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Why the Challenger Sales Model Is the Future of B2B Sales

March 7, 2023

challenger sales model

Selling is hard. Selling to B2B customers is a Herculean task.

Buyers are inundated with several high-quality products to choose from. They can easily access product and market information and prefer to research without help. 

The hard truth is that selling hasn’t gotten any easier. The traditional sales approach of cold calling or waiting for customers to reach out no longer works well. Rather, sales reps need to be proactive and devise a new sales strategy. They need to take control of the customer conversation instead of focusing on just selling them solutions. The Challenger sales model helps you do just that. 

Read on to learn more about the Challenger sales model, its benefits, and how to adopt it for your business. 

The Challenger sales model, proposed by Brent Adamson and Matthew Dixon, is based on the best practices of high-performing salespeople, or as the authors call it, the Challenger.

Adamson and Dixon surveyed thousands of sales reps to determine which skills, behavior, attitudes, and activities matter the most for high sales performance. Based on the results, they categorized sales reps into five groups: 

  • The Challenger: Has a unique worldview. They understand the customer's business well and get them to see the problem from a different perspective.
  • The hard worker: Shows up early, stays late, and isn't afraid to go the extra mile. They don’t give up easily. 
  • The relationship builder: Generously invests time and resources to nurture strong customer relationships. 
  • The lone wolf: Does things their way and doesn’t prefer working in a team.
  • The reactive problem solver: Takes care of the smallest details and solves problems for everyone involved.

Adamson and Dixon found that the Challenger closed more deals than other sales reps by leveraging their deep understanding of the customer's pain points. They adapted their communication to be better received by the customer.

Six distinct characteristics that define a Challenger sales rep:

  • Has strong two-way communication skills
  • Knows each customer’s value drivers
  • Recognizes each customer’s major economic drivers
  • Is comfortable talking about money
  • Brings in unique perspectives
  • Can persuade the customer to make a decision

The Challenger sales model is based on the Challenger salesperson's profile.

The model's four key principles are teaching, tailoring, taking control, and probing. It suggests distinct strategies to engage the customer, create a more thought-provoking environment, and get them out of their comfort zone. 

Instead of presenting a generic product offering, the salesperson works to understand customers’ needs and provides a tailored solution that meets those needs. This approach is designed to be more consultative, with the salesperson acting as an advisor or expert, helping customers make the right decision. 

How is the Challenger sales model different from others?

Many modern sales methods assume customers know what they need and focus on pitching the perfect solution. The Challenger sales model takes a different approach. It makes a sales call feel less like a sale and more like a consultation. 

Challengers don't tell customers what they want to hear or what they already know. They offer customers new ideas and insights they may not have considered. 

While other sales strategies may make customers go, “Yes, I totally agree! It's what keeps me up at night!” the Challenger sales model gets them saying, “I've never thought about it like that.” The sales rep becomes the expert in the room, grabbing customer attention and driving action. 

The Challenger sales model allows sales reps to be proactive about the deal and the conversation. It emphasizes that salespeople fearlessly engage with prospects, challenge their existing solutions, and offer better alternatives.

Benefits of the Challenger sales model

The way a buyer thinks, decides, and buys has changed, as have sellers' expectations. Consider B2B buyers’ behavior during their buying journey:

  • More than 60% of buyers agree or strongly agree that vendor sales teams aren’t involved in the research phase of their buying process.
  • Almost 7 out of 10 customers only engage the sales team in the last phase of the buying process.
  • 1 in 2 respondents said they couldn't find credible content or knowledge about vendors' products because that content wasn’t specific to their industry.

A plethora of options, a lack of credible content, and increasing complexity make it harder for sellers to build trust with buyers. The Challenger sales model effectively addresses these challenges.

1. Increase win rates

You may think building relationships is the easiest way to close deals. In fact, most sales training courses focus on how salespeople can nurture customer relationships. But the reality can be different.

According to a study by Adamson and Dixon, 40% of top performers on sales teams are challengers. They’re three times more effective at complex sales and have higher win rates. On the other hand, relationship builders make up only 7% of star performers. By leveraging the Challenger sales approach, companies can empower their sales teams to close more deals.

2. Identify great differentiators

Almost 53% of B2B customers say the buying experience contributes to long-term customer retention and growth. Not what the companies sell, but how they sell is more important than the brand name, product, or service. 

The Challenger sales model helps you find ways to disrupt customers' current thinking and drastically improve the buying experience. You can easily answer, "why should customers buy from you and not your competitor?" and make your business stand out. This is a golden ticket to grab customers' attention in a crowded market.

