Challenger Selling: What It Is, And Why It Works

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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What is Challenger Selling? How can you implement it into part of your sales strategy?

The Challenger Sales method focuses on four key skills. Challenger Selling stands out because of its focus on pushing back against customers to get the sales reps desired results.

With the Challenger Selling model, reps are encouraged to create informative and specific sales pitches that help customers find solutions for their problems.

Challenger Selling: Implementing the Model

The Challenger Selling Model grew out of the CEB’s research. It’s focused on training reps in the Challenger skills of teaching, tailoring, and taking control. The rest of the book focuses on best practices, tools, and lessons learned by early adopters (companies that tested the Challenger Sale methodology) in implementing the model.

The Challenger Selling methodology rests on several basic principles:

Principle 1: Challenger skills can be learned.

Rather than committing the time and expense to replace an entire sales force with “natural” Challengers, companies are better off training current reps in new skills and behaviors. Every rep in the study employed Challenger behaviors to a degree; reps can learn to fully implement them. The experience of the test companies proved that Challengers can be created. If you’re a sales rep, you can close the gap between your current skill level and the Challenger model.

Principle 2: The skills must be applied in combination.

While companies may be tempted to skip components of the model, the Challenger skills—teaching, tailoring, and taking control of the conversation—are most effective when used in combination. Implementing the full model is the only way to realize the tremendous performance gains it offers.

Reps who teach without tailoring their message to the recipient will sound irrelevant. Those who tailor without teaching will sound no different from their competitors. Those who take control without teaching something of value will irritate the customer.

Principle 3: The Challenger model requires organizational support.

Companies can’t sustain a Challenger sales force without organizational support from the sales, marketing, research, finance, and human resources departments. These departments must assemble, analyze, frame, and package business intelligence, data, and marketing research into effective teaching pitches (new business insights) that reps can present to customers. The pitches must be compelling, replicable, and adjustable so they resonate with each customer stakeholder.

While taking control of the sales conversation is an individual skill, reps need the right information and tools from their organization to take control effectively.

Principle 4: Building a Challenger sales force takes time.

The training and transition to the Challenger Sale Methodology take time to do effectively. Pushing the program through quickly might boost rep productivity somewhat, but the gain will be much smaller than what could have been achieved by implementing the program properly. Also, without due diligence, reps are likely to treat the initiative as just the flavor of the month and soon forget it.

Full adoption may take years, rather than weeks or months. It’s not simply a ”bolt-on” software update—it’s a new operating system for the whole company. However, when a company makes the full investment, the Challenger Selling Model offers a way out of the solution selling quagmire.

This section explores what the Challenger Sales Method looks like in practice, based on the experiences of companies that applied it. Remember, the three pillars of the model are: teaching for differentiation, tailoring for resonance, and taking control of the sales conversation. (A full chapter is devoted to each principle later in the book).

Challenger Selling Skills

You can see more information on the challenger selling skills below, and how the Challenger Sales Model.

Teaching for Differentiation

Challengers distinguish themselves from competitors by their ability to teach customers something new about their business. Research on customer loyalty (discussed in Chapter 4) shows that teaching new insights creates loyal customers.

Here’s how a rep selling office furniture applied this kind of teaching in a conversation with a company that was moving into a new office building. The company had already contracted with a competitor for office design and furniture, so the conversation would seem to be a lost cause; however, the rep did three things:

1) She started from an insight and taught the customer about a problem he didn’t know he had. The rep had learned that one of the company’s priorities in moving was to provide collaborative spaces for employees to work on group projects. She knew from her research that collaboration works best in small groups of three or four people. However, she noticed that the collaborative workspaces in the architect’s plan were designed for large groups. She shared her insight and the problem with the customer.

2) She developed interest: The customer was intrigued by the research findings and drawn into a discussion about possible solutions, complicated by the fact that the project was already well underway.

3) She changed the direction of the account: The rep suggested the large rooms could be reconfigured with moveable dividers. Then she introduced dividers and other relevant products from her company that could help the customer facilitate collaboration among employees.

The rep’s teaching pitch was linked directly to her company’s products, yet it was based on a unique insight her competitor had not offered the customer.

Tailoring for Resonance

The second pillar of Challenger Selling is the ability to tailor the teaching message to different types of customers and to different people within an organization. Tailoring makes the teaching pitch grab and stick with the customer.

(Shortform note: Different people within a company who need to be on board for a sales deal to be approved are referred to in the book as stakeholders. They could be in finance, marketing, operations, or any other company department.)

To tailor a message to a particular stakeholder, the rep needs to understand:

  • The stakeholder’s specific business priorities
  • The outcomes the person cares most about
  • The results they have to deliver (how their performance is measured)
  • The economic drivers affecting those outcomes 

Here’s an example of how message tailoring can work: While preparing to present an outsourcing solution to a company, a rep learned two things about the CEO: he was a tech junkie and he was concerned about the company’s poor customer service. So the rep focused her presentation on how her proposed solution would improve complaint response time and customer satisfaction by using new technology her company had recently developed.

Taking Control of the Sale

The final pillar of the Challenger Sale methodology is taking control of the sale. Being assertive, or taking control, doesn’t mean being aggressive or irritating; it means standing firm when the customer pushes back.

Challenger reps assert themselves in two ways:

  • They control the discussion of pricing and money in general. The rep doesn’t give in to the request for a 10% discount, but instead refocuses the conversation on the value of the supplier’s offering, rather than price.
  • They challenge the customer’s thinking and pressure the customer to reach a decision more quickly in order to counter the inertia that can stall decisions indefinitely. To handle reluctance (risk aversion), the Challenger moves customers out of their comfort zone by presenting things from a different perspective.

Just as you can’t be an effective teacher without pushing your students, you can’t teach customers without pushing them to think and act differently. Reps (and teachers) take the lead with a specific end in mind. 

Here’s an example of taking control of a discussion about price: 

A sales rep needed to inform a longtime customer of a price increase. None of the customer’s other suppliers were increasing their prices, but the rep’s company needed to cover the increasing costs of its raw materials.

Meanwhile, the customer had a special deal with the rep’s company to receive its items in non-standard packaging. Over time, the cost of this packaging had significantly reduced the supplier’s profitability on the sale.

While discussing the price increase, the rep asked the customer to rank various elements of the supplier’s offering in importance. The custom packaging didn’t rank in the top three, so the rep agreed to cut the price increase and switch to standard packaging. The packaging change actually raised the supplier’s profit more than the price increase did.

By getting the customer to rank the features it received from the supplier, the rep helped him see the supplier’s offerings in a different light. 

The Challenger Sales Method comes naturally to some people, but in general, it takes time to build and train a Challenger Selling force.

Challenger Selling: What It Is, And Why It Works

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  • 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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