How to Be a Good Sales Rep Using Challenger Selling

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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Do you want to know how to be a good sales rep? What makes someone a good sales rep, anyway?

The Challenger Sale model helps explain how to be a good sales rep. This model is driven by results. Challenger Sellers are high performing, and this method can teach you how to be a good sales rep.

How to Be a Good Sales Rep

Each type has strengths, but when you compare sales performance, the Challenger outdistances the rest and the Relationship Builder falls way behind. This goes against conventional wisdom—most sales leaders depend most heavily on the Relationship Builder, the profile least likely to be a top performer.

Core performers don’t share a dominant profile—they’re distributed fairly evenly across all five profiles. Thus, there are five ways to be average, or you could say that mediocrity has five flavors. However, it’s different with standout performers. There’s one dominant way to be a star—be a Challenger. Nearly 40% of all high performers in the study were Challengers. So how do you learn how to be a good sales rep? By becoming a Challenger seller.

Of the 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

The attributes reflect three key abilities that define Challengers:

  1. Teach: With their unique perspective on the customer’s business and their communication ability, Challengers can teach for differentiation (differentiate themselves from the competition) during the sales conversation.
  2. Tailor: Because they know the customer’s economic and value drivers, they are able to tailor for resonance, delivering the right message to the right person. (Value drivers are things that add profitability, reduce risk, or promote growth.)
  3. Take control: They can take control of the sale because they’re comfortable discussing money and pushing the customer.

These are the fundamentals of the Challenger Selling Model. The rest of the book provides a road map for building these capabilities in a sales force.

Commercial Teaching

Teaching doesn’t mean free consulting. Reps must ensure their teaching leads to more business for their company, not for a competitor. To do so, they must engage in Commercial Teaching, defined as teaching customers something new about their business that leads to business for the supplier.

There are four Commercial Teaching requirements:

  1. Link to your company’s unique strengths.
  2. Challenge the customer’s assumptions.
  3. Prompt the customer to act.
  4. Segment customers based on needs. 

Once you have these rules down, you’ll be on your way to knowing how to be a great sales rep.

Rule 1: Link to Your Company’s Unique Strengths

Commercial Teaching must connect insights to the areas in which your company outperforms the competition. 

You want the conversation to go like this: you share an important insight that requires action; the customer asks, “How can I make that happen?”; you respond, “Here’s how we can help you do that better than anyone else.” Teach the customer not only to want help, but to want your help.

Doing this well requires two things:

1) You must actually be able to help. You’ll frustrate customers, or drive them to the competition, if you teach them about a problem without offering a solution.

2) You need to know what your company’s unique strengths are. While this sounds straightforward, many companies struggle to pinpoint what they do well, let alone what they do best.

In a recent survey of B2B customers, CEB found that only 35% could verify they were truly preferred over the competition. And of the preferred companies’ purported unique benefits, customers saw only half of them as relevant to their needs. In other words, only 14% of a company’s unique benefits were seen as such by the customer.

Agreeing on your company’s unique strengths is often the hardest part of implementing Commercial Teaching. Most companies cite being innovative, customer-focused, solutions-oriented, and so on. But those aren’t unique qualities because most companies cite them.

If you can’t connect the insights you teach to your company’s strengths, you’re providing your customers with free consulting.

Rule 2: Challenge the Customer’s Assumptions

In rule 2, you’ll learn how to be a good sales representative by challenging customer’s assumptions. Your insights must not only connect directly to your company’s strengths, but they must also resonate with the customer by being directly relevant to his world.

To resonate, the insight you present has to challenge the customer’s assumptions. It must reframe how he thinks about his business, operates his business, or competes. In contrast, validating what the customer already knows doesn’t give him any value.

This may sound like a high bar. However, most suppliers really do know a customer’s business better than the customer does when it comes to the supplier’s capability or area of expertise. For instance, a company selling printers to a hospital knows more than the hospital about information management in a hospital setting (although not more about health care). A company that sells packaged foods knows more about how consumers buy groceries than most retailers know.

If you’ve successfully reframed your customer’s thinking, the reaction will be equivalent to, “I never thought of it that way before.” If you haven’t changed the customer’s thinking, but only validated it, the reaction will be something like, ”That’s it exactly—I totally agree.” When they get the latter response, Relationship Builders often feel good about making a connection. But agreement doesn’t win the customer’s business. There’s more to learn to know how to be a great sales rep.

Challenger reps want the customer to stop and think about what an insight means to his business or wonder what else he’s missing. That’s the point where you’ve given the customer something of value. It’s the turning point of an effective Commercial Teaching conversation.

Rule 3: Prompt the Customer to Act

Using rule 3, you can learn how to be a good sales representative by getting the customer to act. It’s not enough to change the customer’s thinking—you have to get the customer to act. 

Most reps try to make the case for action by focusing on how the customer can save money with the supplier’s solution over time (the ROI). However, in Commercial Teaching, the initial focus of the conversation is on the customer’s business, not the supplier’s solution. The rep must show why the insight shared with the customer requires action in the first place, especially when it runs counter to conventional wisdom.

The way to use numbers to prompt action in Commercial Teaching is to help the customer calculate the cost of failing to act on the insight you’ve taught—either the money they’re wasting or the money or benefit they’re missing out on.

Rule 4: Segment Customers Based on Need

Commercial Teaching is a great business strategy, but to apply it effectively and efficiently, sales reps need expert market research and analysis from their organization. To deliver unique, relevant insights to individual customers about their business, reps need data and analysis that are widely applicable. This is where organizational support is crucial.

Marketing departments should research customer segments and generate insights linked to solutions and applicable to specific segments. Reps can then approach customers with a handful of scripted insights and diagnostic questions that help them present the right insight for the customer.

However, generating insights useful for Commercial Teaching requires marketing professionals to think differently about segmentation. (Shortform note: Market segmentation is dividing a target market into smaller groups of customers that share common characteristics.) 

In rule 4, you’ll see that knowing how to be a great sales rep sometimes means using segmenting. Segmenting customers by common needs is more useful than traditional segmentation by, for instance, geography or industry. Reps can apply the same insights to customers across various industries by focusing on needs they have in common, for instance, improving cash flow, reducing employee turnover, or improving workplace safety. In each case, reps can help the customer think about the need or problem differently (reframe), explain the costs of inaction, and propose action linked to the supplier’s solution.

Learning how to be a good sales rep is challenging. You can follow the Challenger Sales model and learn how to be a good sales representative following the principles above.

How to Be a Good Sales Rep Using Challenger Selling

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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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