect if you are looking to embed the Challenger Sale in your sales organization.
Is the Challenger Sale still relevant?
Yes. The authors show that the research continued to demonstrate that the Challenger archetype was the standout in the high performer’s category well after the GFC had ended.
Furthermore, the environment that rewarded Challenger Sale abilities (teach, tailor, and take control) has intensified.
- The incredible growth of SaaS vendors has exploded the number of competitors, substitutes, and complexity. Also, the service and subscription model has impacted many industries
- The continued growth of available information and data to buyers on the internet and social media platforms
- The consensus-based sale is as prevalent as ever
Recent work by Brent Adamson – Sensemaking
Adamson has more recently advocated for the concept of Sensemaking – arguing that buyers are as confused as ever by the ocean of vendor information. So, salespeople need to ensure that the conclusions customers reach are their own. The goal is to Socratically guide buyers on a learning journey, not tell them what to do. Sensemaking salespeople often encourage customers to independently verify seller-provided information and give them an easy way to do so.
Sensemaking adds another layer or perspective to the “Teaching” element of the Challenger Sale.