The Challenger Sale—Taking Control of the Customer Conversation

Pharma sales representatives can learn high performance skills from the B2B industry model.

What are the characteristics of the high performance sales representative in the complex B2B environment? To answer that, think of the sales representative that you seek advice from or would drop your next appointment to meet with. If you need more than one hand to count these professionals, consider yourself lucky. Then consider how you can help your organization develop these types of representatives to sell your product.

The Research behind the book

In 2010, The Corporate Executive Board Company—where Mathew Dixon and Brent Adamson, authors of The Challenger Sale (Penguin Books Ltd, Oct. 1, 2012), consult—commissioned a study of 2,400 B2B decision-makers to understand what contributed to customer loyalty. Surprisingly, 53% of the drivers were attributed to the sales experience, a category dependent on an individual sales representative’s performance. In a nut shell, customers buy B2B products and services from representatives who “make them smarter.” That means they provide uniquely valuable perspectives on the market, educate on new issues and outcomes, navigate the risk/reward trade-offs, and gain widespread support from all stakeholders.
Analyzing research on over 6,000 sales professionals, Dixon and Adamson developed three key findings:

1. There are five types of sales representatives:

  • The Relationship Builder: Gets along
    with everyone, builds strong coalitions
  • The Hard Worker: Self-motivated, does
    not give up easily, goes the extra mile
  • The Problem Solver: Responsive,
    detailed, seeks answers
  • The Lone Wolf: Mercenary, difficult to
    control, generally gets results
  • The Challenger: Understands customer’s
    business, debates, pushes customers

2. There is one clear winning profile: The

  • Challenger scored the highest in performance ratings versus all other groups.
    The top characteristics of a Challenger representative are:
  • Offers the customers unique perspectives
  • Has strong two-way communication
  • Knows the individual customer’s value
  • Can identify economic drivers of the
    customer’s business
  • Is comfortable discussing finances
  • Earns the right to pressure the customer

3. Challengers are the next evolution of the solutions representative.

The more complex the sale, the more likely that Challenger representatives will be among the high performers. The challenger model has three phases which are designed to build constructive tension:

  • Teach: Reframe the way customers view
    their business by providing unknown
    value-added insights
  • Tailor: Link data-backed projected
    outcomes to stakeholder’s individual
  • Take control: Pursue the sales agenda in
    a direct way at every phase, without
    being aggressive

Research into action

The good news is that Challenger representatives are made, not born. The Challenger model is a set of skills. Most representatives have the basics to build from. Training, coaching and development will nurture these skills into behaviors.
A caution: building a Challenger sales organization is a long journey. The reason why Challenger representatives can create constructive tension is that they intimately know the customer’s business and their products at a mastery level. To achieve this end demands a comprehensive curriculum. This is a not an easy transformation; it is one that requires both individual and corporate capability, resources and patience.


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