The Challenger Sale Model: How to Lead the Conversation

Challenger Sales Model

Many believe that building relationships with prospects is an integral part of the sales process. However, the authors of “The Challenger Sale”, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, have different ideas.

They say that when it comes to top-performing sales reps, building relationships is the least effective strategy in closing sales. Instead, they argue that sales reps who take control of a sale and teach their prospects how to solve their problem, instead of focusing on building a relationship, are more successful. 

Research from Gartner highlights a growing trend in the customer buying journey. Gartner’s research found that by the time a customer contacts a sales rep, they’re roughly 57% of the way through the purchase process. The study shows that prospects, based on their own research and learning, are coming into a selling environment with preconceived ideas about what features they want and how much they’re willing to pay. 

It’s in this environment where the Challenger sales model shines. The prospects aren’t as interested in being told about the product features and benefits, as they already know about them from their own research. Buyers are inundated with and have access to high-quality information readily available on the internet. 

Yet, rather than feeling confident in their purchase path forward, buyers are becoming overwhelmed by the seemingly endless good choices and need help making a decision. If they reach out to a sales rep, they are most interested in their purchase experience and the answer to ‘why’ they should buy—rather than ‘what’ they should buy. 

So, is the Challenger sales methodology the answer to these new buying behaviors? 

To summarize, in this piece we are going to look at: 

What is the Challenger sales model?

The term “Challenger sales” was coined in 2011 when Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson published the book “The Challenger Sale: How To Take Control of the Customer Conversation”.

The Challenger sales model and methodology is built around a sales process that focuses on teaching, tailoring and taking control of a sales experience. Using the Challenger sales methodology, Dixon and Adamson argue that with the right training and sales tools sales reps can take control of any customer conversation.

Before we look at how to take control of a sales situation, it’s essential to dive into what exactly it means to be a “Challenger”.

Dixon, Adamson and their colleagues researched the attitudes and behaviors of thousands of sales reps and discovered that they fall into one of five distinct profiles:

  • The Hard Worker: Goes the extra mile, doesn’t give up easily, is self-motivated and likes feedback and development 
  • The Relationship Builder: Builds strong customer advocates, is generous with giving their time to help others and gets along with everyone 
  • The Lone Wolf: Follows their own instincts, is self-assured and independent 
  • The Problem Solver: Is reliable, ensures all problems are solved and is detail-oriented
  • The Challenger: Has a different view of the world, understands the customer’s business, loves to debate, pushes the customer to get out of their comfort zone

The Challenger profile allows reps to build up to a sale by creating constructive tension. Challengers intentionally dispute their customer’s way of thinking and force them to contemplate a new perspective. This creates some slight tension in the form of a casual debate. By encouraging their customers to consider new opportunities, the Challenger can begin to offer an alternative way forward. 

The Challenger sales method relies on delivering insight about an unknown problem or opportunity in the customer’s business that the supplier is uniquely positioned to solve.

It captures a prospect’s assumptions or beliefs, pinpoints flaws or untruths in them, and then makes room for a sales rep to offer a better solution.

Research has found that challenging customer assumptions, disrupting their thinking and teaching them something new can help boost sales. Here’s a relevant quote from the book.

"Challengers aren’t so much world-class investigators as they are world-class teachers. They win not by understanding their customers’ world as well as the customers 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.”

How can businesses benefit from Challenger selling?

As modern-day products and services become more complex, so do the sales processes behind them. 

Customers now have more access to information than ever before. A quick search online can uncover endless details on a product and customers’ experiences with it. As a result, customers are delaying initial contact with sellers while they do their research. 

It’s in this complex sales process where businesses can use the Challenger sales model to their advantage. Studies have found that the Challenger sale approach is the best solution to complex sales conditions. While other methods stagnate, the Challenger methodology is a winning sales formula when it comes to complex selling.

challenger sales chart

It’s these figures that make it worthwhile to pay attention to the Challenger approach.

A further study that involved interviewing more than 6,000 sales reps uncovered some interesting findings:

  • 40% of top sales performers primarily used a Challenger sales selling style
  • Top performers were more than two times likely to use a Challenger approach than any other approach
  • Over 50% of all-star performers fit the Challenger profile in complex sales
  • Only 7% of high sales performers took a Relationship Building approach (the worst-performing profile)

These statistics tell us that the success of a chosen sales methodology is directly dependent on the customer’s buying experience. If sales reps are using relationship-building methodologies for complex scenarios, they may not have success, and vice versa.   