3. Take control of a complex sales experience

The Challenger sales model offers a structured approach to maximizing selling efficiency and results. This model ensures your message comes across clearly and effectively, giving you an edge over competitors who cling to traditional methods.

With the Challenger sales approach, you examine who the stakeholders are, what’s important to them, and why they care from the beginning of the sales process. This gives you a hold of the entire sales experience from start to finish, where you proactively interact with various stakeholders and drive the conversation. 

While you're happy to listen to a customer for hours, you know when and how to persuade them to decide. You don't let the customer linger long in the unclear decision-making phase. Challengers respectfully retaliate when customers ask for a lower price or more relaxed terms because they believe in their product’s value.

4. Allow salespeople to develop their character and build a solid team

The Challenger sales model requires salespeople to emulate the best practices of high-performing salespeople. It isn’t just about acquiring new knowledge and skills but applying them in real-world situations.

Challengers conduct proper research, adjust communications, be fearless, and challenge assumptions throughout the sales cycle. They work with other teams to gain better insights into their and their client’s business. This helps them develop character from the ground up to face any challenge during sales. 

How a Challenger leads the conversation

Prospects go through different emotional levels when dealing with a Challenger salesperson. Here’s how a Challenger leads the conversation.

1. The warm-up

The first step in any educational offering is building credibility with potential customers. The Challenger presents facts and insights demonstrating their industry expertise and deep understanding of client needs and business goals. Customers get an informed pitch about their issues instead of enlightening the sales rep with the information they should have gathered.

Challenger sales reps never discuss their solution during the warm-up. Rather, they establish themselves as someone experienced in understanding the customer's problems and laying the groundwork for the eventual sale.

2. Reframing for growth opportunities

In the second step, the Challengers frame the conversations by restating the problems with an unexpected insight. The aim is to surprise, arouse curiosity, and make customers want to learn more.

And this is where the magic happens! Why is that important? Customers come to sellers with preconceived ideas about the problems, the products and features they want, and how much they're willing to pay. Challengers sales reps use reframing as an opportunity to bring fresh perspectives to the conversation.

They reiterate the customer's problems and show how they can unlock new growth potential by investing in the right product or service. This is the phase where you give the customer the aha moment.

The insight isn't instantaneous brilliance, which the sales rep got from listening to the customer warm up. Rather, it's a well-prepared and researched but unknown insight that sales reps are willing to discuss in detail.

Suppose you sell millet-based foods. Rather than pitching it as a “healthy and nutritious food option,” a Challenger will reframe the conversation, “research shows that millet is healthy for the body and the environment as it uses far less water and resources and has a low carbon footprint.” This will be the insight they share.

3. Powerful use of emotions

Ninety-five percent of purchase decisions are unconscious, with emotions playing a key role. Challenger sales reps use emotional jargon and stories to create a powerful connection with their prospects. They’re not afraid to show empathy and touch the emotional nerve.

Challengers share effective and relatable stories of how they've helped other companies face the same problems. This builds confidence in prospects that you have the right solution to solve their pain points.

4. Emphasis on the value proposition

In this phase, the Challenger speaks of an ideal solution with detailed characteristics and capabilities that the prospect needs to solve their problem. They help prospects understand the benefits of a particular solution and why they should choose it. Challengers don't present their products just yet.

The focus here is not to get the prospect to buy “your solution” but to buy “a solution”. It seems unusual not to present your solution at this stage. However, the point of this step is not to say how your product solves the prospect’s problem but how adding or changing something makes their life easier.

5. Positioning the product

This is where product-related discussions take place. Until now, the sales reps have understood the prospect’s problem, reframed it, and bought their support for a solution that closely matches the reps' solutions. All of these conversations now naturally lead to their product. 

The Challengers show why they’re the best choice for the solution agreed on in the previous step. The credibility built and the value offered during the sales pitch drives prospects to choose the solution Challenger representatives offer.

Sales reps guide prospects down the product education path and walk them through the unique features through a demo or free trial. Now all that remains is to close the deal.

How to implement the Challenger sales model

Consider these six steps to successfully implement the Challenger sales model in your business. The steps begin with group education and progress to personal education.

  1. Educate your team about the model
  2. Provide necessary industry education
  3. Train them to find growth opportunities from conversations
  4. Leverage the quality of every profile
  5. Execute and evaluate

1. Educate your team about the model

With the right training, coaching, and sales tools, most salespeople – even passionate relationship builders – can learn to take control of the customer conversation like a Challenger.

