Challenger Sale; Taking Control of the Customer Conversation; notes

Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson have written a sales book that really challenges the status quo and gets you thinking differently about top performing sales reps.  The title of the book, The Challenger Sale; Taking Control of the Customer Conversation is a book that has a lot of research that support, the “Challenger” sales person is one that has the most success in selling.

The authors researched hundreds of frontline sales managers across ninety companies around the word, asking those managers to assess three sales reps from their teams–two average performers and one star performer–along forty-four different attributes.  The initial model was built on an analysis of sales reps representing every major industry, geography, and go to market model, it has now been increased to over 6,000 sales reps all over the world.  The sales reps included field reps, inside sales reps, and all gender and races.  The study wasn’t an examination of sales reps personality or personal strengths.

Here are some of the areas that were looked at:

Attitudes: desire to seek issue resolution, willingness to risk disapproval, accessibility goal motivation, extent of outcome focused, curiosity, discretionary effort.

Skills/behaviors: business acumen, customer needs assessment, communication, use of internal resources, negotiation, relationship management, solution selling, teamwork.

Activities: sales process adherence, evaluation of opportunities, preparation, lead generation, administration.

Knowledge: industry knowledge, product knowledge.

So of the forty-four attributes they defined five kinds of sales reps that made up the study. (% is number of sales reps that made up that category of the reps studied)

1.  The Hard worker (21%): Always willing to go the extra mile, doesn’t give up easily, self motivated, interested in feedback and development.

2.  The Challenger (27%): Always has a different view of the world, understands the customers business, loves to debate, pushes the customer.

3.  The Relationship builder (21%): Builds strong advocates in customer organization, generous in giving time to help others, gets along with everyone.

4.  The Lone Wolf (18%): Follows own instincts, self-assured, difficult to control

5. The Reactive Problem Solver (14%): Reliably responds to internal and external stakeholders, ensures that all problems are solved, detail oriented.

After compiling the data the authors asked the sales managers to tell them which of the individuals they submitted fell into the top 20% of their sales force as measured by performance against goal.  They then categorized all the reps in the sample by performance.  The Challenger Sales Rep made up 40% of all high performers studied in the research. 

Of the forty-four attributes:  Six of them showed up statistically significant in defining a Challenger Sales Rep:

  • Offers the customer unique perspectives
  • Has strong two-way communication skills
  • Knows the individual customers value drivers
  • Can identify economic drivers of the customers business
  • Is comfortable discussing money
  • Can pressure the customer.

Based on the unique six attributes the authors categorize them into three areas in which Challenger Sales Reps do very well.  This is a major emphasis in the book.

Teach:  With their unique perspective on the customers business and their ability to engage in robust two-way dialogue, Challengers are able to teach for differentiation during the sales interactions.

Tailor: Because Challengers possess as superior sense of a customers economic and value drivers, they are able to tailor for resonance, delivering the right message to the right person within the customers organization.

Take Control: Challengers are comfortable discussing money and can, when needed, press the customer a bit.  In this way, the Challenger takes control of the sale.

In the study only 7 percent of all-star performers fell in the Relationship builder profile, far fewer than any other. The authors go on to provide data on this and also mention that this is not an indication of the importance of building relationships.

Challenger Sales Reps (CS) versus Relationship Building Sales Reps (RB):

  • (CS) push customers out of their comfort zone, while the (RB) want to be accepted into it.
  • (RB) tends to adopt a service mentality, while (CS) will be more focused on customer value.
  • (CS) creates constructive tension in the sale, while (RB) tends to try to resolve or diffuse all tension, not create it.

In complex sales, Challengers absolutely dominate with more than 50% of all-star performers falling into this category.  The only group that came close was the Lone Wolves, and as all the managers stated, they are hard to find and even harder to control.  The (RB) fall off the map in the complex sales.

Rather you’re asking customers to change their behavior–to stop acting in one way and starting citing in another.  To make that happen, however, you have to get customers to think differently about how they operate.  You need to show them a new way to think about their business.

If you seek to a provide a more value based or solutions based oriented sales approach, then your ability to challenge the customers is absolutely vital for your success going forward.

From here the book goes onto tell you how to develop Challenger Sales Reps.  From here forward I have included my Highlighted notes.

  • The thing that really sets Challenger Sales Reps apart is their ability to teach customers something new and valuable about hot to compete in their market.
  • Challenger’s tae control over the conversation about money and instead of providing a 10 percent discount, they bring the conversation back to value.
  • Just like a teacher must push its students Challenger pushes their customers.
  • Challenger’s don’t believe that the customers know what they need, they realize that the customers needs are simply waiting to be unlocked, either willingly or begrudgingly, through the mastery of our interrogative approach.

How customers buy:

  • 19%: Company and brand impact
  • 19%: Product and Service delivery
  • 9%: Value to Price ratio
  • 53%: Sales Experience 
  • Only 9 percent of customer loyalty is attributable to a suppliers ability to outperform the competition on a price to value ratio.
  • If the customer is focused solely on the cheapest option, the chances are they will be focused on the cheapest option the next time they buy as well, so there will be no loyalty.

Power of Insight:

Fifty or so attributes were tested in a loyalty survey, seventeen of them fell into the sales experience category, each reflecting at least a marginally impact on customer loyalty. When the list was ranked by “impact” on the sale, they found seven attributes that was most important in the survey.

  • Rep offers unique and valuable perspectives on the market
  • Reps helps me navigate alternatives
  • Rep provides ongoing advice or consultation
  • Rep helps me avoid potential landmines
  • Rep educates me on new issues and outcomes
  • Supplier is easy to buy from
  • Supplier has widespread support across my organization.

Each of these attributes speak directly to an urgent need of the customer not to buy something, but to learn something.

  • The best companies don’t win through the quality of the products they deliver, but through the quality of the insights they deliver during the sales process.
  • The best reps don’t win the battle by providing customers information on what they know they already need, but teaching them a new way to thinking altogether.
  • If your reps primary goal going into a sales call is to discover the customers needs, you’ve lost the battle before you’ve begun to fight, because frankly, your customers don’t want to have that conversation

The book gets into sales process.  I highlight below a few of my notes.

  • A great warmer question:  We’ve worked with a number of companies similar to yours, and we’ve found that these three challenges come up again and again as by far the most troubling.  Is this what you’re seeing too, or would you add something to the list?
  • In its purest form, solution selling is customization in the moment. The reps primary job shifts from discovering needs to guiding the conversation.
  • Challenger sales reps aren’t focused on what they are selling, but on what the person they’re speaking to is trying to accomplish.
  • Challengers understand that the goal is to sell a deal, not just have a good meeting, they are focused on moving ahead.
  • If the Rep is not willing to convince the customer that the problem is urgent, then they wont be able to convince the customer its worth solving. 
  • Relationship Builders will do things that are not in their best interest or in their company’s best interests. For instance proactively offering a discount when the customer hasn’t even asked for one.

Sales Managers:

  • Coaching of sales reps is ongoing.  It’s not a one-off event.
  • Coaching is customized to each sales rep.
  • Coaching is behavioral, its nt just obtaining the skill and knowledge it’s about demonstrated application of that skill and knowledge.

Decades of research into human behavior has uncovered a number of human biases that commonly hinder open thinking.  The six most common are:

  • Practicality bias: Ideas that seem unrealistic and should be discarded
  • Confirmation bias: Unexplainable customer behaviors can be ignored
  • Exportablity bias: If it didn’t work here, it wont work anywhere.
  • Legacy bias: The way we’ve always done it must be best.
  • First conclusion bias: The first explanation offered is usually the best or only choice.
  • Personal bias: If I wouldn’t buy it, the customer wont either.


  • If your sales reps can’t say what differentiates you, why your customers should buy from you instead of your competitor, you cant teach them to value what makes you different.

Sales process:

  • Be memorable and not agreeable.
  • Build a pitch that leads to your solution, don’t lead with it.

This book ranks in my top 10 of last years books that I read.  It is a great read for sales managers as well as sales reps who are looking to get better.

Please share.

To your success and your future.



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