By adopting a Challenger approach to sales, companies can empower their top-performing reps to close even the most complex deals in their funnel. 

“Challengers are most effective at selling in the complex world of buying today and tomorrow because they take control of the purchase conversation in a way that leads customers back to the unique strengths of their organization." 


What are the pros and cons of the Challenger sales methodology? 

There are many positives to adopting a Challenger sales methodology in your team. However, there are also a few downsides. While reps who choose the Challenger sales methodology can help push sales through constructive tension, the method isn’t as useful for average performing reps or when a product has a simple sales cycle. 

challenger sales table

Your qualified reps should first evaluate their prospect’s needs and background, and then decide if the Challenger sales methodology is the right fit.

Using “Reframe” to turn your sales team into Challengers

Getting your team to adopt the Challenger sales methodology is easier said than done. It can mean breaking down everything they thought they knew about selling and putting them into a teaching role instead. 

However, it can be done. Sales leaders can use a “Reframe” method to help sales reps start to think like teachers, instead of relationship builders. 

To start the exercise off, gather up anything you can find in the salesroom (we’re talking pens, notepads, staplers, etc.) and put them all into a bag. Then split your reps into teams and have each one grab an item out of the bag. This item becomes the product they’ll try to sell to their (imaginary) prospect. If you want to keep track of the ideas throughout the exercise, you can use worksheets such as this.

For example, one group may have picked an energy-saving lightbulb out of the bag. The typical, product-centric approach to selling this would be to position it as a “perfect way to save money on your power bill”. Yet, you can teach your sales reps to take on the Challenger methodology through a scenario that might look something like this:

  • Teaching point: “A lot of people are looking for more ways to make their homes more environmentally friendly. However, did you know that traditional light bulbs use a large amount of energy that’s environmentally unfriendly?”

If the prospect uses traditional light bulbs, this teaching point will pique their curiosity.

  • The Warmer: “Our customers often tell us that they struggle to make small changes in their home that can make a difference to the environment. They tell us that their houses might be too old to make expensive changes like adding solar panels. Is this the case for you as well?”

Asking this will help validate the prospect and, at the same time, encourages them to talk about their energy-saving problems at home. 

  • Reframe: “A lot of our customers feel the same. We hear them taking measures such as turning their heating down or recycling more, which is excellent. Still, it’s interesting to know that a change of light bulb can make a big difference to your energy usage and environmental impact. Have you ever considered the fact that your traditional light bulbs use between 25-80% more energy than an energy-efficient bulb? How many rooms does your house have?”

Now, your rep can use that last question to build an emotional connection.

  • Emotional connection: “That’s interesting. One of my grandparents has a similar size house to you, and it seems that you share a lot of the same traits, like using traditional light bulbs. It’s a shame, as his energy costs are astronomical. Is that the case for you as well?”

Once the prospect realizes that your rep can empathize with them about their energy costs, it’s the perfect moment to offer a solution. 

  • Value proposition: “Well, you will be happy to know that you can make small changes around your house to cut your energy costs. For example, your four-bedroom home would have roughly 50 light bulbs, I would assume? By replacing those with energy-efficient light bulbs, you can save $150 a year, and they will last four times as long as traditional light bulbs. Is that something you would be interested in?”

Then all your sales rep has to do is introduce your product.

  • Value proposition: “That’s fantastic. We are currently running an introductory offer on our energy-efficient light bulbs, and I would be happy to talk more about how we can make your entire house more energy efficient to keep your energy costs down. Is that something you would want to talk about in more detail?”

The last step of this exercise is to get your entire sales team to give feedback on how each team did.

  • Did they lead the prospect to the solution effectively? 
  • Did they reframe the problem in a way that strayed from the traditional approach to selling?

Once you’ve done this with objects from around the office, you’ve shown your sales team how the Challenger sales methodology can benefit them in complex selling scenarios. Now, you can take them through each approach in detail to get them ready to use it when selling one of your products.

How to adopt the Challenger sales methodology in 5 steps

The backbone of the Challenger sales methodology is teaching prospects as opposed to building a relationship with them.

