How To Adopt the Challenger Sales Model: 10-Minute Book Summary

Industry-wide marketing blitzkriegs have flooded the internet with information. And with good reason – as B2B solutions become more complex, there’s a pressing need for customer education.

Buyers today spend 27% of their time lapping up information online and only 17% of it actually meeting sellers, research by Gartner revealed. In fact, before they can even give you facetime, they have already completed 57% of the purchase decisions.

Evidently, they don’t need to be educated anymore. Solutions-based selling is a dime a dozen. It’s day-old bread.  

What they need is to be convinced of why your product stands out.

Identifying the pulse of this trend, Mather Dixon and Brent Adamson, a pair of sales Bravehearts, proposed something revolutionary in their 2011 book The Challenger Sale

They argued that the widely acknowledged solutions-based sales strategy of building relationships with customers wasn’t as effective as salespersons were letting on. 

Instead, they made a case for sales reps taking charge and teaching their prospects.

In this blog, we shed light on this challenger sales model and how you can train your team to adopt it.

Table of contents

Part Ⅰ: Why challenger sales?

Because solution selling is not the solution anymore

In a decade defined by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first space shuttle take-off and the birth of punk rock, something equally disruptive was brewing in the microverse of sales – Xerox had popularised the Solutions Sales method in the 1980s, and soon, the most pedigreed professionals in the space were clamouring for a copy of its manifesto.

Solutions sales was a new slow-burn methodology banking on the patience of its practitioners. Salespeople were trained to handhold customers from start to finish – they would help them put a finger on the problem and spend long hours trying to understand the prospect and developing a tailored solution. 

But we no longer live in the good old ’80s when life was slower and the digital capabilities available today were nothing but a pipe dream. 

In the present context, sales cycles emerging from this methodology are long and tedious and riddled with redundancies. Solutions salespeople spend much more time preparing for sales than actually meeting with prospects and on other value-adding activities.

For better or for worse, new trends have emerged in B2B buying. And they call into question the relevance of the solutions sales model today.

Because there are new B2B buying trends

  • Complex tools

B2B software and tools are becoming more complicated to address the growing complexity in business operations. Reps must rethink their sales strategies as product demonstration has become more crucial than ever.

  • Too many cooks

There’s a decided shift to cross-functionality and agility in the way companies organize themselves. This means there are more and diverse sets of professionals to convince. Making them come to a favourable consensus has become all the more laborious. 

  • Belief in playing it safe

As companies target growth, try to rein in budgets, and focus on increasing ROIs, the aversion to risk has become more pronounced. There’s little room for error in making purchase decisions as to the number of stakeholders involved also balloons.

  • Name of the game – customization

One-size-fits-all is an archaic approach to building products and solutions. Customers today are after configurable and customizable products built to suit their use cases. Selling to such buyers is no easy feat.

Salespeople of the “challenger” persuasion take the argumentative approach in conversations with prospects. They engage in repartees and rebuttals to poke holes in the buyer’s understanding of the problem at hand – all to teach them something.

“Sales organizations can increase business by challenging customers — delivering customer interactions specifically designed to disrupt their current thinking and teach them something new. It’s not just about selling something anymore.” – Brent Adamson

And although it may seem counterintuitive, the technique definitely yields results. A Gartner study found – 

  • 40% of the top sales performers were challengers 
  • Top performers in general were 2x more likely to use the challenger approach
  • In complex sales, more than 50% used the challenger sales model  

Part Ⅱ: What is challenger sales?

What is the challenger sales model?

The challenger sales model is a response to the problem of changing trends in B2B purchasing. It’s a shift away from the relationship-building models widely practised by salespeople the world over. The concept comes from Dixon and Adamson’s study that divided reps’ sales styles into five categories – relationship builders, reactive problem solvers, hard workers, lone wolves and challengers.

A depiction of the 5 types of sales reps according to research released in the Challenger Sales book.

Part Ⅲ: Training your sales team to adopt the challenger sales model

There are two aspects to training your sales team in the challenger sales model. First, salespeople have to figure out what makes challenger sales reps different. Second, they have to learn to apply it in their work – like learning how to pitch their solution the ‘challenger’ way. We explain that below. 

A) What does Challenger Sales reps do differently?

Now that you know there’s a need to shift to the challenger sales model, how do you reorient your entire sales workforce to sell differently? It’s not easy, mind you. But it’s also not impossible. 

Challenger sales reps can be distinguished from other sales personas in that they don’t acquiesce to the prospects, but take control of the sale. They persuade their prospects to view the problem with a new perspective. These sales reps are also master storytellers adept at tailoring the message for the various stakeholders. 

The image reveals the three main strategies that are employed by the challenger sales reps.

Breaking down the Challenger Sales strategy:

  • Teaching for differentiation, 
  • Tailored messaging,
  • Taking control of the sale.

In this segment, we expand on the three strategies that sets challengers apart and makes them ridiculously successful. 

