The Challenger Sale

By: Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson



In their book, The Challenger Sale, Dixon and Adamson tell us that surveys suggest that customers place the highest value on salespeople who make them think, who bring new ideas to them and who find innovative ways to help their business.

Customers expect salespeople to teach them things that they don’t know, and these are the core skills of Challengers — the new type of salesperson we should employ. Join us for the next ten minutes as we find out more about the Challenger, and how to take control of the customer conversation.

Lesson 1: Sales Reps R Us

Dixon and Adamson suggest that there are 5 types of sales reps.

Type 1 - Hard Workers: Hard workers show up early, stay late, and are always willing to go the extra mile. They have their nose to the grindstone, are self-motivated and don’t give up easily.

Type 2 - Relationship Builders: These reps focus on building and nurturing personal and professional customer advocates. A latte and a friendly chat is their bread and butter.

Type 3 are the Lone Wolves: Lone wolves are so self-confident they follow their own instincts and break every one of our rules. They bring in the sales, but not in a way we would be confident to repeat.

Type 4 are Reactive Solvers: These reps are highly reliable and detail focussed. They make sure all promises are kept once the deal is done.

Finally Type 5 – the Challengers: Dixon and Adamson identified Challengers as reps who understand the customer’s business and make them think deeper and differently. Challengers are not afraid to be controversial.

So here is the question: which of these types are prevalent in your workforce?

Logic tells us that the relationship builder should be the most successful profile, and this seems to be borne out by a large number of companies. But not so says Dixon and Adamson. They tell us, and their research supports the fact, that customer decision makers want to be served by the Challenger.

With their unique perspective on the customer’s business and their ability to engage in robust two-way dialogue, Challengers are able to grow the customer’s own knowledge during the sales interaction.

Because Challengers possess a superior understanding of a customer’s economic and value drivers, they are able to deliver the right message to the right person within the customer organisation. Challengers can also ensure the right fee is achieved. They are comfortable discussing money and can press the customer to take the sale at the seller’s best asking price.

On the other hand, however strong a customer relationship may be, familiarity alone isn’t enough to win the business. As Dixon and Adamson say, a check-in call with a customer can be a great way to find business, but it’s not a very good way to make business. As a result, in a world where easy-found business has disappeared, Relationship Builders are doomed to fail.

Lesson 2: “I’d like to teach the world to buy…”

Dixon and Adamson believe teaching in sales is all about offering customers unique perspectives on their business and communicating those viewpoints with a passion to draw the customer in.

Sales engagements often start with visits to find out what customers want. But what if customers don’t know what they need? What if a customer’s greatest need is actually to figure out what they need? In that case, rather than asking customers, a better technique might be to tell customers.

That’s what Challengers do. They win not by understanding their customers’ world as well as the customer know it themselves, but by actually knowing their customers’ world better than their customers know it themselves...teaching them what they don’t know but should.

The challenge for the challengers is to teach the customer something new. If we don’t change how a customer thinks and acts, we’ve not taught them anything.

So how do we ensure that our sales teaching efforts – what Dixon and Adamson call commercial teaching - will actually lead to more business? Here are three rules...

Rule #1: Lead to Our Unique Strengths
Commercial teaching must tie directly back to something where we outperform our competitors. If so, our teaching will lead back to what we do better than anyone else, putting us in the best position.
There are two notes however: we need to actually be the best, and we need to know actually what we’re best at. Unless we can ultimately connect the insights we teach our customers back to capabilities only we can offer, we’re much more likely providing free consulting than commercial teaching.

Rule #2: Challenge Customers’ Assumptions

Whatever we teach our customers has to challenge their assumptions and speak directly to their world in ways they haven’t thought of before. Whatever insight we provide must change their perspective. Dixon and Adamson give us a good way of recognising this. Is a customer responds with a thoughtful pause we’ve hit the mark. They’re wondering, “What exactly does this mean for my business?” or even better, “What else don’t I know?”

Rule #3: Kick off Action
We’ve got to get them to act. Customers are easily distracted, so our message needs to be so compelling they remain focussed. If not, they become like Doug, the dog in the Pixar movie “Up” -distracted by every squirrel.

Lesson 3: The End Solution

So how can we make that compelling teaching pitch? Dixon and Adamson give us six steps.

Step 1: Tell and Show
A great commercial teaching pitch starts with a sound statement or demonstration of our assessment of our customer’s position. Forget asking the hackneyed question, “What’s keeping you up at night?”. We should tell them what we’re seeing and hearing as the key challenges of similar companies. Share our stories from engagements with other companies that align to their experience.

Dixon and Adamson suggest it will feel to the customer much more like a “get” than a “give”—they get our informed perspective rather than having to educate us with information we should have been able to figure out on our own.

