Sales and Sales Management Blog

September 7, 2011

Book Review: The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation

Filed under: Book Reviews — Paul McCord @ 2:51 pm
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Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson in their new book, The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation (Portfolio/Penguin: 2011) challenge traditional sales theory at its very core.  According to their study, the generally accepted view that in complex selling the Relationship Sellers are the most effective and key for building a high performance sales team is 100% wrong.  In fact, they argue, that of the 5 types of salespeople they identified: The Hard Worker; The Relationship Builder, The Lone Wolf, The Problem Solver, and the Challenger, the Relationship Builder was the worst performer by far.

Not buying it?

Well, they have some pretty good support—Neil Rackham for one.  Now although  Rackham hasn’t reached the level of deity—yet anyway—having him write the Foreword to the book and endorse their conclusion has to make one sit up and take the book seriously.

The Challenger Sale is based on a study of over 6,000 sales reps from across the globe and “representing every major industry, geography, and go-to-market model.”  The study is based on a survey of forty-five rep attributes which include attitudes, skills and behaviors, activities, and knowledge.

The study broke the various sellers they found into five types:

The Hard Worker: the rep “that shows up early, stays late, and is always willing to put in the extra effort.” 

The Relationship Builder: “is all about building and nurturing strong personal and professional relationships and advocates across the customer organization.”

The Lone Wolf: are deeply self-confident and follow their instincts, not the company rules

The Problem Solver: is “highly reliable and very detail-oriented.”  They make sure all the promises have been kept and focus on follow-up.

The Challenger:  “They’ve got a deep understanding of the customer’s business and use that understanding to challenge the customer’s thinking and teach them something new about how their company operates.”

When the authors examined each of these groups in terms of production, they discovered no significant difference between the five groups when they looked at average sellers.  In other words, anyone can be an average seller.  However, when they examined the top sellers in organizations they discovered a huge difference—the Challenger model created by far the most top performers while the Relationship Builder model was left in the dust by the other four models.

In percentage terms, the authors discovered that the Challenger model made up 39% of all the top producers.  The Relationship Builder model stumbled in at only 7% of all top producers.  (The Lone Wolf model came in at 25%, The Hard Worker at 17%, and The Problem Solver at 12%)

What does a Challenger sales rep do that is so different than the Relationship Builder?  While the Relationship Builder wants to create deep, strong, and warm relationships that defuse any tension, the Challenger seeks to create and build what the authors call constructive tension

According to Dixon and Adamson, the Challenger is “defined by the ability to do three things—teach, tailor, and take control—and to do this in the context of creative tension.”

The Challenger:

Teaches: “The thing that really sets Challenger reps apart is their ability to teach customers something new and valuable about how to compete in their market.”  It is about giving the customer a new and unique perspective.

Tailor: “While teaching is the defining attribute of being a Challenger, the ability to tailor the teaching message to different types of customers—as well as to different individuals within the customer organization—is what makes the pitch resonate with the customer. . . . Tailoring relies on the rep’s knowledge of the specific business priorities of whomever he or she is talking to—the specific outcomes they value most, the results they’re on the hook to deliver for their company.”

Take Control: The ability to assert and maintain control over the sale.  “This is all about the rep’s ability and willingness to stand their ground when the customer begins to push back.”

The good news is the authors say that the Challenger isn’t born a Challenger; they learn the skills that make them Challengers, so any seller can learn to be a Challenger, at least to some extent.

This, for many sellers and sales leaders, is the exact opposite of what they’ve been taught.  That traditional warm, fuzzy, relationship building, give ‘em all the time in world selling style, the authors say, is dead, dead, and gone.

They do, however, have a consolation prize for the relationship lover—Challengers have strong relationship building skills as a supplement to their Challenger selling skills.

Have I bought the Challenger model hook, line, and sinker?  Nope, not yet anyway.  But I’d be foolish not to take a good, long hard look at it when Neil Rackham buys into it.  Might be a good idea for you take a good look too when the book is released.  The release date is November 11—but head on over to Amazon or Barnes and Noble and put your order in, you’ll find it not only interesting, but it will challenge a great deal of what you think you know about salespeople.



  1. One could make an argument that, to be a “Challenger” one must first have a deep enough relationship and understanding of the client’s business to “challenge”, “assert”, and “teach” a client “new and valuable” ways and “how to compete in their market”. A rep better be on sure footing in the relationship to pull this off. This is a “Relationship Builder” operating on the highest level in my opinion. Somewhat algebraic – must have one before the other works – in my opinion.

