Does the Challenger Sales approach really help you close more deals?

It's important to approach sales techniques with a pinch of salt. Most sales techniques are just different ways to approach your prospects to help solve their pain points with a solution you might have.

We all know that no one technique works in every situation or helps you close deals all the time. And yet, given the increasing instant gratification mentality, there is always an obsession to find a magic bullet. 

The Challenger Sales technique is one such controversial topic that either has great fans who swear by its results or staunch critics who dismiss it as yet another sales buzzword.

So what exactly is the hype about the Challenger Sales? Does it make sense for anyone to adopt it, or is it for SDRs and AEs of a specific kind, like Type A salespeople? 

In this post, we will attempt to dive into the following:

  • What is the Challenger Sales technique?
  • How is it different from other sales approaches?
  • How effective is the Challenger Sales technique for closing deals?
  • Does it make sense to adopt this approach?

What is the Challenger Sales technique?

The Challenger Sale is a concept that originated from a book titled The Challenger Sale: How To Take Control of the Customer Conversation written by Matt Dixon and Brent Adamson. Since its first release in 2011, Dixon and Adamson have promoted the Challenger Sale as a powerful approach for salespeople to lead sales conversations confidently.

Suppose I had to distill the book's wisdom in one line—the Challenger Sale is all about positioning yourself as an expert/authority figure to your prospects and taking control of the conversation. The idea is to thereby stay in control of the entire sales process.

Built around the idea of "teach, tailor, and take control," the book talks about the Challenger Sale as a tool to give customers information that they possibly can't learn on their own. The book suggests that the biggest competition that most sales teams face today isn't the rival product in the same category but the prospects' ability to find information on their own.

Therefore, the authors say that it's imperative for sales teams today to educate their prospects about what they don't know instead of regurgitating the sales copy on their company's website or asking clichéd questions like "what keeps you up all night?"

The book positions the Challenger Sale as an effective replacement for the other techniques by drawing parallels between different seller profiles:

1. The Relationship Builder: Good with building rapport, believes in the classic style of consultative selling

2. The Reactive Problem Solver: Responsible, reliable, and detail-oriented salesperson who will go the distance to solve problems

3. The Hard Worker: The Hollywood-styled salesperson with a never-say-die attitude who is also invested in personal development

4. The Lone Wolf: Highly instinctive, no-holds-barred kind of salesperson who is hard to manage but delivers desired results

5. the Challenger: Someone who does their homework, understands their prospects' problems, and doesn't hesitate to push the customers if need be

The Challenger salesperson is hardwired to research their account's background in detail and prepare a set of "the Challenger questions" to control the sales conversation from the get-go.

Here’s an example of how the Challenger Sales strategy might look like if you were to apply it in real-life:

Imagine that you are in the business of selling marketing automation software. You know for a fact that most of your prospects are always looking to automate their email outreach so that they can scale their lead generation efforts.

The prospects might think that they know what their needs are. But as an experienced practitioner of the Challenger Sale approach, you present them with data and facts that they are not aware of—which will earn you the respect of being an expert in the field.

You may challenge the prospect, "How will you personalize your email to people who visited your pricing page vs. someone who read one of your blogs?" You will then present a solution—i.e., your product—that solves this problem. Thus, you give your prospect a new way to engage their visitors in different stages of the buying cycle. 

Isn’t it what every discovery conversation is about?

You're right! The Challenger Sales does have overlapping similarities with other sales approaches. Every sales technique involves deeply understanding the prospect's needs, sometimes challenging their current approach or asking the right probing questions. 

A step-by-step practical guide to running an effective discovery call

According to the book, here are six attributes that set the Challenger reps apart:

  • They offer their customers unique insights
  • They have strong two-way communication skills
  • They know the individual customer's value drivers
  • They can identify economic drivers of the customer's business
  • They are comfortable discussing money
  • They can apply gentle but firm pressure on the customer

All in all, the idea is about disrupting your prospects' self-learning process by presenting them with valuable information that's hard for them to find on their own. The authors argue that the Challenger salespeople have an unparalleled advantage in controlling the sales conversation and offering a sales experience that extends to customer loyalty.

How is the Challenger Sales approach different from other sales approaches?

When it comes to picking a sales approach, there are many options for salespeople to choose from. Here are a few of the most popular ones:

Consultative selling

One of the most popular techniques among seasoned salespeople, consultative selling (sometimes known as value-based selling), prioritizes solving the customers' problem over selling the product. Genuinely advising prospects about the right solution helps salespeople differentiate themselves as trustworthy advisors rather than coming across as pushy salespeople.

Solutions selling

An extension of consultative selling, solutions selling is the process of asking the right questions to your prospects, actively listening to them, identifying their problems, and suggesting the best solution to fit their needs.

The buddy approach

The buddy approach of sales is a great fit for naturally friendly, outgoing salespeople who are good at building rapport with people. The buddy approach believes that people buy from people they like and trust, and their buying decisions are mostly based on emotions—even in the buttoned-up B2B domains.

The guru approach

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the buddy approach lies the Guru approach—a technique that believes in selling based on logic and rationality rather than feelings or emotions. The Guru approach requires you to present yourself as a thought leader or a subject matter expert in your given space.

Target account selling

Target account selling, also called account-based selling, is about identifying a few right customers who share a common pain point and selling them your solutions based on extensive research and analysis. In other words, target account selling focuses on quality rather than quantity.

SPIN selling

Based on Neil Rackham's book by the same name, SPIN selling is all about asking a set of tactical questions to lead the sales conversations confidently. These questions are based on the SPIN's full expansion, i.e., Situation, Problem, Implication, and Need.