Your sales reps must be equipped to take control of the sale and nudge customers into making purchase decisions. If done right, the selling style mirrors a ride on a rollercoaster. It taps into a prospect’s fears by showing them what will happen if they don’t act and eventually raises their hopes by positioning your product as the solution to these alarming scenarios. This emotional rollercoaster ends on a high—with the prospect eager to purchase your product.

challenger sales graph

The methodology can be adopted using a five-step process.

Step 1: The warm-Up

The first step of the Challenger sales process is to build credibility with prospects. It’s crucial that your sales reps show their prospects that they understand the challenges they’re facing. To do this, your reps need to thoroughly research and investigate the prospect’s pain points, challenges and needs. 

While other selling techniques require reps to talk about what your product does, the Challenger sale method demands reps talk about their prospect’s needs instead. Your product is never mentioned at this stage, but rather the entire discussion should focus on the prospect’s problem. 

Sales reps should:

  • Show prospect’s why they’re contacting them: Talk about typical issues the prospect might be dealing with to show that they understand and can empathize.
  • Prove they’re an expert: Demonstrate that they have the necessary experience to understand their prospect’s problems and what they’re dealing with.
  • Get them feeling curious: Introduce any facts or research about the problem that might pique interest.
  • Get interactive: Use visuals and interactive content to get the prospect involved in the discussion and uncover crucial pain points they are facing.

Sales reps should aim to have nothing more than a thought-provoking conversation with their prospect at this point. The groundwork put into these early conversations helps to lay the foundation for selling further down the track. 

Step 2: Reframe the conversation

During the warm-up, the prospect might’ve said that their biggest problem is landing customers. Or, that their marketing costs are too high. This next step focuses on finding the root of the prospect’s problems and reframing them as growth opportunities. 

Once the sales rep digs a little deeper, they can begin to break down any misconceptions the prospect has about how they will solve their problems. By forcing a new perspective into the conversation, the prospect should slowly begin to shift their mindset away from what they perceived to be the answer to their problems.

By the end of the conversation, the sales rep is essentially telling the prospect that the problem-solving solution they had in mind isn’t going to work. After challenging the prospect to accept this, even only hypothetically at this point, they can begin to reframe the conversation around better solutions. They can do this by:

  • Staying on topic: Address the concerns the prospect talked about in step 1 and reiterate understanding, knowledge and expertise. 
  • Surprising the prospect about their misconceptions: Challenge them to shift their focus away from how they thought they could solve their problem to the new more effective methods they could use.
  • Addressing the problem with confidence: Turning the conversation around like this requires a certain level of fearlessness and assurance. The more confident and relatable the rep can be, the more the prospect will trust them to present alternative solutions.

Once again, the goal of this step isn’t to sell. All the rep should be trying to do is evoke a sense of curiosity in the prospect and get them to think in new ways.

Step 3: Use emotions

No matter how good your product is or how many features it has, emotions will still play a key role in B2B buying behavior. Up to 95% of our decision-making is subconscious and usually driven by our emotional reaction, according to professor Gerald Zaltman.

“One firm with a very ‘tired’ brand explored consumers’ hidden thoughts and feelings and discovered a relevant, basic emotion that had been overlooked by all brands in the category. They were able to connect this emotion with their brand giving it a major sales boost.”

The more that a prospect can personally relate to a product, the more likely they are to buy it.

A great way to get prospects to see personal value is by presenting them with relatable customer stories. By telling stories of customers that have similar problems, the prospect can begin to see themselves as the main character. And by showing the prospect how these other customers benefited from a new solution, you’re forcing them to picture how they could benefit, too.

Once a prospect realizes that an alternate solution could, in fact, solve their problem, it’s harder for them to go back to their old ways of thinking. 

Now that the prospect is happily picturing themselves using a new solution, reps can take the emotional rollercoaster a step further by showing prospects what will happen if they don’t change their outlook. They can do this by:

  • Telling a story: The emotional impact will come from storytelling. Reps should tell a story that paints a picture of what will happen if their prospect continues down their familiar path. They should make the story relatable by addressing their prospect’s pain points, challenges and failing solutions. 
  • Using customer stories: Then, replace this fictional unhappy ending with real-life success stories. The stories should be backed by case studies of people who have solved their problems using these alternative solutions. Sales reps should use visuals when telling the stories, as pictures stick in people’s minds more than words during a sales pitch or sales presentation—or even when shared over email.
  • Doing research: Now is the time to provide invaluable insight in a way that resonates with the prospect’s concerns and aspirations. As soon as the prospect begins to picture themselves using a new solution, reps should back up their argument with data to rationalize their statements.

