The Power of the Challenger Sales Model

Understand and teach the behaviors that set the best sales reps apart from the rest.

Customers approach most purchases armed with more information and choices than ever before. This creates a more complex purchase process that places a greater burden on both the customer and the rep.

Sales organizations can increase business by challenging customers

Gartner research found that customers are more than halfway, 57%, through the purchase process before they have the first meaningful contact with a seller. Customers are coming into seller interactions with preconceived ideas about what products and features they want to buy and how much they’re willing to pay. In this environment, sales reps must deliver a purchase experience that transcends product features and benefits to win sales and retain business, or risk becoming irrelevant.

Win Through Sense Making

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“Sales organizations can increase business by challenging customers — delivering customer interactions specifically designed to disrupt their current thinking and teach them something new. It’s not just about selling something anymore,” says Brent Adamson, Distinguished Vice President, Advisory, Gartner and co-author of The Challenger Sale, Taking Control of the Customer Conversation (Portfolio/Penguin, 2011).

What star performers do

For many organizations, a few star sales performers drive the majority of revenue. What do these star performers do, and how can those actions be translated to other reps?

To figure this out, Gartner surveyed over 6,000 sales reps and assessed star and average performers across 44 different attributes. The data revealed five distinct profiles of sales professionals. Each profile is characterized by a specific set of skills and behaviors that define how reps interact with customers.

Gartner explains the five profiles of sales professionals.

The most prevalent rep profile is the “Relationship Builder,” and this makes sense to most sales leaders. These reps have enjoyable conversations — they seek to satisfy customer demands and resolve tension. However, this sales rep profile has the lowest proportion of star performers, at only 7%.

Average or core performers comprise similar amounts across all five types. However, when compared to actual sales performance, one profile dramatically exceeds the others in likelihood to achieve star performance: The ChallengerTM. On average, nearly 40% of star performers were Challengers. In complex sales situations, that number rose to 54%. 

Gartner illustrates the percentage of core versus high performers per sales profile.

Why Challenger reps win

Challenger reps use their understanding of their customers’ businesses to deliver new insights and drive their thinking in new and different ways. They bring new ideas, like how to save money or avoid risk, that the customer hadn’t previously considered or fully appreciated on their own. Contrary to the Relationship Builder, Challengers are effective because they build constructive tension.

Learn more: The Challenger Sale

The insight Challengers provide sets the selling organization apart from others and has the largest impact on customer loyalty. Our research found that a company’s brand, products and services, and pricing are no longer the main drivers behind customer purchase decisions. Instead, the greatest differentiator between B2B sellers is the sales experience.

Challengers are most effective at selling in the complex world of buying today and tomorrow because they take control of the purchase conversation in a way that leads customers back to the unique strengths of their organization.

What it means to be a Challenger

Challenger reps use their assertive attributes to demonstrate three distinct skills:

  1. They teach for differentiation based on their knowledge of the customer’s business and their unique perspective, using their ability for two-way dialogue during the sales interaction.
  2. They tailor their message based on their strong sense of their customer’s economic and value drivers.
  3. They take control of the sale because they are comfortable discussing money and can pressure the customer to close.

Sales leaders must understand that not all reps will implement and succeed with the Challenger approach on their own. Instead, the entire organization must embrace this approach to provide frontline reps the support they will need to approach customers with compelling insight.

Sense Making is another much-needed skill

Whether sales reps are Challengers or not, the approach they use to engage the customer with information is a critical determinant of sales success. Given the proliferation of information in the marketplace, sales reps must help customers prioritize sources, reconcile contradictions and qualify trade-offs. In 2019, Gartner research identified three seller approaches to information and found one clear winner: Sense Making. The Gartner Sense Making approach is predicated on the careful sharing of information to guide customers toward a clearer, more rationalized view of the purchase decision.

Customers who work with a Sense Making sales reps are much less likely to be skeptical of the salesperson and much more likely to feel confident about the information they’re using to make a purchase decision. This translates into a far higher percentage of high-quality, low-regret deals than other approaches.

Win Through Sense Making

Enable your sellers to succeed in an information-rich world

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This article has been updated from the original, published on May 14, 2018, to reflect new events, conditions or research.

Gartner for Sales Leaders clients can read more on The Challenger Plan v3.0.