The Challenger Sale – A New Model for High Performance Sales Teams

In order to significantly move the revenue needle, it’s imperative to understand The Challenger Sale – A New Model for High Performance Sales Teams, as that is what separates the most effective sales organizations apart from the pack.  And the time is now. Customer buying behaviors have changed as many vendors have adopted a solution selling methodology to sell large, complex, disruptive and more expensive solutions.

In 2009, the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) set out to answer this fundamental question: “What skills, behaviors, knowledge and attributes matter most for high performance sales teams?”  Specifically, the CEB:

  • Initially surveyed hundreds of front-line sales managers spanning nearly 100 countries
  • Instructed each sales manager to assess three sales reps they directly managed – on average,  two sales reps and one star or high performer across 44 different attributes
  • Included every major industry, geography and go-to-market model into the survey
  • Asked sales managers to assess each sales reps’ attitude, the degree to which the sales rep worked to solve customer issues and the sales reps’ willingness to risk disapproval
  • Analyzed the skills, behaviors, activities, knowledge of the customers’ business and of the sales reps’ own company’s solutions
  • Addressed the sales reps’ tenure, geography, account size, direct vs. indirect, and general territory vs. named account
  • Utilized ‘performance against quota’ as the prevailing metric to gauge overall effectiveness
  • Surveyed over 6,000 sales reps globally since the initial survey

It is easy see that the approach the CEB took was quite comprehensive. Data was captured to correlate the specific behaviors and activities that positively impacted sales performance.  The survey was not designed, developed or executed to become a study of personality traits or personal strengths.  It was conducted to focus on specific skills and behavior of high performance sales teams.  The goal was to understand which things high performers do better so that the average performer could be more effective. It was not to try to incrementally improve the performance of stars or high performers.

High Performance Sales Teams – High Performance Sales Reps

Finding Number One – The Five Sales Rep Profiles

The 44 attributes tested by the CEB fell into five distinct groups statistically derived from the survey data.  The five distinct sales rep profiles were: the Hard Worker,  the Challenger,  the Relationship Builder, the Lone Wolf and the Reactive Problem Solver.

The Hard Worker

Represents 21% of the sample

  • Strong work ethic – not a clock watcher
  • Always willing to go the extra mile
  • Productivity metrics are through the roof
  • Great blockers and tacklers
  • Doesn’t give up easily
  • Self-motivated
  • Open to feedback and personal development

The Challenger Sale 5 Sales ProfilesThe Challenger

Represents 27% of sample

  • Best described by the phrase, “think different”
  • Has a different view of the world
  • Learns the customer’s industry and business as well as or better than the customer
  • Confident in sharing his or her view regardless of whether it is controversial
  • Always ready, willing and able to debate (internally or externally)
  • Comfortable in staying in moments of tension with the customer
  • Not a jerk-this rep does the above in a politically correct manner

The Relationship Builder

Represents 21% of the sample

  • Builds strong relationships that cultivates advocates across the organization
  • Willing to invest time to help others- people pleasers
  • Always accessible and ready to serve
  • Amiable-gets along with everyone
  • Customers love these reps

The Lone Wolf

Represents 18% of the sample

  • Relies and follows his or her instincts versus the rules
  • Self-confident
  • Hard to manage – will color outside the lines
  • Allergic to process, systems, reports, meetings
  • Top performers but this style cannot be taught to the masses nor tolerated

The Reactive Problem Solver

Represents 14% of sample

  • Dependable and reliably responds to internal and external requests
  • Follows up on all problems through resolution
  • Detail-oriented – loves post-it notes
  • Keeps promises
  • Great at post sales-holds everyone accountable
  • Gets distracted from new customer acquisitions once an existing customer calls
  • Committed to keeping customers happy

High Performance Sales Teams – The Most Effective Sales Rep Profile

While each sales rep profile has its pros and cons, in general, an argument could be made that each profile is “good”.  However, when each sales profile was measured by the “golden rule of sales” (performance against quota), one sales profile emerged as the clear winner on high performance sales teams and one was at the bottom of the pack.

In comparing the five sales profiles, core performers were separated from star or high performers in each of the five categories.  The distribution of core performers across the five sales profiles was relatively consistent, ranging from a low of 14% in the Reactive Problem Solver profile to a high of 26% in the Relationship Builder profile.  In all, average performers appear in all categories and do not gravitate towards a specific sales profile—they are all merely average performers.