It’s in this step where all of the hard work starts to line up. If done right, it’s almost impossible for a prospect to see the benefits of continuing down the same path they were on before. 

Step 4: The value proposition

It’s now time to show the prospect the possibilities of a better future if they choose the new path laid out in front of them.  

Reps should still not introduce your product as the solution just yet. Instead, they should focus on showing the prospect that their problem can be easily solved. 

Reps can frame these solutions by:

  • Painting a picture of a positive future: In the last step, reps told a story with a bad ending. Now, they should flip this story to show their prospect what the future will look like if they decide to take action.
  • Focusing on solutions: And nothing else. The prospect needs to start connecting the dots themselves.
  • Running a marathon, not a sprint: Reps should take their time to explain anything the prospect is unsure about. They can help the prospect connect the dots, if absolutely necessary.

The ultimate goal in this step is to educate the prospect about what the ideal solution to their problem looks like, without ever mentioning your product. It seems counter-intuitive, but if reps do this right, their prospect will sell themselves on your solution before your rep ever has to.

Step 5: The product

The hard work is done. Reps have taken the prospect’s problem, reframed it, gained their trust and offered up a solution to solve it. The only thing left for reps to do is fill in the blank and show their prospect that they have that exact solution.

If reps follow all the steps in the process correctly, this final step should be painless and quick. How they introduce your product will depend on what you’re selling. If your company is a SaaS product, reps might offer their prospects a demo. If you are a web development agency, reps may provide a detailed walkthrough of what working with your company would look like.

How to apply the Challenger sale methodology

Let’s look at how using these five steps could play out in a fictional scenario. 

For example, if a rep is talking to a business owner that is struggling to acquire customers, she may have uncovered that the root issue is misguided digital marketing efforts. By digging further, the rep may discover the prospect’s misconception that the only way to solve their problem is to spend money on social media ads to boost reach. 

Armed with this knowledge, the rep can position herself as an authority on the subject, using facts and data to present compelling reasons for why the problem exists. She can reframe the problem in a new way by explaining that paid ads work best in x, y and z scenarios and that her target’s business doesn’t fall into them.

By shocking the prospect into this realization, the rep can begin to outline several more effective methods that are better solutions to their problems. By doing this, the rep begins to shift the prospect’s mindset about how to improve their digital marketing efforts and boost curiosity in how these new solutions work.

Next, the rep can begin sharing compelling customer stories to open up the prospect’s eyes. The prospect will now begin picturing themselves using these new solutions and relating to the stories the rep is telling. In a final emotional rollercoaster, the rep can tell a story with a negative ending, forcing the prospect to picture what will happen if they do not stray from their current path.

The rep can then present case studies backed by real data that show how other people with similar problems chose a new solution. By now, the prospect is beginning to see these solutions as the only sensible next step and is eager to hear how to get started. 

Finally, the rep can present her company’s solution, which is an analytics tool that captures data and provides actionable insights for how companies can save money and boost reach through digital marketing efforts other than paid social media ads. The prospect’s company is young and has not yet ramped up its content marketing, organic customer outreach through storytelling, cleverly crafted campaigns based on smart data, and so much more. 

The idea is that by the time the rep presents their solution, they will have positioned it as the obvious choice and the prospect will be ready to buy.

Wrapping up

Sales processes are becoming more complex and prospects are doing more research on their own before they make contact with a sales rep.

Sales leaders must try to find ways for their sales reps to get ahead. When tackling complex sales cycles, research has proven that the Challenger sales model comes out on top. By taking a prospect on a rollercoaster and teaching them that the solution they thought was best may not be so, sales reps can take control of the selling process. 

The result? A prospect’s thought process is stripped back, and they are taught something new. If done right, your product can go from one of many options to the only plausible solution in solving their problem.

Sales Training
Previous article:
Sales Training: Creating the Perfect Training Program for your Team
Marketplace Apps Spotlight January 2020
Next article:
Pipedrive Marketplace Monthly Apps Spotlight: January 2020