You are using an outdated browser. For a faster, safer browsing experience, upgrade for free today.


What is Challenger Selling?


Build relationships with your customers, and they will buy from you.  Whether you agree or not, this is a common misconception in professional sales.  While relationships can be essential to build trust and rapport, more is required to sustain sales success.  Poorly trained sales teams rely on this surface methodology.  Well-trained sales teams challenge customers to think differently.  The "great recession" of 2008 was a proving opportunity for sales teams around the world.  It is simpler to sell during economic highs because everyone is buying.  What happens when people stop buying, and sales teams must create value in people who are not looking to purchase?  How does a sales professional interrupt a prospect to make a sale?

The sales profession has many faux salespeople.  They get a business card that reads "sales something" and get asked to go out and sell based on personality alone.  Some survive, yet many perish in the cruel world of business development.  It is a fundamental truth that sales teams are untrained or under-trained to sell. Don't believe me?  Following are some statistics (Sales Management Association) before the pandemic made sales more challenging than ever.

  • Firms that were "laggards" in adopting sales technology saw their sales goal achievement drop 12% from previous years.
  • 43% of companies made a moderate-to-high investment in sales learning and development technology.
  • More than 2/3 of companies that invested in sales learning and development technology realized a positive ROI.
  • On average, firms that use technology effectively were 57% more effective at sales training and development than ineffective technology users.
  • On average, new sales hires (most get no training) spend ten weeks in training and development and only become productive after 11.2 months.
  • Most companies (62%) consider themselves ineffective at onboarding new sales hires.
  • 8 out of 10 companies introduced a new product or service in the previous 12 months.

The knowledge gap that existed before 2020 has become more significant.  Struggling sales teams are grasping for help.  Demand for my 12-month sales experience is at an all-time high.  Virtual selling is here to stay, and sales teams struggle to adopt the technology and methodology to create opportunity in a new world.   Firms are refocusing sales strategy (75%), pursued new markets or verticals (70%), made changes to their value proposition (61%), and implemented a new sales methodology (54%) during recent years.

The challenger sales model was born during the 2008 economic collapse and has resurfaced in recent months as a prescription for growth after the global pandemic.  What exactly is challenger selling? We will get to that shortly.  A Corporate Executive Board (CEB) study of thousands of sales reps across multiple industries and locations argues that the classic relationship builder approach to sales is a losing approach when sales become more complex or more extensive in scope.  In other words, more important or more complex deals are not likely to be won by old-school relationship sellers.  You need challengers to close these deals.

The CEB study used factor analysis to derive five sub-groups of sales reps during 2008 and 2009.

  • The Hard Worker (21%)
  • The Challenger (27%)
  • The Relationship Builder (21%)
  • The Lone Wolf (18%)
  • The Reactive Problem Solver (14%)

Challenger sales reps view the world differently and make time to understand the customer's business at a deeper level.  They love to debate and push the customer.  Relationship builders, on the other hand, have a difficult time discussing and driving the customer.  They are too worried about destroying the relationship.    Relationship builders become strong advocates in customer organizations.  They are generous in giving time to others and get along with everyone.  They are likable.

In difficult times, customers prefer the Challenger because they are made better by someone who understands their business needs and is willing to challenge them.  Customers find value in challenger reps, and that is more substantial than a relationship.  Getting help during difficult times is more important than another friendly, giving person.

Are challenger reps born or made?  Can you train your representatives to become challenger sales professionals?  The answer is yes and no.  You can certainly train your team to follow the challenger methodology; however, not all will become successful in making the transition from relationship builder (or others) to challengers.  Your star performers may already use some challenger methodologies and not realize they are doing so.  Your poor performers are typically not worth the investment.  However, your middle performers are an ideal population for development if they are willing to change and embrace new methods to approach the customer.  The return on investment for middle performers is significant when they become high performers on your team.

Our twelve-month challenger selling experience teaches sales representatives to become commercial teachers for their prospects.  In other words, challenger reps create cognitive dissonance in potential buyers' minds by providing valuable insights during the buying journey.  Aspiring challenger reps also learn to tailor the sales experience to each buyer or company.  Finally, they know methods to control the buying journey and lead the buyer to their solution.  Sound easy?

Is it worth the time and expense?  According to the CEB study, 39% of high performers are challengers, while only 7% of high performers are relationship builders.  By breaking down the challenger sales model into discrete skills over time, middle performers can learn what to do.  The question is will they do it or not?  And like math, the talent is easier to execute for some and more difficult for others.

If you are placing your sales strategy (business recovery) in relationship builders' hands, you are betting on the wrong horse.  How can two or three more challenger reps allow you to accomplish your sales goals?  Remember, it is likely you already have some top performers who may be lone wolves (25%), hard workers (17%), or problem solvers (12%).

A compelling argument exists for the significant impact a few more top performers can have on your business performance.  If someone's likelihood of becoming a top performer is by embracing the challenger selling methodology, it makes sense to train your middle performers sooner rather than later.  Just like this article, challengers use constructive tension to make potential buyers think about (or rethink) their businesses. 

While it may sound simple, the challenger methodology requires repeated skill-building and concepts to master over time.  It involves coaching, support from the organization, and plenty of practice.  In Gino Wickman's book Traction, he boils it down to three questions about people.  Do they GET it, do they WANT it, and do they have the CAPACITY to do it?  If the answer is yes to all three questions, building challenger reps makes sense. 

It would help if you also considered the framework for marketing and sales support.  Challenger organizations market a little differently.  Your organization will develop different teaching collateral to help challenger sales reps dominate.  Just like teachers need a curriculum, challengers need the team's support to thrive in the field.  There are no shortcuts on the road to success.