Teaching for differentiation

Instead of waxing eloquent about what sets their product apart, challenger sales reps get their prospects to look at their own problem with a fresh set of eyes. Such a revelation usually shocks the buyer and disrupts their status quo. 

Following this, the sales rep weighs the costs of inaction, creates momentum for the buyer to take action and then pitches their solution to inspire confidence. 

  1. First, internally answer the “Deb Oler” question (named after Debra Oler, vice president at WW Grainger) – 

“Why should our customers buy from us over anyone else?” 

  1. Match the insights your sales reps are teaching customers with the capabilities you can offer. Reps who suggest solutions that the company can’t actually provide often fail.
  1. Reframe the issues the customer is facing instead of simply resonating with them. The entire sales conversation can pivot after the reframe, making it a crucial part of the process. Let’s look at an example –

A metal hanger company can pitch their solution like this:

Sales rep: “Storage is a tricky slope to climb when designing your dream house. Did you know, plastic hangers take up X% more space in your closet than metal ones?”

Instead of eliciting an “I agree!”, try to get your customer to say, “I’ve never thought about it like that.”

  1. Steer the conversation to show customers overlooked opportunities to save costs or make money.

For example, “You could simply white-label your product offering instead of building it afresh for each customer. Save on manpower and charge a lump sum upfront.”

  1. Rethink customer segmentation based on needs and behaviour rather than geography or industry. Assume you’re selling an easy-to-use expense tracking app. Instead of targeting, say, urban provisions stores, think students, young professionals, street vendors, carpool services.
  1. Sales reps are hard-pressed for time and need considerable research support from the organisation’s resources. Insights from marketing teams such as sales enablement material can help form diagnostic questions and define the course of the sales conversation (take control).

Tailored messaging

For all its focus on teaching, challenger sales still lean heavily on messaging. And this is difficult today because, thanks to the rise of consensus buying, there’s a growing number of stakeholders within the organization. 

The dilemma reps now face is, do we focus on pleasing the decision-makers or the influencers?

  1. Decision makers, or those in charge of procurement, value ease of doing business along with pricing considerations, customization, and reps’ knowledge. But here’s what concerns them the most – 

“Are all stakeholders within my organization in support of this seller?” Consensus selling is not a roadblock, it’s desired.

  1. Influencers, who don’t sign off on purchases but have incredible sway in the organization, are more concerned with reps’ professionalism and trustworthiness. Here’s what they’re thinking – 

“Is this sales rep adding any value to the sales process?” 

“Does s/he have unique perspectives on the industry or the problem?”

“Can she teach me something new about our issues or offer a new perspective on outcomes? “

  1. Challenger sales people must also view the buying group as a whole. They can navigate the sales process by trying to answer questions like –

“What are the shared goals of this organization?”

“How can I align the entire organization to be on the same page?”

“What’s something new that each stakeholder can learn from this conversation?”

  1. Sales reps of this persona must be trained to identify mobilizers, and not advocates, in the target organisation. They need to learn to ask these questions – 

“Is this person in the position to drive change?”

“Can they connect all stakeholders with one another?”

“Are they in a position to bag organization-wide commitment?”

“Can I access the overall buying group through them and address points of disagreement?”

An image that shows how salespeople can identify the various stakeholders involved in the buying process

Take control of the sale

Diverting the course of the conversation is the most distinguishing trait of a challenger from other sales personas. The way challengers take charge of the selling process can only come from a place of unshakable confidence. 

And what inspires this confidence? Point no. 1 on this list – the knowledge that they have taught them something new. 

This aspect of the challenger sales model is also the hardest to coach. Humans are innately predisposed to closure and decreasing tensions. But ambiguity and tension come with the territory – that’s where challengers thrive. 

Here’s how sales leaders can groom their underlings to take control confidently –

  1. Teach the difference between negotiations and taking control. Negotiations take place at the fag-end of the sale cycle. In contrast, exerting control over the conversation early on is more effective. Here’s how your reps should think –

Is the buyer keeping their cards close to their chest by assigning me a junior? In that case, I must also withhold offering solutions till facetime is granted with a decision-maker.

  1. Lead and simplify. The execution of complex sales is rarely understood by the buyer, so you can take the lead in explaining things and identifying the problems that should trouble your prospects. Train reps to ask –

“How well does the buyer understand the problem?”

“Where does our solution fit in?”

  1. Take control of not just money, but also ideas. Any executive worth their salt will cross-question sales reps and create room for disagreements. Your reps should know this isn’t an uncomfortable place to be in, but an amazing opportunity. They should learn to respond to pushback with –

“While I understand your organization is different, other buyers we have worked with also have their distinctive characteristics and have benefited greatly from our solution.”

“If you agree, we can explore the problem in more detail and return to the solution I was suggesting.”

“Here’s how successful our solution was when used by an organization working in the same industry as you.”