The first step to implementing the Challenger sales model is ensuring everyone on your team fully understands it. The concept can be confusing, and sales reps may be unsure how to become a Challenger. 

To help them understand the characteristics of a Challenger, create a persona and use it to explain the model in detail. People remember characters and their stories, not models.

Instead of showing how an ideal Challenger would work, show them that Chris Miller (a fictional character) is a Challenger and how they run a sale. Create stories and case studies around the character and start training your team.

As a next step, assess your current sales process. Who are your star performers? What drives performance? How close is your current sales process to the Challenger model? Do you deliver new insights to customers and lead them to the product? Do you have a great differentiator (the reframe) for your solution against the competition?  

Answer these questions and work to uncover unique benefits and insights that connect customers to your capabilities and make them choose your solution. After all, you don't want to offer a prospect free advice only to send them to your competitor.

2. Provide necessary industry education

Reps don't start with a blank sheet and magically discover each customer's needs. They need better data, research, segmentation, and customer analysis. Your reps should know how different customers work. Connecting them to the right partners helps them learn more about your solution, the customer's business model, and how to engage them better.

Coach your reps to tailor their insights to specific customers and stakeholders.

3. Train them to find growth opportunities from conversations

Coaching is essential to sales and an absolute must for teams adopting the Challenger sales model. To sell effectively, train your sales reps to lead the conversation and challenge customers when necessary.

They should be able to navigate the right sales path by examining past conversations like lost deals. One way to do this is by checking your sales CRM for lost deals and examining why you lost them and what a Challenger would have done differently. 

4. Leverage the quality of every profile

Even if you value certain qualities in a Challenger salesperson, you don’t want every sales rep to be a Challenger. Each sales rep falls under a different profile and has unique qualities.

As a leader, you must work with your team, identify their strengths, and adapt your method to get them to embrace the Challenger sales model and keep their distinct qualities intact. 

A lone wolf might be good at presenting insights but needs to work on communicating with the team to be a successful Challenger. On the other hand, a relationship builder may be good at building credibility but may need to learn how to persuade the customer and challenge them when necessary. Note the differences and train your reps accordingly.

For example, some sales reps may prefer automating their emails rather than spending more time on calls if prospects want to personally speak with them.

Not every sales rep will adopt the Challenger sales model, nor should you pressure them to adopt it. If your high-performing sales reps breaking their sales quotas are predisposed to a non-challenger selling model, leave them alone as long as they continue to exceed targets.

Test the model on a small portion of your core sales team first and see how it goes. Then, share the success stories to inspire others to follow suit.

5. Execute and evaluate

Once you have unique insights and iterations ready, run the model and see how it works. Here are some things you can do to ensure your sales reps emulate Challenger behavior. 

  • Provide them with the right support and guidance
  • Measure the response to your Challenger sales pitch 
  • Get feedback from prospects, customers, and sales reps on the buying experience
  • Assess individual performance to know what's working and what's not to optimize your sales process

Pros and cons of the Challenger sales model

Although the Challenger sales model offers several advantages, it’s not without disadvantages. 

Pros 

Cons 

Provides unique insights and reframes customer’s view 

Generating unique insights that challenge customers repeatedly at scale is difficult. Not all insights can be a commercially successful pitch that boosts sales. 

Sales reps control the conversations with an assertive and compelling tone

There's always a chance that sales reps come off as pushy and arrogant instead of assertive.

Emulating high-performing challengers improves win rates and helps even during uncertain times

Not all sales reps will be comfortable with the Challenger model, especially those following a relationship-building approach. 

Reps know the customer’s business well and understand their economic and value drivers 

Investing time and resources in customer research works better for a business with a complex sales process than a simple one. 

Challenging the norm

The Challenger sales model is an effective way to help your sales reps build meaningful customer relationships and discover new sales opportunities. When you provide your team with the right training and resources, they can identify customer needs, challenge conventional thinking, and provide solutions that meet those needs.

Keep the customer experience at the core of your business and discover actionable tips and strategies to delight your customers and keep them coming back.

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Why the Challenger Sales Model Is the Future of B2B Sales See how the Challenger sales model offers a diverse approach to sales and shapes customer perspectives on unconventional solutions. https://learn.g2.com/hubfs/iStock-1327685805.jpg
Kashyap Trivedi Kashyap Trivedi is a Growth Marketer at Salesmate. He loves talking about content-led growth, creating and experimenting with a new content and distribution model. You can find him meditating or playing table tennis when he's not working. https://learn.g2.com/hubfs/Kashyap%20Salesmate.jpg

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