The Challenger Sales Model: teach, tailor and take control

By Kevin Wheeler

It is a commonly held view in the legal sector that the best way to win new business is building strong relationships with decision-makers, listening to them expound on their needs, pointing out how you/your firm’s services can meet these, and then waiting for the person to buy from you once they have trust in your ability to deliver the solution they need. Simples – or so we thought!

The Challenger Sale

I have recently read a book that has made me think about whether this is indeed the best approach, and I no longer think that it is. The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson is based on research undertaken by the CEB (Corporate Executive Board) since 2009 and has involved more than 6,000 sales reps selling to B2B customers. When reading this book, or accounts of the authors’ findings, it helps if you think “partner” whenever you see the word “sales rep”.

The research had its genesis in the observation by the CEB that despite the world falling off a cliff when the credit-crunch hit in 2008, some sales reps were still selling a lot when the majority were not. The research was aimed at finding out what set these high performing reps apart from the rest.

Five selling profiles

It turns out that every B2B sales rep in the world, and I believe that includes law firm partners, falls into one of five distinct profiles. Each of these profiles is a specific set of skills and behaviours that define the sales rep’s primary mode of interacting with customers. These profiles are:

  • The Hard Worker
  • The Relationship Builder
  • The Lone Wolf
  • The Reactive Problem Solver
  • The Challenger

The challenger sales rep excels

When you take these five profiles and compare them with actual sales performance, one type of sales rep spectacularly outperforms the other four while one falls way behind. The study showed that nearly 40% of all high performers were Challenger reps while just 7% were Relationship Builders. And, the more complex the sale – and professional services, where you are selling solutions, is arguably the most complex – the more dominant the Challengers are.

Furthermore, when analysing what sets Challengers apart, the authors identified the following attributes:

  • Offers the customer unique perspectives
  • Has strong two-way communication skills
  • Knows the individual customer’s value drivers
  • Can identify economic drivers of the customer’s business
  • Is comfortable discussing money
  • Can pressure the customer

The Challenger Sales Model

From this, the authors have proposed a model for challenger selling based on an ability to do three things, namely: teach, tailor and take control. Their book sets out how you can go about embedding this challenger sales approach in your organisation and, in my opinion, most of it maps across well to a law or other professional services firm.

In conventional selling, it is assumed that customers know what they need and the sales rep’s job is to unlock this need through interrogative questioning. Challengers on the other hand tell customers what they need; they are less world-class investigators and more world-class teachers. They focus on providing insights which make the customer money, save them money, or reduce risk. The response they are looking for from customers is: “I never thought of it that way before.” In addition, the insight provided has to play to their company’s strengths, so knowing what genuinely differentiates them from their competition is crucial.

Tailoring is about adapting the sales approach and message to specific individuals across the customer organisation. Taking control is about getting reps to increase their assertiveness without becoming aggressive.

Even if you don’t think the Challenger Sales Model is one for you, the section in the book on “Teaching for Differentiation” is well worth a read.

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