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  • Writer's pictureJan Vincent Mertelj

Challenge Your Customer

It's how you sell, not what you sell

In Bob Ruffolo's review of Matt Dixon's and Brent Adamson's The Challenger Sales, we learn about the Challenger Model.

In preparation for this book, the authors researched over 6,000 salespeople and over 90 companies across a wide variety of industries to identify the exact characteristics and tactics that top performing Sales reps use in order to create a system of selling that anyone can replicate.

The result was the Challenger Model.

Buyers and consumers nowadays are much savvier than they were a couple decades ago, yet companies still train their employees in sales strategies that are not fit for the modern world. Although some characteristics of top sales people persist throughout the years, the most effective sales approach is completely different than the one in the past.

Seller Profiles

One of the vital points that The Challenger Sales discusses is the finding that 53% of customer loyalty is based on the customer's sales experience with the sales rep. This goes against the common belief that price, quality or branding are the most important.

The book goes into detail about five different B2B Sales rep profiles, which vary in skills and behaviours they use when interacting with customers. The profiles describe natural tendencies in interactions with people and they are not mutually exclusive.

The five seller profiles: worst to best

The Relationship Builder

  • Classic consultative rep

  • Builds advocates internally

  • Creates relationships with prospects

Relationship Builders work hard to develop strong relationships with their clients and spend a lot of time to meet their needs, resolve any conflicts, etc.

Perhaps it seems counter intuitive and, although most sales programs develop and encourage Relationship Builders, they are considered to be the worst of the five.

The Reactive Problem Solver

  • Highly detail-oriented

  • Reliably responds to stakeholders

  • Ensures all problems are solved

Customers like Reactive Problem Solvers because they seem highly reliable and will spend a large part of their time to make sure that follow-ups and after sales services are done quickly and thoroughly.

The Hard Worker

  • Doesn't give up easily

  • Self-motivated

  • Interested in feedback and personal development

Hard Workers are loved by bosses because they are usually the most productive and work the most. They tend to make the most sales calls and sales visits in a week and they do not quit until the sale is closed.

The Lone Wolf

  • Follows own instincts

  • Self-assured

  • Delivers results, but difficult to manage

Lone Wolves are characterized by high confidence and the tendency to follow their instincts. They may be hard to control because they break rules and do things their own way. They may be the most rare profile but they are the second best performing one.

The Challenger

  • Different view of the world

  • Loves to debate and push customer

  • Strong understanding of customers' business

Challengers, as the name suggests, like to challenge the customer's way of thinking and like to keep control of the conversations. It is vital that they understand the customer's business very well in order to be able to be assertive in sales conversations and express controversial views to the customer.

The book discovered the challenger profile to be the most effective and it focuses on how to implement their approach.

  • Over 50% of all-star performers fit the Challenger profile in complex Sales.

At Atol, we deal with complex B2B sales and this article is especially intriguing because one of the book's findings is that as Sales complexity increases, so does the success rate of the challenger approach. However, it is important to remember that only top performers benefit from this approach. This means that the seller has to already be experience and knowledgeable about sales, industry, and the customer's business.

What is the Challenger Sales Rep like?

  1. They offer a unique perspective to the customer.

  2. They have very strong two-way communication skills.

  3. They understand the value drivers of each individual customer.

  4. They understand the economic drivers of each customer's business.

  5. They are comfortable discussing money.

  6. They can pressure the customer.

Of course these traits are not excluseive to the Challenger type but are most commonly found together in Challengers.

These traits give them the best foundation to do these things well:

  1. Teach the customer something valuable and innovative on how to compete in their market.

  2. Tailor their Sales pitch to specifically resonate with the key decision maker's primary issues.

  3. Take control of the discussions around pricing and challenge the customer's thoughts about any problems.

However, we cannot stress enough that simply trying to copy this approach is almost certainly doomed to fail. The article goes on to describe the Commercial Teaching. This is when the seller will use the sales conversation to challenge the customer's way of thinking about their needs. An important technique Challengers use is re-framing of customers' problems to guide the conversation to the strengths of Challenger's company. They also create a sense of urgency in order to make customers act now.

The article also provides steps to do the commercial teaching pitch, however, we believe that such a general guideline may be detrimental, as adopting the Challenger's way of selling needs intensive training, experience, and coaching. The sellers need to be informed across all the industries of their customers because there is a fine line between the Challenger Sales and coming off as arrogant, rude, and unprofessional.

Adapt Your Messaging to the Situation

This is perhaps the one tip that is most easily implemented and one that we find incredibly important at Atol.

Challengers are very well aware of the problems, needs, and goals that their conversation partner has - or they make it their priority to find them out.

Complex B2B Sales requires you to do your homework on your customer, to be creative in your conversations, and not to shy away from disagreeing with the customer. It is vital to adapt your messages to the individual that you are currently talking to. A sales manager will not have the same personal problems and goals as the general manager or the owner. Thus, you need to communicate how your solution will solve that person's problem. However, you do not have to be left to your own devices. There are tools and prompters you can use to control the conversations in the direction to find out your counterpart's challenges and needs.

Ultimately, what makes Challengers such good salespeople is that they will stand firm on the value they bring, they will maintain control of the conversation, and they will keep the momentum going throughout the whole sales process.

They know exactly where they are in the sales process and what needs to be done. This means that they will often abandon/bypass people who are not decision-makers (or cannot help them gain access to decision-makers) or simply are not moving forward as Challengers would like.

Adapted from The Challenger Sale review by Bob Ruffolo: and

The Challenger Sale by Matt Dixon and Brent Adamson

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