It’s long been conventional wisdom that the key to sales success is building strong relationships with customers. But the results of a huge research study of sales reps in the wake of the 2008-09 recession upended that thinking and led to a new model for business-to-business, or B2B, sales.
During the recession, business dried up for most sales reps. Yet a handful succeeded in selling despite the downturn. Researchers with the business advisory firm CEB set out to learn these reps’ secrets to selling in bad times by surveying thousands of sales reps in companies around the world.
As it turned out, the reps’ success had nothing to do with the economy and everything to do the fact that they responded to customers’ needs in a new way: they pushed customers to think and act differently. In The Challenger Sale, authors Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson of CEB’s research arm explain this new sales approach, how to replicate it in your sales force, and why sales success today—whether in a good or bad economy—depends on it.
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’s researchers found there are five types of sales reps:
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.
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:
Customers are saying to reps, “Tell me something new about my business”—which essentially defines the Challenger’s sales approach.
Nearly 40% of all high performers in the study were Challengers. Of 44 attributes analyzed, six defined a rep as a Challenger:
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The economic crisis of 2009 wasn’t a good time to be a sales representative. Business dried up for most sales reps—cash and credit were scarce and hardly anyone was buying anything. Yet a handful of gifted sales reps succeeded in selling despite the downturn. Researchers with the business advisory firm CEB set out to learn these reps’ secrets to selling in bad times—and came away with an entirely new sales model that can be replicated and bring success to any company.
As it turned out, the reps’ success had nothing to do with the health of the economy and everything to do with responding to customers’ needs in a new...
Over the last several decades, more suppliers have begun selling complex “solutions,” or bundles of products and services, rather than just simple products. But they’ve stuck to traditional sales techniques, not realizing that winning a different kind of deal requires a different approach.
The standout reps who succeeded during the recession and thereafter excelled at “solution selling” because they naturally brought a different set of skills and behaviors to bear. To explain the importance of these skills, it’s necessary to first review the evolution of the sales model.
In the past, traditional selling focused on transactional sales of individual products like hammers based on price and quantity. In contrast, solution selling focuses on offering “bundles” of products and services.
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, bundled offerings are customized...
A traditional sales model focuses on transactional sales of individual products based on price and volume. However, many companies have shifted to solution selling, which focuses on broad-based consultative sales of “bundles” of products and services.
How would you describe your company’s sales method—is it closer to a transactional sales model of solution sales model? Why does the company use this method?
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.
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.
Researchers determined that sales...
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Research shows that sales reps fit one of five profiles, depending on certain behaviors: Hard Worker, Lone Wolf, Relationship Builder, Reactive Problem-Solver, and Challenger.
Which of the profiles best describes you? What are its pluses and minuses?
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 methodology) in implementing the model.
The Challenger Selling Model 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...
The three pillars of the Challenger Selling Model are: teaching for differentiation, tailoring for resonance, and taking control of the sales conversation.
Teaching for differentiation means differentiating yourself from competitors by offering the customer a unique and valuable insight. Think of a current or prospective customer. What new insight could you offer the customer about his business? What could the customer improve about what he or she is doing? What would make them say, “Wow, I never thought of that before?”
In typical solutions sales training, reps are taught to be investigators: to question and learn from their customers what’s most important to them so they can offer solutions. For instance, they’re taught to ask the customer, “What's keeping you up at night?”
However, as previously noted, having to answer a lot of probing questions, especially from multiple salespeople, has led to solutions fatigue. Further, customers don’t always know what they need. The Challenger approach is to teach rather than investigate. Challengers win sales by knowing their customers’ business better than they do and teaching them something they need to know.
Presuming to teach customers may seem arrogant at first glance, yet research shows that’s what customers want most from a supplier.
CEB surveyed companies to learn what customers were looking for in a business-to-business (B2B) supplier. Specifically, researchers asked companies why they might choose one supplier over another, or what made them loyal to a supplier. The most important thing was the sales experience—not the product and service or price.
**It’s not what you sell but how you sell it...
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In Commercial Teaching as a sales rep, you must connect the unique insights you’re giving the customer to the things your company does better than any other (your solutions). Yet many companies have trouble naming their unique benefits.
Identify your company’s unique benefits by answering the question, “Why should our customers buy from us over anyone else?”
Once you've agreed on your company’s unique benefits and you've created a set of insights to teach customers, the next step is organizing your material into an effective teaching pitch.
An effective teaching pitch follows a formula, but it also has an emotional component. Your pitch must tell a compelling story incorporating suspense and a few surprises. It’s like an amusement park ride that takes customers through a dark tunnel before showing them the light at the end: your solution.
An effective pitch must engage both the rational and emotional parts of the customer’s brain in order to get a decision. It speaks to logic but also triggers the customer’s dismay at the money being wasted or the risk they’re exposed to.
Rather than asking, “What’s keeping you up at night?” present your assessment of the key issues facing the customer, based on what you’ve seen at similar companies. Then get the customer’s reaction.
The authors call this hypothesis-based selling. Rather than asking open-ended questions about the customer’s needs, you offer a hypothesis based on your experience and research. Customers with...
In previous exercises, you've identified your company’s unique benefits and created insights to teach customers. Now you need to organize your material into a teaching pitch that follows a series of choreographed steps.
