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Review: The Challenger Sale


Book reviews > The Challenger Sale


Dixon, M. and Adamson, B. (2011). The Challenger Sale, New York: Penguin


Every now and again a book comes along that upsets the applecart of current thinking to provide a step-change in how we should work. This is just such a book.

A problem of modern sales is that customers are becoming more cautious and consequently complex in their buying. Customers want sales people to not only show they understand but also help out with the business. It is no longer enough to be nice. Only when customers realize that the sales person can provide real and intelligent value will they listen more.

There has hence developed a need for 'another way' that both helps customers and gets to an easier, quicker sale.

This book addresses this need. It is bold in its assertions but is backed up by statistics. Using Factor Analysis of over 40 attributes, the researchers found five distinct types of sales people:

  • The Hard Worker (21%): Driven, persistent, goes the extra mile.
  • The Relationship Builder (27%): Builds advocates in customer, generous supporter, focus on customer needs.
  • The Lone Wolf (18%): Confident, instinctive, independent, difficult to control, poor team player.
  • The Reactive Problem Solver (14%): Detail focus, reliable, dives in to sort out problems.
  • The Challenger (27%): Provides insights, debates, pushes customer thinking.

The surprise came when they looked at the top 20% of the workforce in terms of overall performance against goals. Challengers came top, making up 39% of these (rising to 50% in complex sales). Then came Lone Wolves (25%), Hard Workers (17%) and Reactive Problem Solvers (12%). The shock is that Relationship Builders, where many firms are now focusing, came bottom, at only 7%. Perhaps this is understandable where they are focusing on longer-term sales, but the impact on planned performance cannot be ignored.

So what do the Challengers do? The authors identify three key skills:

  • Teaching for differentiation, using unique perspectives to make customer think differently, seeing new needs and possibilities.
  • Tailoring for resonance, through a sound understanding of customer economic and value drivers.
  • Taking control, including comfort in discussing money and pressuring customers.

This requires clear perception, confidence and good communication skills. While talent counts and many who naturally work this way have found their way into sales teams, the good news is that you can train people in these abilities. Even more importantly, effective companies do not expect Challengers to find all their own insights as the home-office team can do much research and development of industry insights that Challengers can use with multiple customers.

Challengers also cover other bases. They do work hard. They do build relationships. They do help solve problems. They do sell solutions. But they do so in a way that connects more strongly and more quickly, with insights that reframe, linking and leading to solutions that sell.

The Challenger approach has found its day. Customers know they do not know it all and seek practical insights for intelligent action. Satisfaction is no longer enough: sales people themselves need to surprise and delight customers so they will engage and buy. And 'The Challenger Sale' is an excellent step into this world, not only through the identification of Challengers but also with the detail of what Challengers and their companies should be doing to energize customers in ways that leads to more sales. Which is of course what every company needs.



Buy Me

Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, The Challenger Sale: Taking Charge of the Customer Conversation, Penguin, 2011 

A challenge in itself to relationship selling, this is a research-based but highly practical breakthrough book that shows a new and powerful way of business-to-business selling. 



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