The Challenger Sale, Good or Bad Advice? Part 4

the challenger saleThe Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation.
Is it good or bad advice?

As you may recall, in Part 1 of this post, I offered the pro side about the book. In Part 2, I offered the con side, and in part 3, offered some of the mixed views about the publication.

Let’s examine some of the major criticism of the book in more detail –

1). The authors Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson are not sales people.

House Speaker Sam Rayburn once said of Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, “I just wish he had just one time run for dog catcher.”

While it would be great if sales researchers had once been salespeople, it doesn’t mean that you should dismiss their findings or advice because they have never sold. It’s like saying that you should disregard the findings or advice from astronomers because they never flew in outer space. The fact that an astronomer has never been an astronaut doesn’t mean he still can’t publish research about our Solar System. The job of a researcher is just that – do research. You can either agree or disagree with their conclusions. That’s your right.

But sometimes you need an “outsider” to see things that others don’t see. We are so caught up in our careers and daily lives, it’s hard for us to see the forest from the trees. It takes a good researcher to stand back, observe, conduct surveys and point out things that we simply didn’t notice before.

The Challenger Sale authors conducted a diagnostic survey of more than 6,000 sales professionals in more than 90 companies worldwide. The survey included every sales model category under the sun, including hunters, farmers, field and inside sales reps, key account and broad-based reps, and direct and indirect sellers.

Putting in place a set of controls and variables, and disregarding things like personality, the survey focused one thing – “Of all the things a sales rep could (italics from the authors) do well, which ones actually matter most for sales performance?”

While I’m not an expert on surveys, it appears the authors did a pretty thorough and extensive job.


2). The authors are just repackaging old ideas.

I don’t know if the authors are repackaging old ideas or not. Certainly, the idea of understanding your industry or tailoring your sales presentation to your clients are not new concepts. I’ve used those concepts myself long before I read the book. But sometimes it takes someone to tie all of those ideas together into one book before everyone “gets it” and can apply it to their careers.

And frankly, repackaging old ideas is not new. For example, when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he admitted that most of the ideas were not his own. Most historians agree that Jefferson received ideas from Virginia Declaration of Rights, the English Declaration of Rights, the works of John Locke, Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, among others. What is new is that Jefferson put those ideas together and created one of the greatest documents in U.S. history.

Or closer to our industry, does anyone really think that Dale Carnegie was the first one to figure out How to Win Friends & Influence People? Of course not. Many of the ideas outlined in his book were around long before he wrote it. But Carnegie was the first one to pull those ideas together to write a bestselling book that still remains a classic today.

While I don’t compare “The Challenger Sale” to the Declaration of Independence or to “How to Win Friends & Influence People,” what the authors have done is take a lot of ideas that have been floating around in the sales community, put them together into a great book, and backed it up with solid research. And research is the key word here. The book is not based on speculation. It’s based on a careful study of thousands of sales people in various industries worldwide.

3). You can’t teach “The Challenger Sale” approach.

Nonsense. Of course you can. While some may be natural sales people, most people can learn new sales techniques and concepts. Sure, it takes time, practice, patience and a little coaching. But it can be done. To say that you can’t teach someone how to sell is like saying you can’t teach someone how to read or write.

The Challenger Sale4). Relationships are important. 

The biggest misconception about the book is about relationships. The authors do believe that relationships are important. The difference is that they believe good relationships are more the result and not the cause of successful sales. In other words, customers are not looking for a salesperson to be their friend – they are seeking an advisor. They are searching for someone to teach them and offer insights to improve their business and make more money. The traditional glad-hander or back-slapping salesperson has given way to the sales person who teaches and leads customers in the right direction.

5). Putting “The Challenger Sale” in practice.

Example: When I joined a small health club several years ago, I was introduced to a personal trainer who was going to offer me “free” consultation. Rather than come to me as a teacher, he tried to build an immediate relationship with me – he acted like we were long-lost friends. He was too enthusiastic, too desperate, too needy, and frankly, just too creepy for me. I left the health club after a few days because the guy was too annoying to deal with.

Now, how would things have been different if the personal trainer had applied “The Challenger Sale” approach on me? While “The Challenger Sale” focuses on the needs of companies, I thought it would be more interesting to apply this concept focusing on one person. Let’s take a closer look –

Warmer – “I know what you are going through. I’ve worked with a lot of clients in this gym, and I know the challenges you are facing to lose weight and become more physically fit. A lot of people come to this gym exercising, but they quickly get frustrated and leave because they are not seeing any immediate results.”

(Rather than try to be my buddy, the personal trainer is establishing himself as an expert).

Reframe – “Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to exercise for a long period of time every day. In fact, studies have shown that if you just exercise 30 minutes a day, that will help you reduce your weight and help you live longer.”

(The personal trainer is offering me a unique insight about exercise that catches me off guard. Like most people, I always thought you had to exercise for hours each day to become physically fit).

