Every successful salesperson understands the importance of building strong customer relationships and uses that knowledge to their advantage. Conventional sales teams operate on the age-old wisdom that a well-established customer relationship will almost always result in an opportunity won.
According to the Challenger Sales methodology, though, it’s actually much more crucial to teach prospects how your solution can solve their problems than it is to invest significant time and energy building personal relationships.
Since B2B buyers spend 27% of their time researching solutions online and only 17% of time actually meeting with sales reps, it stands to reason that this approach enables sellers to effectively meet (or exceed) customer expectations; and thus close more deals.
Here, we’ll dive into the Challenger Sales methodology, including typical professional profiles, benefits, implementation steps, and best practices.
The Challenger Sales methodology is a B2B sales technique that uses thought-provoking insights, disruptive challenges, and meaningful opportunities to educate prospects. The approach was first detailed in the book The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, and touts the importance of guiding a group of customer decision-makers toward a certain mindset or action.
Though it’s only one of many approaches to B2B sales, the Challenger Sale model is distinct because it requires sellers to possess and share deep knowledge of their prospects’ industry, specific business and solutions, potential risks, and even market opportunities. Since 58% of sales meetings are not helpful to buyers, this approach gives sellers a chance to demonstrate their value and set their business and solutions apart from their competitors.
According to the architects of the Challenger Sale approach to sales, there are five distinct sales professional profiles, each with their own advantages, and shortcomings.
The “hard worker” seller is self-motivated, highly productive, and willing to go above and beyond in their daily work. This type of sales rep is very proactive and doesn't need a lot of direction from their manager. While hard workers constantly seek to improve their performance, they are often limited by the belief that hard work alone will guarantee successfully closed deals.
“Relationship builders” emphasize establishing strong, genuine relationships with prospects and customers. They lean on the fact that 88% of buyers will only conduct business with a salesperson they trust, and therefore focus on strategies that help them make meaningful connections. Though relationship builders can find great success—and even increase profits by 25% to 95%—they risk wasting significant time cultivating the wrong relationships, weak prospects that won’t actually become buyers.
The “lone wolf” is a rep who marches to the beat of their own drum, often ignoring established sales processes, plans, and techniques in favor of their own methods. These sellers are extremely confident and use their intuition to make decisions and close deals. This is often frustrating for their managers and colleagues alike, who must contend with their refusal to comply with team standards (e.g., updating the CRM system, meeting specified deadlines, or collaborating with the marketing department).
A “problem solver” rep is typically fixated on ensuring existing customers are satisfied post-sale. While this approach is great for boosting customer retention and loyalty, it’s not always the number one priority. Problem solvers spend excessive amounts of time finding solutions to current customers’ concerns—a job that should really fall on the shoulders of customer service reps—rather than generating new sales.
The “challenger” seller conducts deep research into their prospects’ pain points, objectives, business, industry, market share, economic drivers, budget, and more. The seller uses their extensive knowledge to challenge buyers’ mindsets. They lean into tough discussions and negotiations with customers instead of avoiding them, and work with buyers to stimulate new ways of thinking.
It’s true that the four other sales professional styles have strengths of their own, but the challenger profile is second-to-none when it comes to complex sales. A B2B buying journey can involve 6 to 10 decision makers, each with their own perspectives, problems, personalities, and priorities. Because challenger reps push prospects to consider multiple facets of their problems in a thoughtful way, they can leverage their knowledge to guide each decision maker to alter their mindset in a shorter period of time and—ultimately—close the deal.
Just as each of the five sales professional profiles possesses certain advantages, so too does each type of sales methodology. Customer-centric selling, consultative selling, solution selling, and account-based selling (ABS) all promise a variety of benefits for sales teams that choose to implement them. However, Challenger selling uniquely positions its adopters to take control and drive the desired business outcomes.
77% of B2B customers find that the buying process is very difficult. Unlike the B2C sales process, B2B deal cycles are longer and sellers are expected to demonstrate extensive knowledge about their products and services. While business buyers expect reps to have an expert-level understanding of their own solutions, mastery of the prospect’s viewpoint, challenges, industry, market share, business, and more is less common. Therefore sellers who can demonstrate that understanding possess a great key competitive advantage.
Challenger selling enables reps to offer a unique, well-researched perspective on how their solution fits into the client’s bigger picture goals Rather than force-fitting a product or service into the prospect’s life, sellers use the Challenger Sale method to work backwards—first by understanding the customers’ reality and then making a compelling case for exactly how their solution can improve that reality. This helps sellers build a solid relationship between the customer’s value drivers and the product or service’s value proposition.
But if the Challenger Sales methodology is so effective, why hasn’t every sales team already adopted it? In practice, the approach really requires a high-performing sales rep to ensure proper execution. This means sellers need to have adequate training to bring the method’s principles to life. The technique is also not a great fit for businesses with routine sales cycles. It’s best suited for complicated sales processes. Managers should first evaluate their teams’ suitability before beginning implementation.
Once you’ve determined that the Challenger Sales method is right for your business, team, and customers, you can begin leveraging the technique, which involves these five key phases:
Unlike the first step in most other sales methodologies, the Challenger Sale technique begins with deep research into the prospect’s business and industry. Instead of striking up a conversation to build rapport and trust, the rep first explores the buyer’s perspective. They lean on this knowledge instead of their expertise around their own company’s solutions to deliver meaningful insights to the prospect.