    Sounds like an interesting read though.


    Comment by Pete Baxter — September 7, 2011 @ 3:28 pm | Reply

    • I encourage you to read the book–what you just stated, they found to be wrong (actually not wrong per se, just not of paramount importance). As I said, I’m not totally sold on their findings, but it will make you have to think about what we think we know about selling.

      Comment by Paul McCord — September 7, 2011 @ 3:38 pm | Reply

    • Great point, Pete and thanks for the comment. Per Paul’s response, we don’t argue that the Challenger is just a super Relationship Builder (statistically, this isn’t what the data suggests) but I think that in practical terms, it’s understandable to reach this conclusion–one that we’ve heard a lot as we’ve been out there presenting this work.

      The Challenger, at the end of the day, builds superior relationships with customers because the relationships they build are founded on business value…which is a big difference from how classic Relationship Builders operate. Where RBs seek to defuse tension–to acquiesce to the customer’s every demand–Challengers leverage tension to their advantage, getting customers to think differently about their business, by taking control of the sales process, etc. RBs are nice, but they’re not particularly effective. In the book we go into detail around the attributes that define RBs in our statistical study and compare those with the ones that describe Challengers and we find little overlap. In other words, Challengers are different in kind, not just degree. As Paul commented, we did find that Challengers score highly on RB attributes, but it’s better to think of this as their “minor” rather than their “major.”

      We know that customers can perceive a huge difference between a sales interaction that is pleasant or nice…and one that actually brings insight and real value to the table. One of the most powerful findings from this research that we talk about in the book is that 53% of B2B customer loyalty is a function of the kind of sales experience we deliver to our customers–dwarfing things we’ve always assumed to be more important like brand and product/service quality (which together are only 38% of customer loyalty) and price-to-value (only 9% of loyalty). And it’s not just any sales experience that delivers loyalty benefits from customers…it’s an insight-driven sales experience: one where customers learn new things about how to compete more effectively (i.e., where the rep teaches them about new ways to save money or make money that they didn’t realize even existed). So, it’s no surprise that the Challenger wins since they deliver exactly the kind of sales experience that customers say will make them more loyal.

      One thing we definitely do not argue is that relationships are unimportant to sales–this couldn’t be further from the truth. The sales professional needs a relationship to get in the door…if your customer doesn’t even like you, you’ve got bigger problems. The difference though is that a RB uses the relationship as an end unto itself and tries to leverage it to sell into the customer organization. Challengers have good relationships, but they leverage those relationships to deliver insight to the customer, to push their thinking. The relationship, for the Chalelnger, isn’t the end game, it’s just the ante.

      A quick side note. I know this isn’t what you’re suggesting, but your comment does raise another question that we hear a lot, especially from companies looking to implement the Challenger model, and that is whether there is a less antagonistic term than “Challenger” that can be used. The fear is that the term “Challenger” will rub people the wrong way…that it comes across as a license to be aggressive with customers. If Challengers really do build better relationships with customers than RBs do…why not just call them “the New Relationship Builder?” Clearly, this sort of term will ruffle fewer feathers than “Challenger.” In the book, we argue that terminology matters. Here’s a brief excerpt on this point:

      …We know that the term “Challenger” can rub people the wrong way. We’ve heard every manner of pushback here you can imagine. Some companies fear it will make their reps think it’s okay to be aggressive or brutish in the market. Others fear that drawing a contrast with the Relationship Builder will make reps think that relationships are no longer important to your business.

      Some of our members have asked us why we wouldn’t instead call the Challenger the “New Relationship Builder” if, in fact, we are saying that the Challenger actually builds stronger relationships with customers. The reason is simple: Nobody cares about “New Relationship Builders.” In case you don’t believe us, ask yourself this: Would you have bought this book if it were about how to build “New Relationship Builders”? The answer is almost certainly no.

      In order to get the organization to pay attention to the change you are driving, you must create cognitive dissonance. There must be a moment when reps understand, very clearly, to “do this, not that.” If the new model feels like a tweak on the old . . . well, why bother changing? Change, after all, is hard work. If reps see a clear A-to-B move (versus an A v1.0-to-A v2.0), they are far more likely to see this as different instead of a flavor of the week, or worse, more of the same.