The Challenger SaleRational Drowning – “I know you think that using a personal trainer is expensive. But given the amount of money you already spent on ineffective diets, and exercise equipment that you are rarely using at home, having a personal trainer is a good return on your investment.”

(Here the personal trainer is making a good case for ROI – return on investment).

Emotional impact – “It’s one thing to set goals, but it can be difficult to achieve them. I’ve seen people come and go to this gym without using a personal trainer, but they never accomplished their goals of losing weight. But I think you’re different. You understand the challenge before you and I believe you see a real opportunity to get back in shape. The fact that you came to this gym tells me that you are committed to change.”

(Here the personal trainers is making an emotional connection. He convincing me that I have a problem, and I need to take action to lose my weight).

A New Way – “By investing just 30 minutes a day with me for the next couple of months, I can help you lose weight and become more physically fit. You will save money because you won’t get as sick as often. You will also become more productive at work because you will feel more energized and be less stressful. You will also be able to sleep better at night.”

(Here the personal trainer is offering me a solution – one that I’m beginning to see and may accept).

Your Solution – “Unlike other gyms that just throw you on the gym floor and let you sink or swim, I’m here to give you personal support every step of the way. I’m very flexible in how I work with my clients. I don’t force you to do the same boring exercise routines every day. Instead, I offer a variety of exercises that are challenging, but exciting at the same time. Under my program, you will have so much fun exercising that you will be surprise how much healthier you will be within just a couple of months.”

the challenger sale(Sold. Sure, I could look at other gyms. But the personal trainer demonstrated that he’s an expert, he offered me some unique perspective about exercise, he understands my health and financial concerns, and he’s providing me a clear solution. In the weeks ahead, we will develop a professional relationship based on his insights, expertise and help; not based on some phony pretense of being my best friend).

Is “The Challenger Sale” the right approach for every industry? I don’t know. You know your industry and customers better than I do. But when more than 54% of the Challenger Sales people are closing complex sales better than the Relationship sales people, it has to make you stop and think.

Reading “The Challenger Sale” has made me realize where I made mistakes in some of my previous sales. I’ve been a combination Relationship Builder/Hard Worker salesperson. Now, I believe if I had adopted “The Challenger Sale” approach, I could have reduced the my sales cycle, upgraded more sales, and even gain better respect from some of my clients.

I only read “The Challenger Sale” once. This is the type of book you need to re-read several times to better understand it. I recommend that you read the book. Watch some of the YouTube presentations on it. Keep an open mind. You be the judge. Let me know what you think.

The Challenger Sale, Good or Bad Advice? Part 1

One of the most controversial sales books to come out in recent years is The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson.

In a nutshell, the authors argue that the key to successful selling isn’t relationship building as we know it, but challenging your clients to make a buying decision. This is done by finding clients who can act quickly, delivering insight, teaching something new, tailoring your message, and taking control of the sales process.


Based on a study of thousands of sales professionals, the authors found there are 5 categories of sales people – Relationship Builders, Hard Workers, Lone Wolves, Reactive Problem Solver and Challengers.

Of the five categories, the Challengers consistently come out on top in exceeding their sales goals compared to the other types of sales people. This is especially true in long and complex sales cycles.

In this first post, I will present videos taking the pro side of the Challenger argument. In the second post, I will offer you the con side of the argument. In the third post, I will offer you a mixed point of view. In my final post, I will offer you my opinions about the book.

Below is a video from Perry Holley about the Challenger Sale. Mr. Holley admits that he has been mostly a Relationship sales person. However, he now agrees that the Challenger approach is better. He points out that of the five categories mentioned above, the Challenger salesperson was 40% more successful than the Relationship sales person. The key difference is that while the Relationship salesperson focuses on relieving tension with clients and being in the customer’s comfort zone, the Challenger salesperson focuses on using insight to create constructive tension in the sales process, and pushes the customer out of his comfort zone. Without tension, Mr. Holley argues, clients may not upgrade your services, or just issue a RFP (request for proposal) and see what other vendors have to offer.

In short, it is better to be respected than liked as a sales person.

Here is his video –

Below is a video from InsideSales.com with Matthew Dixon discussing his book in detail. He argues that customers today are more savvy in making buying decisions because of the wealth of information online. Thus, they don’t need to rely on sales people as much as they use to. That being the case, what customers are seeking today from sales people are those who can offer value by providing them unique perspectives on the marketplace, helping them avoid making mistakes, educating them on the best solutions, and making it easy for them to buy from you. Customer loyalty is based on the idea that what is important is not what we sell, but how we sell it. The Challenger sees relationships as a means to an end, and that they are actually better relationship builders than the Relationship sales people, because the relationships are founded on insight not on being agreeable.

What I found most interesting is that in a highly complex sale, the Challenger is 54% more likely to close a sale vs. just 4% by the Relationship Builder.

Here is the video below –