Step 2: Stir the Hornet’s Nest
Having made the customer sit up, and perhaps even nervous, given our insight, make the challenge even bigger by introducing a new perspective that connects those challenges to either a bigger problem or a bigger opportunity than they ever realised they had. If they were perhaps able to shrug off the first statement of threat they will certainly be more noticeable of the bigger unknown.

Step 3: The Evidence is Clear
The third step is where we lay out the business case for why the challenges of step 2 are worth our customer’s time and attention. This is the time for the facts and figures: the PowerPoint slides often shown in the first minutes of a traditional pitch. Now it’s time for the true, often hidden, cost of the problem or size of the opportunity they’d completely overlooked. We’ve all used this before: the “FUD factor”—fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Step 4: Make it Personal
The customer must be in the picture. Step 4 is all about making sure that the customer sees themselves in the story we’re telling. What we need to avoid is a counter-argument stating “interesting, but we’re different”. So how do you counter the “we’re different” defensce?

You begin by painting a picture of how other companies just like theirs went down a painful path by engaging in behaviour that they will immediately recognise as typical of their own company.

Step 5: A New Hope
Then you have to convince them of the solution. This is a point-by-point review of the specific capabilities they would need in order to make money, save money, or mitigate the risk that we’ve just convinced them they’re facing.

Step 6: We’ve just the tonic!
The goal of step 6 is to demonstrate how our solution is better than anyone else’s to equip them to act differently. As Dixon and Adamson say, if our competition is still in the running at this point, then we have either failed to identify capabilities that are truly unique or we have failed to lead them as convincingly as we’d hoped. Don’t lead with, lead to. Bring them to your solution.

Lesson 4: We are one.

While we might have assumed that things like price and willingness to customise a solution would top the list for decision makers, these features are significantly less important to the decision maker than widespread support and ease of doing business.

It turns out that the path a sales rep needs to take to earn a decision maker’s support, is one via the customer’s team—identifying, nurturing, and encouraging key customer stakeholders across the organisation.

So how do we make this journey?

One of the biggest obstacles a normal sales rep meets when it comes to dealing with consensus-based buying, is how to tailor the sales message to different stakeholders to achieve maximum resonance. Dixon and Adamson suggest we should start at the broadest level—the customer’s industry—and work our way down, through the person’s company, the person’s role, and, finally, to that individual person.

Difficult? Yes. But the vast majority of sales messaging being used in the market is not contextualised at any level, let alone at each of these levels for each kind of stakeholder.

So we need to get together with our marketing team and find out what’s going on in terms of industry trends and current events. Has a big competitor recently folded? Has there been a meaningful merger? Is the customer rapidly gaining or losing share? What about regulatory changes? What do the company’s recent press releases and earnings statements suggest about strategic priorities?

Dixon and Adamson suggest Challenger reps aren’t focused on what they are selling, but on what the person they’re speaking to is trying to accomplish. The product is the tool to achieve the goal.

Lesson 5: Taking Control of the Sale

The following scene takes place millions of times in a business day. A Relationship Builder comes to the end of a customer meeting. Pregnant Pause. What next? They won’t push hard on next steps – closing the sale - for fear of ruining what was otherwise a positive interaction.

On the other hand, Challengers understand that the goal is to sell a deal, not just have a good meeting; they are focused on moving ahead. Challengers take control across the entirety of the sales process, not just at the end. In fact, one of the prime opportunities for taking control is actually right at the beginning of the sale.

We have to agree that many sales opportunities that may have appeared viable on the surface were little more than veiled “verification efforts” by a customer. In other words, the customer has already chosen a vendor to partner with, but feels the need to do some due diligence—to make sure they’re getting the best deal.

Because the customer has no intention of actually buying from these other suppliers, they only allow reps to meet with the junior contact, never permitting access to more senior decision makers. But even in this early stage of the sale, Challengers know better. They sniff out these “foils” immediately and press the contact for expanded access in exchange for continued dialogue. If the customer isn’t interested then neither is the Challenger. They’ll not waste their time. They’ve moved on to the next opportunity. Do you have the confidence to say enough is enough?

Challengers “lead and simplify.” Rather than assuming that the customer knows how to execute the purchase of a complex solution they teach the customer how to buy the solution.

As a challenger, we are teaching our customers things that they didn’t know before. We have practical experiences from hundreds, if not thousands, of implementations, while this may be the first such implementation for them.

Taking control means that we know the value of those resources and we don’t bring them to bear willy-nilly on a customer who isn’t serious about the decision. Before they buy our solution, the customer has to buy us and our perspective of the solution.