Reviewing the data for star or high performers across the five sales profiles reveals a dominant way to becoming a high performer—the Challenger profile.  Specifically, 39% of high performers were found in The Challenger sales profile and 25% in the Lone Wolf category. After that, the percentages drop to the teens and lower.

The Challenger Sale - The Complex SaleCEB’s analysis of the data found that of the 44 or so attributes tested, six appeared to be statistically significant in defining a Challenger rep. Specifically, the Challenger rep:

  • Offers the customer a unique perspective apart from the pack
  • Possesses strong bi-directional communication skills
  • Has a solid understanding of the customer’s value drivers
  • Can identify the economic drivers of the customer’s business
  • Is able to discuss money comfortably
  • Pressures the customer at all stages of the sales cycle

By grouping these six attributes into three categories, the CEB determined that a Challenger rep is defined by the ability to do three things: teach, tailor and take control.

Teach for differentiation – a Challenger rep, with his or her unique and innovative perspective on the customer’s business and ability to engage in a proactive bi-directional dialogue, can teach for differentiation during the sales process.

Tailor for resonance – because a Challenger rep does his or her homework and understands the market as well as the competitor’s and customer’s business, they have a great sense of the customer’s economic and value drivers.  This allows the Challenger rep to contextualize the solution and the corresponding business impact for each role within the customer’s organization.

Take control – Challenger reps are comfortable discussing money at any stage of the sales cycle.  Rather than immediately offering discounts, Challenger reps seek to understand the nature of the request and defer price concessions until a more complete understanding of the root problem is addressed.  Often times, alternatives to price concessions are a mutually better solution.

High Performance Sales Teams – Challenger Reps are Solution Sellers

In a complex sales environment (more complex solution, a longer sales cycle and a higher price point), the Challenger sales profile is characteristic of the majority of top performers (56%) in the survey.  The Lone Wolf ranked a distant second but the difficulty in finding this breed of sales rep, the more difficult task of managing this group and the fact that the Challenger rep is twice as effective is enough of an argument for sale organizations that want high performance teams to concentrate on building a team of Challenger reps.

The Challenger Sale - The ChallengerChallenger reps are not the perfect solution for every organization.  If your sales team has adopted a solution selling sales approach and that solution is disruptive for an organization (it requires a change in behavior), then the Challenger rep profile will probably yield your highest performing sales reps.  Challenger reps will offer new perspectives and innovative thinking that will facilitate customer’s thinking in new ways about their business and this will lay the foundation for a value based relationship that the customer is drawn to and needs to be successful.

One explanation of why companies struggle with new customer acquisition as they move from a product to a solution sale is that the composition of the sales organization is spread like peanut butter across Relationship Builders, Problem Solvers, Hard Workers, Lone Wolves and the Challenger.  in product deals, there is not a lot of complexity, the sale is more transactional and price concessions are a standard part of the deal.  As a result, all five sales profiles tend to have success and can be found on high performance sales teams.  However, once the playing field shifts from a product to a solution sale, all bets are off and one sales profile stands head and shoulders above all others, when evaluated on the most important sales metric–performance against quota.

High Performance Sales Teams – Parting Thoughts

It is important to note that even with all of their attributes, Challenger reps are not the perfect solution for every organization.  If a sales team has adopted a solution selling sales approach and that solution is disruptive for an organization (it requires a change in behavior), then the Challenger rep profile will probably yield the highest performing sales reps.  Challenger reps will offer the unique perspectives and innovative thinking that facilitate the customer to think in new ways about their business.

Challenger sales reps typically bring in the biggest deals from the most complex customers and add the most value to both the customer and their own organization.  At the end of the day, you need to make the final decision but a decision that does not consider The Challenger Sale may be short sighted.

4 Responses to “The Challenger Sale – A New Model for High Performance Sales Teams”

  1. Jorge García H. January 26, 2016 at 5:45 am

    Great article!
    I´ve learned a lot, thanks!

  2. John Kennedy Veve February 26, 2018 at 3:50 am

    This is a great piece and i have learnt a lot. I will definitely look out for challenger sales reps.


  3. Hi

    This remains an interesting angle to sales that I would like to develop. Do you have a questionnaire template or set of questions that are designed in such a way as to reveal the types of sales people one has in their organisation? One that will aid in identifying the Challenger Sales person more easily than having to figure them out over time?

    Regards, Dave


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