      Don’t water down the message. Part of the power of this research (as confirmed by early adopters of the model itself) is the contrast it offers between the old way and the new, more effective way to sell. Aligning the message to the old way of selling means that reps may adjust behavior at the margins, but most will fail to see it for what it is and won’t do anything differently as a result. The best gauge of the power of your message to the organization is how many people disagree with you and want to debate—this is probably true of anything, but it’s especially true
      when you’re talking about driving change in the sales organization, whose inertia around legacy ways of doing things can be hard to break, to put it mildly.

      If you are a sales leader or a training professional, in other words, you need to be a Challenger yourself. Teach reps to value the change you are selling to them. Picking agreeable terms that don’t ruffle feathers might make everybody in the organization feel good, but rest assured, few will remember what you said and you will be far less likely to compel change as a result. And, as we know, the same is true for reps presenting to customers—it is the Challengers’ desire to create constructive tension (often with specific language and data that reframes the customer’s view of things) that creates a differentiated sales experience, one that ultimately builds more loyal customers…


      Thanks again for your comment, Pete. And, Paul, thanks for the kind word in your review! Your readers might like some of the free tools and downloads available on the book Website, We’ll be uploading some interviews with Neil Rackham on the Challenger research this week, so stay tuned for those.

      Best regards,

      Matt Dixon

      Comment by Matt Dixon — September 10, 2011 @ 10:19 am | Reply

  2. I found this surprising at first and then I started to think: When I was a consultant within a large CRM software vendor I worked alongside and inside several sales teams and organisations. We found that combining the “Challenger” aspects delivered by the consultant alongside the “Relationship Builder” skills from the sales guy worked best: this led not only to increased number of sales but also bigger, more valuable deals overtime. Nice review. I’m interested to read more.

    Comment by Deborah Womack — September 7, 2011 @ 11:24 pm | Reply

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  4. […] Book Review: The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer … Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson in their new book, The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation (Portfolio/Penguin: 2011) challenge traditional sales theory at its very core. According to their study, … Source: […]

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  7. If you believe the delineation of each of the five types of salespeople (above) actually exist, then the conclusion of the “Challenger” as the best is the obvious conclusion.. However, most top salespeople are far more complex than those descriptions.

    If you believe that the salesperson’s primary function is to change the minds of their prospects, the need for a “challenger” is the obvious conclusion. However, our research indicates that most of the top 1% of sales producers sell to prospects that want to buy. Those prospects don’t want to be challenged. They want mutually acceptable agreements and commitments, .

    Comment by Jacques Werth — September 13, 2011 @ 11:41 am | Reply

  8. This is really an important & meaningful post. Average sellers include every categorey. They work according to their will but the goal of everyone of them is same.

    Comment by Self Storage Birmingham — September 16, 2011 @ 5:17 am | Reply

  9. I just attended a talk by Neil Rackham (The author of SPIN Selling) this morning. He wrote the forward to The Challenger Sale. Part of his teachings today were based on this book. There is much more to it than what is listed at the beginning of this page. Rick has been waiting for more than 30 years for the next big thing to happen to the way sales are approached and the thinks that this MAY be it.
    I have always challenged the customer knowing it is better for both of us to know from the beginning what each of us need. This really weeds out questions and things that may be missed on both sides until later. It gets them thinking in ways they haven’t before. This adds great value to the relationship that is being built.
    Keep in mind, challenging is not arguing.
    I can’t wait to read this book and hopefully improve on what I am currently doing.

    Comment by Franck Boynton — October 28, 2011 @ 1:03 pm | Reply

  10. A significant implication to the concepts which I haven’t see address yet is that to effectively “challenge” the customer, there is a lot of research and thought-leadership that needs to be conducted ahead of time, not just asking good SPIN questions. Who is going to conduct this reaseach? and what are the impacts to other sales-performance measures and time management efforts.

    Comment by Scott Jorgens — November 21, 2011 @ 4:31 pm | Reply

    • Great point, Scott! There is a huge amount of work required to develop the right insights for salespeople to use to effectively challenge customers. Our view is that this is typically the role of marketing, but it requires marketers to think a bit differently about how they support sales. In the book, we devote two entire chapters to this discussion.

      Best regards,

      Matt Dixon

      Comment by Matt Dixon — November 21, 2011 @ 5:27 pm | Reply

  11. Listen to the gurus but trust your own good marketing instincts.
    ” You want to believe, after all we are cultured to trust others. The only effect this will have is to make them afraid of you.

    Comment by marketing instincts temecula — April 25, 2014 @ 9:42 pm | Reply

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