Steps 1-2: The Warm-Up—Give your assessment of an issue facing the customer and get his reaction. Offer an insight or different way of looking at the problem that will make the customer say, “Wow, I’ve never thought of that before.”
The trend of complex sales or solutions selling has been accompanied by an increase in consensus buying—a company’s desire for consensus throughout its organization before going ahead with a purchase.
As a result, being able to tailor your message (the second pillar of Challenger sales) to each stakeholder in order to build consensus is a necessary skill for reps. It’s a skill that “natural” Challengers understand and excel at.
CEB researchers found that widespread internal support for a supplier was the top thing decision-makers (senior executives and procurers) cared about when it came to the sales experience. They didn’t want reps making pitches to them without first having established consensus—they saw that as wasting their time. Price and customization were significantly less important.
This runs counter to traditional sales training that says reps should connect directly with the senior decision-maker (believing that person is key to closing the deal). Instead, research shows that reps need to earn the decision-maker’s support by building stakeholder support first.
Since stakeholders play a strong role, it's useful to look at the data...
Taking control of the sale is the third pillar of the Challenger Selling Method. Challenger reps are able to take control of the sale because they’re naturally good at two things that core reps struggle with: talking about money and pushing the customer. This chapter explains how to build these skills in average reps.
Challenger reps are comfortable discussing money because they’re confident in the value of the insight they’ve provided to the customer. For the same reason, they don’t hesitate to push back when a customer wants a discount, looser terms, or more without a price increase.
Challengers also create momentum, keeping the conversation moving toward the next step. Their goal is to sell a deal, not have a friendly meeting. In contrast, Relationship Builders don’t push toward next steps because they don’t want to undermine the relationship. They naturally want to reduce tension, not increase it by pushing.
Reps may be reluctant to take control or sales managers may hesitate to push their reps to control the sales conversation due to three misconceptions:
Many sales reps, especially Relationship Builders, hesitate to challenge customers’ thinking or push back when they demand price concessions because they don’t want to seem aggressive or hurt the relationship. However, taking control is an essential Challenger behavior.
Think about a recent sales conversation in which you felt an uncomfortable tension. How did you respond? Why did you respond that way?
Frontline sales managers are the link between strategy and execution—they determine whether change initiatives and sales transformations succeed. But research shows that most top company leaders lack confidence in their sales managers and they’re uncertain of what to do about it (63% say their managers don’t have the skills and competencies they need to implement their sales models).
However, once you understand the attributes of a successful Challenger manager, you can hire or create skilled sales managers capable of executing a Challenger Selling Model. This chapter focuses on the most important sales manager skills—coaching and sales innovation—and how to develop them.
To determine the skills, behaviors, and attitudes that matter most for sales management excellence, researchers surveyed 65 companies and collected data from reps on 2,500 frontline sales managers.
They found that management fundamentals (reliability, integrity, and listening skills) account for only 26% of sales manager success. These fundamentals seem to be inherent rather than learned, so they should be baseline requirements for hiring or promoting someone to...
Here are some key lessons for sales leaders, marketing professionals, and senior leaders based on the experiences of companies that implemented the Challenger Sales Model.
Every high performer isn’t a Challenger: Part of the rationale behind the Challenger Selling Model is to replicate what Challengers do naturally across the rest of the sales force. But not all high-performers are Challengers. It's important to avoid mistakenly using high-performing Relationship Builders and Lone Wolves as teaching examples, since you’ll teach non-Challenger behaviors and tactics. Appendix B provides an assessment tool for identifying the high-performing Challengers you want everyone to emulate.
Don’t emulate the Lone Wolf: While Lone Wolves can be highly successful (25% of them are high performers), a sales force consisting entirely of Lone Wolves would be dysfunctional. Each does their own thing, so you can’t replicate their behavior across the organization and you couldn’t manage a sales force like this. Creating collaborative solutions for customers requires teamwork—however, Lone Wolves behave independently of rules and sales processes.
Internal business customers, such as colleagues from other departments, want insight too—for instance, new ideas for saving and making money—so the Challenger model of teaching new ways of thinking applies within and across the organization.
For instance, researchers found that an HR recruiter’s ability to be a strategic advisor to the company accounted for 52% of effectiveness. Similarly, company leaders in other departments want IT departments to advise them on how to use technology to be more efficient or save money.
Like sales reps, marketing and communications professionals don’t want to be viewed as order-takers. They want to make a more valuable contribution by moving from managing the message to managing the strategy.
For instance, instead of jumping to fill a colleague’s request to issue a press release, a communications professional can help more if she knows the strategic reason for the request. It might be something like, “We want our...
The following is a summary of the authors’ coaching guide for Challenger selling. The full guide is available as a free download here.
Pre-call planning questions: These questions focus on determining whether the rep has a viable teaching pitch and filling any gaps.
Post-call debriefing questions: These questions focus on determining the effectiveness of the teaching pitch.
Coaching exercise: Ask the rep to select an account and answer questions about it, such as: what are the company’s strategic objectives; where does it beat their competition and where does it lag; how does the stakeholder contribute to achieving company objectives? Work with the rep to identify opportunities to link capabilities/solutions to customer needs.
Pre-call planning questions:...