Customer personality selling

Customer personality selling is our favorite because it's flexible and borrows its principles from other sales techniques to take an approach that suits the buyer. Instead of focusing on what type of sales approach is best for your company, customer personality selling encourages you to tailor your approach based on the customer type.

There are plenty of other sales techniques out there, which—frankly speaking—fall into one of the above approaches or go by different names while accomplishing the same goal. Now that you have a fair understanding of all sales techniques, you must be wondering…

How is the Challenger Sales method different?

The Challenger Sales approach suggests that sales reps should: 

  • teach their prospects new insights to establish their expert differentiation, using their top-notch two-way communication skill
  • tailor the sales process based on their understanding of customer’s value drivers and economic drivers
  • take control of the sales conversation by discussing money and applying firm pressure to the customer to close the deal

In all honesty, the Challenger Sale is no different from the consultative sales approach and the guru approach—or a combination of both.

The book, however, claims that the Challenger Sales is more than just a technique to close deals. The Challenger Sale focuses heavily on the sales experience and eventually customer retention. According to the book, more than half of what drives customer loyalty is a function not of what you sell (e.g., brand), but how you sell. Therefore, it’s the function of the sales experience.

How effective is Challenger Sales?

According to the book—while all salespeople fell into one of the five seller profiles mentioned above, 40% of all high sales performers across all industries applied the Challenger style selling to close deals. Other stats in the book cite that high-performing sales reps were twice as likely to use the Challenger sales approach and 50% of all-star performers in the complex B2B sales environment fit the Challenger Sale profile.

With top analyst firms like Gartner endorsing the Challenger Sale’s efficacy in closing deals, there’s no doubt that the book authors have created a successful brand around the Challenger Sales. 

However, there are few things about the Challenger approach that raises serious questions or rethink about its effectiveness.

For example—if a prospect isn’t a good fit, you are better off disqualifying them than trying to win them with the challenger techniques. 

The Challenger Sales model assumes that you—the salesperson—know (or should know) better than the customer. That’s not always true. Buyers today come to the negotiation table more prepared than ever. Most of them would have actually made up their mind already—they just want to validate their research by talking to the sales reps.

In such a scenario, you are better off pitching less and listening more to establish relevance.

How to make your sales pitch work?

And in such situations, you better not forcefully try to apply the Challenger Sales technique. Talking to a new prospect with the attitude that you know more than them or you are going to teach them something new can backfire and hurt your brand reputation. 

Forget sales—you would not read this blog halfway through if it were written in a preachy, “I will teach you” tone. Nobody likes that.

Selling to mature B2B accounts takes a considerable amount of professional experience and the ability to read each situation carefully. You may give the wrong impression to your prospects if you always try to challenge their assumptions.

It's one thing to push back your customers when you are handling objections, but it's risky to challenge them just because you think you know better.

Imagine a new salesperson—inspired by the book—trying to apply the Challenger sales in his/her sales conversations. They would not only come across as annoying but may potentially lose the deal.

The Challenger method of sales also leaves a few other questions unanswered. For instance, how do you leverage the learnings out of a Challenger Sale approach? And can you coach everyone in your organization to be a Challenger rep even if their natural personality tilts towards being good at rapport building? Probably not.

How to improve ramp up your sales reps by coaching them based on real time conversations?

Closing a deal is seldom a sole function of the sales. It’s a result of collaboration between other teams like product, marketing, and even customer success. But when you have a sales approach that is exclusive to a handful of salespeople in your organization, you are missing out on the opportunity to build scalable sales processes.

A quick look into the deal intelligence will tell you that a B2B sales negotiation process that doesn’t include the above teams will either feel flat or isn’t as effective when you involve them. It’s probably the reason why the use of conversation intelligence has gained so much steam in recent years. Experienced B2B organizations go out of their way to make their sales conversations a collaborative effort between marketing, product, sales, and customer success.

Several successful brands are also pivoting towards collaborative selling—an approach where sales teams collaborate directly with the prospects to make sales a win-win for both parties. 

In collaborative selling, both the sellers and buyers offer their full engagement, co-operation, and support in order to build a meaningful relationship that naturally leads to increased sales, loyalty, repeat purchase, and referrals.

Applying conversation intelligence and collaborative selling isn’t possible without having all hands on deck. All sales conversations offer some learning for your organization to understand what’s working and what’s not. Conversation intelligence makes it easy for everyone—including sales—to exchange important insights and learn how to personalize their sales conversations based on a prospect.

You can, for example, look at the conversation intelligence data to understand which part of the conversation you should be spending more time on—is it discovery, the demo, pricing discussion, handling objections, or something else?

In essence, Challenger Sale puts the burden of proof entirely on the salesperson while the reality is that sales is rarely as black-and-white as that. A B2B sales process needs participation from all quarters of your organization to make it effective for everyone.

Do what’s best for your customers

The Challenger is not better or worse than any other system out there. We believe that sales is actually more efficient when you can genuinely engage with your prospects, open new conversation loops, and get them to share valuable insights with you, so that you can help them overcome it. Once you have that initial conversation, perhaps you can then apply the Challenger Sale as a formula to move your sales deal to a closure, if you deem it to be a good fit, on a case-to-case basis.

So if the Challenger Sale approach doesn’t offer anything extraordinary—which technique is the best? 

The short answer is—whatever you or your prospects are comfortable with. Try a mix of consultative and relationship-building approaches and really focus on having meaningful business conversations because no technique can replace the good stuff that comes out of genuine rapport and trust that gets built naturally.