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The Challenger Sales Model: Everything You Need to Know

Shruti Kapoor headshot

Shruti Kapoor
Head of International Business, Clari



Ready to take your revenue to new heights?

Stylized graphic of man multitasking
Stylized graphic of man multitasking

When we say, “star performer”, which sales rep comes to your mind?

Is it:

  • The hard worker who comes early and burns the midnight oil.
  • The people-pleasing relationship builder who aims to meet every need of the customer.
  • The self-assured lone wolf aka the “my way or highway” cowboy.
  • The detail-oriented, super reliable problem solver.
  • The challenger with strong views who pushes the customer and you.

Picked the last option? Started visualizing Don Draper’s epic “Mark Your Man” sales pitch?

A Gartner survey found that almost 40% of star performers were Challengers. That number went up to 54% in complex B2B sales environments. 

Why does a Challenger sales rep win so much? Let’s start by understanding the “what”.

What is the challenger sales model?

“The best salespeople don't just build relationships with customers. They challenge them.”

Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson 

The Challenger sales model is all about approaching customers with unique insights on how to save or make money.

Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson from Corporate Executive Board (CEB, now part of Gartner) introduced the concept in their book The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation back in 2011.

Their argument: the customers don’t always know what they want. So, assume that your customer’s single greatest need is figuring out what they need.

How does the challenger sales model work?

“What’s currently costing our customers more money than they realize that only we can help them fix?”

Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson

This question is at the heart of the Challenger sales approach. Here’s how Xerox used the approach to increase their sales by 17%.

Previously, Xerox believed that their customers cared about reducing waste. So, their core selling point was, “we generate 90% less waste than laser.”

Using the Challenger sales method, they realized what mattered most to their customers was the student learning experience — the customer of their customer. 

Now their sales conversations begin with, “Let me talk to you about the impact of color on student performance.”

By focusing on what generates the most economic value for their customers, Xerox gained $65 million in contract value!

Ah, one more thing. Stop asking THIS question

What keeps you up at night?

The Challenger sale is all about leading with insight and assuming the customer doesn't know everything.

So, rather than asking the customer, “what keeps you up at night?”, the sales rep should tell them the answer — insight-led sales conversations. 

The coaching imperative from Challenger Inc

The right sales experience can reduce uncertainty and convert more. Source: Challenger Inc

Now, let’s deconstruct the challenger rep.

Who is a Challenger rep? Why do they win so much?

This rep has six defining characteristics:

  1. Provides unique perspectives on the market
  2. Has great two-way communication skills
  3. Knows the customer’s domain inside out
  4. Knows what will cut costs or grow revenues for the customer
  5. Is comfortable discussing budgets
  6. Pushes the customer to decide 

Now, a common concern with the Challenger model: the reps will become too aggressive

That concern is unwarranted. 

In real life, most reps have been trained to ask the customer what they want and work hard to meet their every need. 

And guess what, customers prefer dealing with reps who “offer unique and valuable perspectives on the market or educate them on new issues and outcomes.”

A survey on factors driving customer loyalty

A survey on factors driving customer loyalty

Moving on… what exactly does a challenger rep do?

Three things:

  1. Teach: Provide unique insight into the customer’s business.
  2. Tailor: Adjust the sales pitch to align with the objectives of each decision-maker.
  3. Take Control: Take charge of the sales process and focus the conversation on value. 

The Challenger rep, according to Matthew Dixon. Source: SlideShare

The Challenger rep, according to Matthew Dixon. Source: SlideShare

Okay, so how do I transform my sales team into Challengers?

With commercial teaching

Challengers aren’t world-class investigators. They’re brilliant teachers. And these world-class teachers follow a six-step process to sales.

1. The Warmer

Show your customer that you know what they’re going through. Share a problem that others like them face and follow up by asking questions on its impact.

Here’s an example from sales expert Tom Pisello (aka The ROI Guy):

“We find that in typical companies like you, if you've got a terabyte of storage, 30% of that storage is old. So, there's probably 300 gigabytes for every terabyte that's just old data sitting around there and costs a lot of money to manage that data daily. The management is another 80%. 

How much storage do you have? What does it cost you to keep that storage around direct and indirect costs?"

2. The Reframe

“The Reframe is the central moment of the commercial teaching pitch, as the entire conversation pivots off what you’re about to do next.”

Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson

Connect the problems from The Warmer to share an insight (a bigger problem) that the customers aren’t aware of and set the stage to introduce a new way of thinking.