To arm their reps with all the relevant information to execute the warm-up phase, managers should train them to tap into market trends, competitive landscapes, and ecosystem players early and often. They should also develop and standardize a process for exploring LinkedIn, social media, and trade publications in a time-efficient, effective manner.
Next, the seller should utilize their research to reframe the prospect’s pain point as a potential opportunity for growth and success. The rep should discuss the buyer’s current (or planned) approach for resolving their pain points, then confidently explain why that tactic likely won’t work—without yet mentioning their own products or services. They then propose a new way of thinking about how to solve those problems, and explain how it will result in a better outcome.
There are two major skills that managers need their sellers to develop in order for the reframe step to work: confidence and curiosity. The rep must reframe the conversation with great authority and conviction or risk coming off as arrogant and ill-informed. They must also be constantly thirsty to gain deeper insights into how prospects think, operate, and negotiate.
While other sales techniques depend on the seller’s ability to demonstrate their solution’s benefits, the Challenger Sales method takes things a step further. In the rational drowning phase, salespeople build upon the conversation they’ve already reframed by providing quantitative data. Use up-to-date statistics that illustrate the risks of a customer allowing their pain points to remain completely or partially unsolved.
After they’ve engaged their prospect intellectually using cold hard data, reps appeal to the customers’ feelings rather than logic. They share customer success stories, case studies, and other value-rich resources to build up the case for their perspective.
To get this one-two punch right, managers need to empower their teams with the proper resources. This means training them to collaborate with marketing for better content creation and storytelling and providing tools that enable easy, real-time access to all the resources they need to establish both a rational and emotional case.
Now that the customer is confident that the seller knows what they’re talking about, it’s time to offer a tangible solution. In this phase, the rep summarizes all the problems, constraints, and potential opportunities previously discussed and introduces the idea of how a certain solution might work. It’s the exact right moment to tie together the customer’s value drivers and their solution’s value proposition.
To help their reps succeed, managers should develop and train their reps using a value proposition that speaks to how a solution might look in action—again without actually mentioning their specific product or service. A challenger value prop should provide a simplified demonstration for why a certain solution is awesome for the individual buyer rather than a complex or dull one-pager that’s overly “salesy.”
Finally, the challenger rep should introduce their company’s specific product or service as the best solution to the customer’s pain points. Because they’ve already placed the building blocks to help the buyer understand what type of solution they need, this step should feel seamless. It’s the perfect chance to swoop in as the hero and provide the solution they’ve always needed.
To ensure this final step makes a significant impact, managers should train their reps to use buyer engagement signals and mutual action plans (MAPs) along the way. These allow both sellers and managers to see exactly how buyers are engaging with shared information and share solution details at the exact right time.
At the heart of every successful Challenger team is a quality sales coaching practice. Using the right coaching strategies—and the proper tools for support—managers can help their sellers develop a Challenger mindset that results in consistent, predictable results. Plus, when managers offer continuous coaching, their reps become more knowledgeable and confident; two major prerequisites for crushing the Challenger Sales model.
Another key factor for implementing the Challenger Sales model is how well your sales process aligns with the customer journey. Be sure to tailor all of your activities, workflows, and content to the Challenger Sales approach. This will help your team ensure a better, more reliable customer experience and, in turn, improve overall win rates.
It’s also crucial to acknowledge the fact that not every rep is a natural-born Challenger. For reps that you identify as hard workers, relationship-builders, lone wolves, or problem solvers, adopting the Challenger Sales methodology might be daunting. Make sure you take the time to conduct sensitive one-on-ones, cultivate an environment of accountability, offer recognition and motivation, and open the doors for communication.
Perhaps the best (and fastest) way to start Challenger selling is to capture and use real-time data from sales calls, meetings, and more. Modern technology offers tools like conversation intelligence, which enables managers to instantly understand what’s happening in every sales conversation and intervene as needed. Some tools provide complete transparency and signal the health of each deal so managers can provide a helpful nudge in the right, Challenger-driven direction.
Deals today involve an increasing number of stakeholders, making it nearly impossible to manage and close deals without an agreed-upon plan from the start. To close the gap, reps have needed to create, update, and collaborate with clients on lengthy spreadsheets with multiple tabs, Google docs, and slides, while sustaining long-term engagement from the buyer. Essentially sales reps have had to holistically project manage their deals with very limited, inefficient tools.
The Challenger Sales model is an extremely effective technique for attracting customers, surpassing buyer expectations, and closing more deals at a faster pace. But implementing this non-traditional approach is a scary prospect for managers and sales teams who don't have time to learn a new methodology, while also maintaining their productivity and efficiency.
Outreach makes it easy to adopt the Challenger Sales methodology. Success Plans within Outreach help sellers align and collaborate with their buyers to drive smooth, predictable purchase processes. At the same time, leaders can operationalize their sales methodology to drive greater qualification consistency and success across the organization. As a result, teams get to improve deal accuracy, reduce deal cycles, and close faster.
Outreach recently hosted a live webinar, "How to use mutual action plans in Outreach to shorten deal cycles and boost win rates," Watch the replay to see Outreach sales manager Christine Allanson and top AE Grace Presnick walk through their MAP best practices. Together, they'll show you: