The Challenger Sale

Matthew Dixon (@CEB_SEC) and Brent Adamson (@brentadamson) of the Corporate Executive Board kindly honored my request for a copy of The Challenger Sale (Amazon) book.

For anyone who may STOP reading this blog post because they think they are not in sales, I suggest they consider Tom Peters’ (@tom_peters) “Yes, You Are in Sales!”

Based on my experiences with SPIN Selling and general thinking that we are all in sales, I was very intrigued by The Challenger Sale book!

The Book

Neil Rackham, the author of SPIN Selling, immediately engages the reader in The Challenger Sale‘s Forward:

We live in an era when product innovation alone cannot be the basis for corporate success. How you sell has become more important than what you sell. An effective sales force is a more sustainable competitive advantage than a great product stream.

The foundational question behind the book is “How can we sell our way through the worst economy in decades?”

Solution Selling

Chapter 1, “The Evolving Journey of Solution Selling,” introduces “solution selling,” “solutions approach,” or simply “solutions” and explores the transition from transactional sales (individual products) to broad-based consultative sales (“bundles” of products & services) (as a response to commoditization pressures and differentiation).

Transactional sales have the following characteristics:

  • Nature of Relationship: “Supplier reacts to purchase orders”
  • Selling Skills: “Strong knowledge of product portfolio”
  • Customer Expectations: “Quality product/service at good price”

Notice that transactional sales emphasize being reactive, product knowledge, and quality & price.

Consultative sales have the following characteristics:

  • Nature of Relationship: “Supplier viewed as a trusted adviser”
  • Selling Skills: “Boardroom-level engagement with customer”
  • Customer Expectations: “Provision of strategic insight regarding the customer’s business”

Notice that consultative sales emphasize being a trusted adviser, engagement, and insight.

The chapter then explores the burden that solutions place on customers as well as sales representatives and emphasizes that “as sales become more complex, the gap between core and star performers widens dramatically.”

The Challenger

Chapter 2, “The Challenger (Part 1),” focuses on a new model for high performance.

The model is based on an analysis of “over 6000 reps [or representatives] all over the world … representing every major industry, geography, and go-to-market model.” The model focuses on sales representatives’ “demonstrated behaviors” versus “personality types or personal strengths.”

Five Profiles

The study found that there are “five [statistically derived] distinct rep [or representative] profiles” which “are not necessarily mutually exclusive”:

  • The Hard Worker is described as “Always willing to go the extra mile,” “Doesn’t give up easily,” “Self-motivated,” and “Interested in feedback and development”.
  • The Relationship Builder is described as “Building strong advocates in customer organization,” “Generous in giving time to help others,” and “Gets along with everyone.”
  • The Lone Wolf is described as “Follows own instincts,” “Self-assured,” and “Difficult to control.”
  • The Reactive Problem Solver is described as “Reliably responds to internal and external stakeholders,” “Ensures that all problems are solved,” and “Detail-oriented.”
  • The Challenger is described as “Always has a different view of the world,” “Understands the customer’s business,” “Loves to debate,” and “Pushes the customer.”

Furthermore, “every rep has at least a baseline level of performance across all the attributes” that define these profiles, but “for almost every rep, a specific subset of these attributes defines their primary approach to customers.”


The study also found that there is “one clear winner and one clear loser” when comparing profiles based on “actual sales performance”. Comparing “the five rep profiles with actual sales performance,” “no profile dominates among average [core] sales reps,” but the “distribution of star performers” is dominated by the Challenger, followed by the Lone Wolf, followed by the Hard Worker, followed by the Reactive Problem Solver, and lastly followed by the Relationship Builder.

The following “statistically significant” attributes define the Challenger profile: “Offers the customer unique perspectives,” “Has strong two-way communication skills,” “Knows the individual customer’s value drivers,” “Can identify economic drivers of the customer’s business,” “Is comfortable discussing money,” and “Can pressure the customer.”

When these attributes are further categorized, a clearer picture emerges: “A Challenger is really defined by the ability to do three things: teach, tailor, and take control.”

With their unique perspective on the customer’s business and their ability to engage in robust two-way dialogue, Challengers are able to teach for differentiation during the sales interaction.

Because Challengers posses a superior sense of a customer’s economic and value drivers, they are able to tailor for resonance, delivering the right message to the right person within the customer organization.

Finally, Challengers are comfortable discussing money and can, when needed, press the customer a bit. In this way, the Challenger takes control of the sale.

Also, the results do not suggest that “customer relationships aren’t important for sales,” but “as critical as strong customer relationships may be, familiarity alone isn’t enough to win the business.”

Consider the Challenger and Relationship Builder:

Challenger reps succeed for all of the reasons we just discussed — they excel at teaching, tailor, and taking control. Meanwhile, as the Challenger is focused on pushing the customer out of their comfort zone, the Relationship Builder is focused on being accepted into it. They focus on building strong personal relationships across the costumer organization, being likable and generous with their time. The relationship Builder adopts a service mentality. While the Challenger is focused on customer value, the Relationship Builder is more concerned with customer convenience.