Take the case of Arco Ltd., UK’s leading distributor of workplace safety products. Even though Arco was widely popular, they suffered from low-cost alternatives flooding the market.

Using the Challenger sales model, they flipped their narrative. 

Instead of talking about their expertise, they shed light on a problem that their customers weren’t considering. The low-cost alternatives weren’t always safe and cost their customers millions in liabilities.

3. Rational Drowning

Now that the insight’s out of the box, back it up with some data.

For Arco, that would be:

“Independent lab testing found that 40% of non-metallic footwear and 30% of rigger gloves failed re-testing despite carrying the official CE mark. Simply trusting these markings and choosing these products increases your company’s liability and puts employees at serious risk.”

A Challenger Inc case study on Arco Ltd.

4. Emotional Impact

Humanize the bigger problem by connecting it to pain points that your customers face every day. This is the darkest moment of your pitch.

For Arco, the emotional impact was:

  • Severe workplace injuries 
  • The impact on employee’s family 
  • The damage to the company’s reputation

5. A New Way

“The goal is to take customers on a roller-coaster ride, leading first to a rather dark place before showing them the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Matt Dixon and Brent Adamson

Now that the customer’s worried about solving this bigger problem ASAP, tell them how. Share an overview of all the capabilities the customer would need.

For Arco, this approach steered the sales conversations away from pricing. Instead, the focus was on the best way to implement safety regulations.

6. Your Solution

“Lay out the specific ways you can deliver the solution they’ve just agreed to in step 5 better than anyone else”.

Matt Dixon and Brent Adamson

Reveal your solution as the only alternative for your customers to solve their dilemma.

Explain how it fits into the new way of doing business that you shared in the previous step.

This is also the stage where you tailor the messaging to appeal to different decision-makers within the organization.

And that’s it! Six steps to Challenger!

Who can use the challenger sales model?

Using the Challenger sales model means having enough insight to tell customers what they need. 

The approach won’t work for small businesses using their sales calls for research and development. The sales model shines in complex B2B sales environments.

One more thing — the Challenger sales methodology won’t work without the right investments.

Three reasons why the Challenger sales model can fail

1. It’s not for every sales rep.

Remember, Challengers are world-class teachers. You can’t be that without the right business acumen and domain knowledge.

“Never forget that for a salesperson to execute Challenger concepts they must know what the conversation is going to be about. It must be something deeply and provocatively relevant for the customer and their world.”

Tony Hughes, Sales Trainer and Author

2. Challenge the customer doesn’t mean offend them

Sometimes, sales reps misunderstand the need for pressing the customer. It doesn’t mean to be downright disrespectful to the client. Instead, make your content or the insight provocative. 

3. The Challenger approach requires a massive shift in mindset

“For Challenger to work, you must go deep, bottom of the ocean deep, and that’s not easy or cheap.”

Tony Hughes, Sales Trainer and Author

It all comes down to investment.

For instance, the veterans in your team might have been doing sales a certain way for years. Whereas the newbies might lack the finesse and tact to teach insights and take control.

In both cases, you must invest a lot of time, effort and energy in bringing about change:

  1. The sales veterans must unlearn what they know. 
  2. The younger reps must learn about industry trends and challenges.

Now, if there’s one key element that can make Challenger work for you, that’s coaching.

The coaching imperative from Challenger Inc

The coaching imperative from Challenger Inc

Coaching involves:

  • Helping sales reps ask the right questions
  • Intervening when they’re in tricky situations (handling objections or pricing-related negotiations)
  • Providing feedback to develop winning sales behaviors (when to press the customer, how to negotiate on value rather than price or how to tell the story right)

Sounds perfect, right? 

Two problems though:

  1. 80% of sales training is forgotten in 7 days.
  2. Sales managers don’t have all the time in the world to join every sales call. 

That’s where a conversation intelligence tool like Clari Copilot can help.

With Clari Copilot, you can:

  • Review call transcripts and show your reps how to improve (we call it Topics Tracking).
  • See how your sales reps interacted with the customer with metrics such as talk/listen ratio, longest monologues, number of engaging questions asked and more.

Plus, you can:

  • Prepare cue cards to help your reps navigate tricky situations
  • Set up alerts to prevent the reps from droning on and on

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Book a demo to find out how Clari Copilot can help you coach a sales rep to be a Challenger.