The Challenger Sale and How it Shattered Conventional Sales Thinking

January 2, 2018

Throughout my 15 year sales career I have always firmly believed that the key to success is to build great relationships with your clients. This approach always seemed to make sense as I firmly believed in the old adage that ‘People buy from People’.

In every sales conversation I made it my number one priority to understand the prospects needs in real detail, break down their barriers and gain acceptance. Once this had been done and a genuine rapport established, I then went for the sale.

However since reading a phenomenal book called ‘The Challenger Sale’ by Matthew Dixon and Brett Adamson, I have had a rude awakening and all my core beliefs about sales questioned. It’s a bit like the horrible moment in your life when you realise that Santa doesn’t exist!

In essence ‘The Challenger Sale’ is based on analysis of thousands of customers and sales professionals around the world, spanning every major industry, geography, and go-to-market model. The scale of the research, allied to the elimination of factors such as industry and geography instantly elevate it above most sales books.

The Challenger Sale research revealed that every B2B sales professional falls into five different profiles. These profiles define the skills and behaviours sales people use when interacting with customers. Please see the table below which illustrates each behaviour:


The Hard Worker


Doesnt give up easily….is self motivated….interested in feedback and personal development


The Lone Wolf


Follows instincts….self-assured….delivers results but difficult to manage


The Relationship Builder


Classic consultative rep….builds advocates internally….creates relationships with prospects


The Challenger


Different view of the world…loves to debate and pushes the customer….strong understanding of customer’s business


The Problem Solver


Highly detail oriented….reliable responds to stakeholders….ensures all problems are solved


In the study it was found that:


40% of high sales performers primarily used a Challenger style – as opposed to one of the other four sales styles the book identified.


High performers were more than twice as likely to use a Challenger approach as any other approach.


More than 50% of all star performers fit the challenger profile in complex sales.


Only 7% of top performers took a relationship-building approach – the worst performing profile.


I would have classified myself as a ‘Relationship Builder’ through and through. When I was getting nods of agreement from customers I thought this was a good sign. However what the Challenger seller is looking for is actually the reverse! Challengers are looking for thoughtful reflection not instant acceptance. They have a deep understanding of the customer’s business and use that understanding to push the customer’s thinking and teach them something new about how their company can compete more effectively.

In other words Challenger sales people do not focus on “discovering” what customers already know they need, but by teaching them a new way of thinking altogether.

The book unquestionably has massive implications for all sales professionals. It completely turns the whole psychology of sales and rapport building on its head. Companies want to learn from sales people and be challenged, but always in respectful way where it is obvious that you have the clients, not your own best interests at heart.

At BarrettClark we have fundamentally changed our business model to reflect the findings of ‘The Challenger Sale’. Without giving away any secrets we now focus on educating our market to the huge benefit of ‘Executive Search’ over the approach of the mass recruitment market. We now always try to ‘teach, tailor and take control’ of the customer conversation. This approach has had dramatic effects at BarrettClark and I would urge all businesses to read and evaluate what is already regarded as a seminal work in the world of sales.

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