The Challenger rep wins by maintaining a certain amount of constructive tension across the sale. The Relationship Builder, on the other hand, strives to resolve or defuse tension, not create it. It’s the exact opposite approach. Granted, the conversation with the Relationship Builder is in most cases a very professional one, but it doesn’t really help the customer make progress against their goals. They’re likable, but they’re not very effective. The Challenger, by contrast, knows that there is value for both you and your customers in maintaining that tension a little bit longer in a manner that pushes the customer to think differently about their own business — about the ways in which you might be able to help them (to save money or make money) and, ultimately about the value you provide as a supplier.

Disruptive Sale

The study also found that “Challengers are the solution selling rep, not just the down economy rep” where “in complex sales, Challengers absolutely dominate” and “the only group that can even come close are the Lone Wolves;” that is, “the world of solution selling is almost definitionally about a disruptive sale.”

Challenge Customers

The authors summarize the research: “If you’re on the journey to more of a value-based or solutions-oriented sales approach, then your ability to challenge customers is absolutely vital for your success going forward.”

The Challenger Selling Model

Chapter 3, “The Challenger (Part 2),” focuses on exploring the core model.

A Challenger is defined by the ability to do three things — teach, tailor, and take control — and to do all of this through the use of constructive tension.

These are the pillars of what we call the Challenger Selling Model — an approach to sales that is based on what Challengers do.

If you teach without tailoring, you come off as irrelevant. If you tailor but don’t teach, you risk sounding like every other supplier. If you take control but offer no value, you risk being simply annoying.

The following principles underlie the model: “Challengers are made, not just born,” “It’s the combination of skills that matters,” “Challenging is about organizational capability, not just rep skills,” and “Building the challenger sales force is a journey, not an overnight trip.”

Notice that the Challenger model is not merely about a sales representative’s ability to teach & tailor & take control while leveraging constructive tension, but also about the capabilities of the sales representative’s organization to equip representatives with the content of teaching messages/pitches and tailoring options.

The Challenger model defines “what ‘good’ looks like when it comes to rep performance” or the “new high performer”.

Teach for Differentiation

First, challengers teach for differentiation:

Challenger reps deliver insight that reframes the way customers think about their business and their needs.

Teaching is all about offering customers unique perspectives on their business and communicating those perspectives with passion and precision in a way that draws the customer into the conversation.

Delivering insight that reframes other people’s perspectives and thinking is central to the Challenger model — Differentiate Content!

Tailor for Resonance

Next, challengers tailor for resonance:

Challenger reps communicate sales messages in the context of the customer.

The ability to tailor the teaching message to different types of customers — as well as to different individuals within the customer organization — is what makes the teaching pitch resonate and stick with the customer.

Communicating insight with an awareness of other people’s context is likewise crucial to the Challenger model — Contextualize and Make Relevant!

Take Control of the Sale

Next, challengers take control of the sale:

Challenger reps openly pursue goals in a direct but nonaggressive way to overcome increased customer risk aversion.

Their ability to assert and maintain control over the sale … is all about the reps’ willingness and ability to stand their ground when the customer pushes back.

Challengers are able to assert control over the discussion of pricing and money more generally.

Challengers are also able to challenge customer’s thinking and pressure the customer’s decision-making cycle — both to reach a decision more quickly as well as to overcome that “indecision inertia” that can cause deals to stall indefinitely.”

Openly pursuing goals and overcoming other people’s risk aversion (risk avoidance and preference for certainty over uncertainty) in a non-aggressive manner is likewise crucial to the Challenger model — Advance!

Constructive Tension

Lastly, challengers use constructive tension:

Challenger reps seek to leverage constructive tension to their advantage across all dimensions of the sale.

And, leveraging tension constructively as a means to an end is likewise crucial to the Challenger model — Close!

The Rest of the Book

Chapters 4 (“Teaching for Differentiation (Part 1)”), 5 (“Teaching for Differentiation (Part 2)”), 6 (“Tailoring for Resonance”), and 7 (“Taking Control of the Sale”) delve deeper into teaching, tailoring, and taking control.

Chapter 8, “The Manager and the Challenger Selling Model,” explores how Sales Managers coach Challengers.

Chapter 9, “Implementation Lessons from the Early Adopter,” explores lessons from those already adopting the Challenger Selling Model.

And the Afterward, “Challenging Beyond Sales,” briefly explores applying the Challenger approach/model outside of sales. The authors emphasize: “the challenger model is one that, we believe, is a business concept, not just a sales concept.”

Leveraging the Challenger model as a “business concept” and not merely a “sales concept” offers the opportunity for innovation in approaches to Strategy, Leadership, Culture, Teams, Coaching, etc.

In Conclusion

Matthew Dixon’s (@CEB_SEC) and Brent Adamson’s (@brentadamsonThe Challenger Sale (Amazon) book is a must read in today’s marketplace that is fueled by ideas and passion!


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