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Book Summary – The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation

The Challenger Sale - Book summary

In the midst of the 2009 economic crisis, sales had bottomed out in most sectors. Yet, a small group of salespeople continued to deliver results which would’ve been amazing even during a booming economy. The Sales Executive Council (SEC) launched an extensive research to identify what these sales reps did differently. The study led to the surprising discovery that the best way to drive B2B sales isn’t to build relationships; it’s to challenge customers. This playbook by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson explains the new approach—The Challenger Sale—which could revolutionize B2B selling in the coming decades. In this free version of The Challenger Sale summary, we’ll outline the Challenger Selling Model and how to implement it in your organization.

The Challenger Sale Model

Key Research Findings

SEC surveyed frontline managers from 90 companies to identify the attitudes, knowledge, skills, and behaviors for average vs star performers. After analyzing data on some 6,000 sales reps from various fields/industries globally, they made 3 surprising discoveries.

  • Every sales person falls into 1 of 5 distinct sales profiles: the Relationship Builder, the Hard Worker, the Problem Solver, the Lone Wolf or the Challenger.

The Challenger Sale summary_The 5 Sales Profiles

  • Of these 5 profiles, there was 1 clear winner and 1 clear loser.
    • Winner = the Challenger. While all 5 profiles had average performers, the Challenger profile was adopted by the most star performers: 40% of star performers fit this profile, and more than 50% of star performers fit this profile for complex sales. Out of 44 attributes tested, 6 were found to be statistically significant in Challengers (we elaborate on these attributes in the full book summary), and The Challenger Sale model consolidates the 6 attributes into 3 skill-sets that can be developed.
    • Loser = the Relationship Builder. Surprisingly, this turned out to be the worst-performing profile, with only 7% of star performers using this approach. Relationship Builders are likable but not necessarily effective. Yet, this is one of the most commonly-adopted sales approach at the moment.
  •  The Challenger profile wins for complex solutions/sales regardless of the state of the economy.
    That’s because complex solutions typically require some change in customer behavior; to close the sale, you must get clients to think differently about how they operate. Specifically, Challengers display 3 distinct skill-sets that support this thinking shift:
    (i) They teach the client how to differentiate themselves (using their insights about the client’s business and their 2-way communication skills);
    (ii) They tailor the pitch to resonate with customer concerns (using their understanding of customers’ value and economic drivers to deliver the right messages to the right people in the organization); and
    (iii) They take control of the sale (since they’re comfortable to discuss money and push the customer).

Solutions selling and the changing B2B sales landscape

Solutions selling has been a key approach in B2B sales and marketing in the last 1-2 decades. It’s about creating bundled offerings so you can address a wider range of customer needs while making it harder for competitors to replicate. Instead of product peddling, solution-sellers aim to position themselves as trusted partners who can offer strategic inputs and solutions to their business clients.

The Challenger Sale is so effective because it matches the B2B clients’ changing needs and buying behaviors. In our full 13-page summary, you can get more details on these vital changes (e.g. a shift to consensus-buying, the need for customization with simple buying processes etc.) and what they mean for salespeople.

Adopting the Challenger Sales approach

The question is, can we systematically export this Challenger profile to the rest of the sales force? The Challenger Selling Model breaks down the 3 Challenger abilities—teach, tailor, and take control—into a set of principles and observable behaviors that can applied in any sales organization.

Developing Challenger Sales Reps and Teams

Here’s a quick overview of the key skillsets and approach behind The Challenger Sale. Do get our complaete 13-page summary for more details on (i) the principles behind the Challenger Sale Model and (ii) specific tips/processes for developing it in your team and organization.

Developing The 3 Key Challenger Skillsets

The Challenger Sale summary_Challenger Skillsets

  • Teach for Differentiation: Instead of asking the customers what they want, the Challenger Sale involves giving customers insights that fundamentally reframe how they think about their business. In our full summary, we elaborate on what customers truly want, why it’s a bad idea to ask questions for needs-diagnosis, and why the sales experience is the single most crucial factor for B2B customer loyalty (over other factors like branding, quality and value-for-money). We also explain:
    (i) The 4 criteria for commercial teaching (you can actually close a sale instead of giving free consultancy);
    (ii) The 6 steps to craft an insights-based sales pitch that appeals to both to logic and emotions; and
    (iii) Tips/perspectives for developing this approach at a team/organizational level.
  • Tailor for Resonance: Instead of just trying to get in front of C-level decision-makers (which is no longer enough for complex sales), the Challenger reaches out to a range of key stakeholders and tailor the insights in a way that resonates with each role/individual. In our complete book summary, we explain (i) why it’s vital to gain support from multiple stakeholders (not just the top decision-makers), and (ii) how to teach each stakeholder something of value, with (iii) specific tips for customizing your messages.
  • Take Control of the Sale: Challengers are able to stand firm in face of client requests for discounts and push customers to move forward. In our complete summary, you can get details on (i) 3 common misconceptions about taking control and (ii) how to be assertive without being aggressive.

Developing Managerial and Organizational Capabilities

For the Challenger Sale model to work, you need to develop capabilities at both the individual and organizational levels. And, it’s absolutely critical to have the right frontline sales managers. In our complete 13-page summary, we also explain (i) the 2 sets of management skills that effective sales managers need and (ii) what it means to develop capabilities for sales innovation (i.e. the ability to navigate unexpected obstacles to deliver results) which is vital for the Challenger Selling approach. The book goes even deeper into this area with a range of sales-team coaching and training tips/examples.

Getting the Most from The Challenger Sale

In this article, we’ve briefly outlined some of the key insights and strategies you can use to achieve desired change. For more examples, details, and actionable tips to apply these strategies, do get our complete book summary bundle which includes an infographic, 13-page text summary, and a 26-minute audio summary.

The Challenger Sale summary - book summary bundle

The Challenger Selling Model was first unveiled in 2009; while many early adopters have already started to implement the model with the help of SEC and SEC Solutions, there’s still a lot of room for refinement. Drawing on these companies’ experiences so far, the book also includes (i) a list of implementations lessons for sales leaders, marketing leaders and senior leaders, as well as (ii) details on the SEC research methodology, (iii) case studies of companies that’ve adopted the Challenger approach, and (iv) appendices about coaching, identifying and hiring Challengers. You can purchase the book here for the full details, or check out more resources/details at

About the Authors of The Challenger Sale

The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation is written by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson.

Matthew Dixon an author and speaker best known for sales, customer service and customer experience. He currently serves as the Chief Product & Research Officer of Tethr. Before that, he was a Senior Partner and the Global Head of Sales Force Effectiveness Solutions at Korn Ferry Hay Group. Prior to that, he was a Group Leader at CEB, Inc. (now acquired by Gartner). He holds a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

Brent Adamson was a Senior Director of the Sales Executive Council (SEC), a division of CEB Inc. He’s now a Principal Executive Advisor at Gartner, serving heads of B2B and B2C sales and marketing. With more than 25 years of experience as a professional researcher, teacher, and trainer, he is also a soughtafter speaker and facilitator.

The Challenger Sale Quotes

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

“Customization: Everyone wants it; no one wants to pay for it.”

“Insight is all about teaching customers new ways of thinking, pushing them to rethink their current perspectives and approaches.”

“It’s not what you sell, it’s how you sell.”

“Determining what you’re willing to concede is important…but what is often overlooked is how and when in the negotiation those concessions should be given.”

Click here to download The Challenger Sale summary & infographic


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