The 5 Types of Sales Reps, And Why Challengers Win

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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Are there different types of sales reps? Which type is the most successful?

In The Challenger Sale, the authors discuss the different types of sales reps are why one type—the challenger type—is most successful. Read more about the different types of sales reps below, and how you can learn to be a challenger seller.

A New Sales Model 

Managers often assume a sales performance gap is inevitable because some people are born with natural sales talent and some aren’t; talent isn’t something you can replicate. But the authors’ research shows that while some reps are more talented than others, companies can help most core reps perform at a much higher level.

Researchers studied the differences between average and top sales reps and identified the skills, behaviors, knowledge, and attitudes most critical to strong performance. The purpose wasn’t to determine why top performers excel, as much as to determine how to make the middle 60% of a sales force—the core—better. Part of this research was identifying types of sales reps.

They surveyed hundreds of sales managers in 90 companies around the world. Initially, they analyzed data on 700 reps, then increased the sample to more than 6,000 reps. The data produced a clear picture of what skills and behaviors are required for success in a solution selling environment. (The researchers didn’t address personality types or personal strengths.)

There were three high-level findings, each contradicting conventional wisdom about sales success.

There are Five Types of Sales Reps

Researchers determined that sales reps fit one of five profiles, each dominated by distinct skills and behaviors:

  • Hard Worker (21% of the sample)
  • Relationship Builder (21%) 
  • Lone Wolf (18%) 
  • Reactive Problem-Solver (14%)
  • Challenger (27%)

Every rep in the study had at least a baseline level of the 44 attributes tested. But nearly every rep also had a specific cluster of attributes that defined their sales approach (akin to having a major in college but also completing a core curriculum). These are the types of sale reps:

The Hard Worker
  • Arrives early and stays late
  • Willing to put in extra effort
  • Self-motivated
  • Doesn’t give up easily; makes more calls and visits than anyone else
  • Interested in feedback and development
  • Follows the company’s sales process
The Relationship Builder
  • Creates strong, often long-term relationships and allies throughout the customer organization
  • Is generous in giving time to help others
  • Works hard to meet customers’ needs
  • Offers the customer accessibility and service
The Lone Wolf
  • Supremely self-confident: follows her own instincts instead of rules
  • The prima donna of the sales force; does things her way or not at all
  • Drives sales leaders crazy by not following processes
  • Does well despite flouting the system
The Reactive Problem-Solver
  • “A customer service rep in sales rep clothing”—she has plans to generate new sales but gets sidetracked to fix customer problems instead of referring them to customer service people (at the expense of generating more business)
  • Reliable
  • Detail-oriented
  • Ensures that all promises made as part of a sale are kept
  • Follows up to ensure that service issues are addressed quickly and effectively
The Challenger
  • Likes to debate
  • Understands the customer’s business
  • Isn’t afraid to share her views even when different or controversial
  • Assertive—pushes customers on their thinking and on issues like pricing
  • Pushes leadership to see things from a different perspective and to rethink strategy

A Big Winner and a Big Loser

Each one of the types of sales reps 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.

Heres the profile for all the types of sales representatives:

Sales Rep ProfilePercentage of Sales RepsPercentage of High Performers
Challenger23%39% (over-represented)
Lone Wolf15%25% (over-represented)
Hard Worker22%17%
Reactive Problem-Solver14%12%
Relationship Builder26%7%

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.

In contrast, the study found that the Relationship Builder was the weakest type of sales rep; they represented 26% of the population, but only 7% of top performers. This is a huge cautionary note for managers who try to increase sales by urging reps to just go out and build better relationships with customers. Knowing these types of sales representatives can help managers make better team decisions.

This doesn’t mean that customer relationships aren’t important. In complex sales or solution selling, reps need to forge relationships with numerous people in the customer business. But the typical things that Relationship Builders do—responding to customer needs and demands, making check-in calls—don’t drive sales, and they eat up time that could be spent on building business by delivering greater value. Relationship Builders can’t help but fail in a complex sales environment.

Here are some key differences between the approaches of Challengers and Relationship Builders:

  • The Challenger rep is focused on pushing the customer out of his comfort zone; the Relationship Builder rep is focused on maintaining the customer’s comfort zone.
  • The Challenger rep is focused on customer value; the Relationship Builder focuses on customer convenience.
  • The Challenger rep makes the sale by maintaining constructive tension; the Relationship Builder tries to avoid or resolve tension.
  • The Challenger rep provides value in pushing the customer to think differently about his business and about the ways the supplier can help; the Relationship Builder doesn’t help the customer advance his goals.

Challengers Excel at Solution Selling

Researchers found that our of all the types of sales representatives, Challengers are very likely to succeed in complex sales, while Relationship Builders are the least likely to succeed. In complex sales, more than half of all top performers are Challengers, while almost none are Relationship Builders.

The reason Challengers do well in complex or solution selling is that it’s a disruptive sales model, requiring customers to think and act in a different way—for instance, to think of value as encompassing more than just price. A sales rep needs the ability to push or challenge customers to rethink how they run their business—a key Challenger skill.

(Note that while Challengers are critical to solution selling, they aren’t required in all aspects of sales operations. For instance, Hard Workers do well in transactional functions—for instance, as inside sales or telesales reps—where success depends on call volume rather than call quality. In these positions, it isn’t necessary to invest in Challenger reps.)

Sales managers who aren’t building or hiring Challenger reps will fall behind as deals get more complex.

Different types of sales reps will choose their methods based on personality, business knowledge, or their opinions. Though there are many different types of sales reps, the challenger type gets consistent results.

The 5 Types of Sales Reps, And Why Challengers Win

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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

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