CEB Research Knows You’re Not a Successful Sales Rep

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Challenger Sale" by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Why are some sales reps successful, and some aren’t? Business advisory firm CEB Research might have the answer.

CEB Research dug into the reasons why some salespeople had consistently high quality performances. CEB Research found that out of many factors, a major one was the type of seller and sales strategy. CEB research called these salespeople “Challengers” and set out to explain the Challenger Sale Model, and how all reps could learn to be challengers, too.

CEB Research and the Challenger Seller

In The Challenger Sale, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson of the business advisory firm CEB Resarch upend the conventional wisdom that building relationships with customers is the key to sales success. Instead, they contend, the best salespeople take control of the sale by challenging customers’ thinking with new insights and pushing back instead of giving in to customer demands. While there are five distinct types of sales reps, it’s these so-called Challengers who consistently excel in selling the complex business-to-business solutions required in today’s business world. Based on a massive study of thousands of sales reps worldwide, the authors uncover the skills and behaviors that drive Challengers’ performance and explain how to replicate them in any sales force.

The Evolution of Sales

Over the last several decades, more suppliers have begun selling complex “solutions,” or bundles of products and services, rather than just simple products.

Suppliers came up with solution selling as a way of differentiating themselves from the competition. Small differences in a company’s product versus a competitor’s product had become harder to sell—customers viewed products from different companies as essentially the same and so chose the ones with the lowest price. However, well-designed bundled offerings are customized and therefore difficult for competitors to duplicate. Bundling also saves suppliers money and allows them to justify premium pricing. Because of these benefits, solution selling has become the dominant sales strategy in virtually every industry.

But this more complex sales model has been difficult for many reps to execute. One reason is that reps need to develop a deep understanding of the customer’s business, which takes more time. Adding to the time, reps need to build consensus across the customer organization: decision-makers won’t agree to a costly, complicated deal without it. Customers are also more risk averse and more likely to demand customization and use third-party consultants to vet deals and try to get better terms. CEB Research set out to find why some reps succeed in this model.

CEB Research Says One Type of Sales Rep Excels

CEB’s Research found there are five types of sales reps: 

  • Challenger: Challenges the customer and takes control of the sales conversation
  • Hard Worker: Goes the extra mile
  • Relationship Builder: Focuses on building strong customer relationships
  • Lone Wolf: Does things his way
  • Reactive problem-solver: Always at the customer’s beck and call

Each type can be a high performer, but only one type—the Challenger—consistently excels in the complex solution selling environment. 

In contrast, the type of rep most prized by sales executives—the Relationship Builder—is the least likely to succeed because this type fears that rocking the boat will damage the customer relationship. 

The research found that in complex, “solution” sales, the performance gap between standout and average sales reps is much wider than in traditional sales—in complex or solution selling, star reps outperform average reps by almost 200% compared to 59% in traditional sales. Without help in navigating a world of more demanding, risk-averse customers, average reps are destined to keep falling behind until they can’t execute solution selling at all.

However, CEB researchers identified the unique skills and behaviors developed and practiced by Challenger reps, and they created a template all sales organizations and reps can follow.

Why Challenger Skills Matter

Challenger skills drive sales success because they dovetail with what research has shown customers want most.

CEB research shows that the most important thing to customers is the sales experience—not the product, service, or price. Customers want to learn something in the sales interaction more than they want to buy something. They want insight into how to cut costs, make more money, and reduce risk. 

Therefore, customers value reps most who:

  • Offer unique and valuable perspectives on the market
  • Help them navigate alternatives
  • Provide advice
  • Help them avoid potential problems
  • Educate them on new issues and outcomes

Customers are saying to reps, “Tell me something new about my business”—which essentially defines the Challenger’s sales approach.

Characteristics of a Challenger

Nearly 40% of all high performers in the study were Challengers. Of 44 attributes analyzed, six defined a rep as a Challenger:

  • Offers the customer unique perspectives
  • Has strong communication skills
  • Knows the customer’s value drivers
  • Knows the economic drivers of the customer’s business
  • Is comfortable discussing money
  • Can push the customer

These attributes reflect three key abilities that define Challengers:

1) Teaching: With their unique perspective on the customer’s business and communication ability, Challengers can teach for differentiation (differentiate themselves from the competition) during the sales conversation.

2) Tailoring: Because they know the customer’s economic and value drivers, they’re able to tailor for resonance, delivering the right message to the right person. 

3) Taking control: They can take control of the sale because they’re comfortable discussing money and pushing the customer.

These are the fundamental activities of the Challenger Selling Model. 

CEB research answered important questions about sales, and offered a solution for bad sales numbers. Think about the findings of CEB Research, and if you, too, can be a Challenger Seller.

CEB Research Knows You’re Not a Successful Sales Rep

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson's "The Challenger Sale" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Challenger Sale summary:

  • Why the best salespeople take control of the sale and challenge the customer's thinking
  • How to package your company with a key insight to spark an "a-ha" moment
  • How to get the organizational support you need to maintain your sales edge

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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