  1. Differentiate assertive from aggressive. Encourage your reps to stick to their guns, without giving in to outright belligerence. Trust that holding your ground doesn’t mean aggression, as is commonly perceived. Some thoughts reps can keep coming back to –

The company I’m representing possesses great technical expertise. It’s resources should be respected and valued. I need not overestimate each disapproval from the seller.

My consultation is valuable and if I’m not given the right audience, I should push for it. If I’m still not given facetime with the appropriate persons, it’s just not worth it.

B) Pitching your solution: Step-by-step guide on doing it the ‘challenger’ way

An infographic explaining how to use the Challenger Sales model to transform a sales pitch, conveyed through a 5-step process.

The challenger sales model relies on exposing unseen fissures and challenging the status quo. But what’s more important is how a sales team handles the second leg of the approach – pitching their solution. This process plays out like a delicate dance that requires equal parts technique and intuition. 

Assume you work for a buy-now, pay-later company selling to online platforms. Here’s a look at what the sales process could look like step by step –

  • The warmer

Your reps’ first step going in should be to assure the prospect they’re not alone in the problem they’re facing. Establishing credibility is also crucial at this juncture. Reps should do their due diligence and not waste time asking to be taught about the customer’s business. A few helpful tips for coaching your reps –

Sales rep: “In our experience, companies’ growth plateaus at the stage where you are right now. We see this kind of thing all the time.”

Instead of seeking to be educated, draw hypotheses from your own research about what the problem could be. Customers would appreciate it if they’re getting more than they’re giving.

  • The reframe

This lies at the heart of any typical challenger conversation. Reps should come up with a fresh perspective that joins the customer’s challenges with an opportunity or a problem they didn’t realize was present. 

Company CFO:  “As an e-commerce platform, we’ve pulled all the stops – marketing, sales, ads – to rev up our operations.”

Sales rep: “Sure. These core functions are crucial to your growth. But have you considered not being just an e-commerce, but a fintech instead?”

The reframe should just tease the idea. Solutions and insights are offered later.

Reps mustn’t look for nods of agreement at this point. After you’ve pitched your reframe, the customer should say, “Huh, I never thought about that.”

  • Rational drowning

Here, your reps’ objective should be to make the prospect uncomfortable with data-driven insights into why the reframe is required. They should come up with business cases for why the reframe is worth the customers’ time and energy.

Sales rep: “Competition in e-commerce is fierce. There are about 20,000 e-commerce companies in India. The big fish in the space are unsurmountable at this point. Everyone is ramping up their customer experience in unimaginable ways. Financial solutions, in particular, have emerged as the fulcrum of change. With increased credit adoption and digital payments, not tapping into this will be a huge opportunity wasted.”

Reps must be trained to bank on fear, uncertainty and doubt – the FUD factor. 

After looking at your charts and graphs the customer should say, “I can’t believe we were wasting that kind of money!” or, “I didn’t know there was such an opportunity. We’ve got to go after this.”

  • Emotional impact

As equally important as establishing a business case (rational drowning) is shaping the narrative. Facts and logic will be of little help here. Customers may see merit in your solution, but how do you convince them that the solution can very well apply to them? By making an emotional connection.

Sales rep: “We’ve seen companies in your position search for that something more to boost their growth. Operating by the book just doesn’t cut it anymore. They tell us that they want to expand to new things – but not burn a hole their pockets.”

Make it feel like the problem is something that happened to them yesterday. The response you’re looking for is, “It’s like you’ve known us forever” or, “Yes, that happens all the time!” 

  • A new way

This is where you pitch the solution. It’s a detailed step-by-step review of the complex solution required to solve the problem the buyer is grappling with. At this stage you’re pitching a solution, not your solution. The idea is to get the customer to see why it’s the most effective solution. It could help save money, minimize risk or make money.

Sales rep: “Get out of your comfort zone. Offer something everyone is after – the gift of buying, irrespective of their purchasing power. Let them fulfill their needs in time and make it easy for them to pay in manageable sums at their convenience.”

  • Your solution

This is perhaps the easiest stage to coach. All sales reps are already trained to point out why their company’s solution shines. The tricky part is to bring the buyer to this stage. 

Sales rep: “With a simple integration, you can let us take care of the financing while giving your customers the freedom to buy whatever, whenever. This will improve a range of metrics like customer acquisition, conversion rates and average order values.”

Pitching your solution shouldn’t be like a review of the product’s features. It should seem like the only natural next step arising from your teaching. No matter how good your product is, the customer isn’t interested. Your job is to focus on adding value to their business, not tooting your own horn.

Conclusion

B2B buying is evolving today, rendering old sales methodologies irrelevant. There’s also plenty of quality information available online for these buyers. So, sales teams should also reinvent their selling approach. 

The challenger sales model has proved most effective as sales cycles become more complex and the numbers of stakeholders involved swells. Reps expose the blindspots in the buyer’s own view of their problems, and then offer solutions.

Through this instructive journey, the buyer learns something new instead of having lengthy conversations spanning months that are characteristic of B2B buying. With value addition and narrative building, challenger reps can successfully clinch the deal.

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