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What’s the secret to selling solutions and enterprise software? If you think its shmoozing and rubbing-elbows with your customers, new research says you’re wrong.

New well-supported studies show that there are five distinct types of sales people when selling solutions and software, and only one type outperforms the others by a landslide.

Which of the following sales types would you guess is the winner?

Challenger Sale - Selling Solutions

Survey says? The Challenger.  

“More than 50% of star sales performers fit the Challenger profile in complex sales”

The next closest type of salesperson is the Lone Wolf, who accounts for 25% of all star performers.  You know Lone Wolfs- the guys who throw tantrums, don’t follow rules, and were in fraternities in college?  How about the relationship builders, the type of salesperson that your boss has urged you to be for years. – only 4% are high performing.

This finding frankly didn’t make sense to me. It flies in the face of “customer-centric” philosophy that dominates the business world today. CEB, a sales research firm, after reviewing 6,000 sales reps across 100 companies made it clear; if you want to be highly successful in selling solutions and software, your best chance is to be a Challenger. They also found that Challenger reps perform exceptionally well in good and bad markets, many times keeping sales organizations afloat when the economy goes sour.

So who are these Challengers and what separates them so significantly from the other cold-calling-smooth-talkers?  Here are the four most important take-aways from the book The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon, that you can use to start breakin’ mo’ necks and cashin’ mo’ checks.

Challengers are made- selling solutions

A common misconception in sales is that high-preforming reps are sprinkled with a glittery magic dust. Sales managers know who their best reps are but can’t put a finger on exactly what makes them so effective at selling solutions (besides the dust). Armed with a clear definition of what a Challenger rep looks, smells, and acts like, we can demystify the high-performing rep.

Challengers are made, not just born.  Any rep that follows the Challenger sales process will show improved sales performance and will get better over time. Becoming a Challenger is teachable and its not only reserved for innately talented reps.

Challengers Teach- selling solutions

Over the past 15 years, sales training on selling solutions focused on one overriding theory- the quickest way to a signed deal is by gaining a deep understanding of the clients needs, then showing how your solution meets those needs better than anyone else.  Sounds completely reasonable right?

However, this theory is based on a deeply flawed assumption that:

Customers actually know what they need in the first place.

Challengers are not world-class investigators as so much as they are world-class teachers. Challengers tell customers what they need, and by doing so, strengthen their competitive advantage. The relationship of vendor and customer has changed significantly over the last decade. Customers now look to vendors selling solutions and software as consultants and advisers, not widget makers. Customer loyalty is gained by providing them valuable new insights about their business and challenging them on their assumptions.

Over 50 percent- selling solutions

When surveyed, over 50% of a customer’s loyalty to a vendor is attributable to the sales process. Only 19% is attributable to the actual product and service delivery.  The actual product and service accounts for less than 20%?? CEB found the highest drivers for loyalty were when sales reps:

  • Offered unique valuable perspectives on the market
  • Helped customer navigate alternatives
  • Provided customer ongoing advice or consultation
  • Educated customer on new issues and outcomes.

If you look at this list, not one of the points relate to the vendor or their amazing product of service, they all relate to the customer. Let’s face it, prospects are going to struggle to differentiate your company from your competitors in this hyper competitive world we live in. Challengers teach when selling in order to convince the customer of a completely new way to look at their own business, which sets the vendor up to be the only one that can capitalize on it.

A Challenger rep does not focus on confirming or validating the needs/concerns the customer is trying to solve. Rather, the Challenger highlights other very important areas the customer overlooked, which will result in significantly increased revenues or cost savings, which the vendor is uniquely positioned to help them with.  This approach “reframes” the customers thoughts on their own business and the vendor, separating them from the herd of similar competitors.

Ironically, if your customer reacts to your sales pitch with something like, “Yes, I totally agree! That’s exactly whats keeping me up at night!” – You have failed.  The goal is to reframe your customer’s thought-process which highlights your firms unique strengths. Challengers know they are on the right track when they hear a customer say “Huh, I never thought of it that way before.”

Challengers are storytellers- selling solutions

Challengers take their customers through an emotional roller-coaster.  Their teaching of the customer is framed as a compelling story with some drama, a little nerve-racking suspense and BAM, a surprise.

“The goal is to take customers…to a rather dark place before showing them the light at the end of the tunnel. And that light, of course, is your solution.”

Without engaging both sides of the customer’s brain, the rational and emotional, it’s too easy for the sale to fall into the black hole of “indecision-mode”. Creating an emotional impact with the customer will help them digest the ground-breaking insight the rep laid out and will spur a call-to-action to get the sale across the finish line.

The good news is you don’t have to be Robert Frost to pull off such a compelling sales story.  The format of the story is always the same and looks like this:

The Challenger Sale Process- selling solutions

This process is much different than the traditional method of selling solutions:

  •  Show slides all about the vendor- select clients, years in business, product features, etc.
  • Discover what customer’s biggest challengers are “What keeps them up at night”
  • Tailor vendor solution pitch to match the customer-defined challenges
  • Convince customer that the vendor is best suited to solve their challenges

The Challenger sales method is different in two fundamental ways. First, it is all about the customer. The vendor’s product is discussed at the end of the sales pitch, not led with it. The lion-share of the sales process is devoted to giving value-add insight to the customer and help them think about their business differently. Secondly, since customer-defined problems did not drive the discussion, the sales conversation is completely different than those of their competitors. While all other competitors are competing over the same customer “hot issues”, the Challenger is in a league of their own.

Pulling off a Challenger Sale does take more effort and preparation than a traditional sale. Knowing your customer better than they know themselves is not easy. To know that much takes a lot of preparation.  Pop in another Kuerig K-Cup and enjoy another mediocre corporate coffee to push you through.

Challengers take control of the sale- selling solutions

Challengers are awesome at two skills that help them take control:

  • More comfortable talking about money
  • Able to “push” the customer when selling solutions

These skills come easily when the rep is very confident in the value they are providing to the customer. They create value by teaching the customer something really important and new about their business and demonstrate how their vendor is the only one on the block that can help. The Challenger has no problem respectfully pushing back when the customer asks for a discount, looser terms, or increase scope without a commensurate increase in price.

Since the Challenger values their contribution and time they respectfully push the customer to keep the sales momentum and avoid stalls.  An early test to see if a sale is going to stall is if the customer is not granting the rep access to key stakeholders that are needed to close the deal. Non-challengers would fold over if a customer put up a wall and insisted that the vendor only work with lower-level staff. Challengers push the customer for expanded access in exchange for continued dialogue, and if not given, move on to the next sale.

Companies that have implemented the Challenger Sale process tell their reps, at the close of the first interaction, to say to customers “You know, typically when we engage with a customer for this sort of solution, we need certain key executives to be involved in the purchase decision.  Is that the case here?” When the customer says yes, the rep then asks when they will be able to meet with those individuals.  If the customer stalls or gives an unclear answer, the rep explains that “if you can’t guarantee time with those key leaders, we will be unable to check that everyone is aligned on the value of the solution; and without alignment it doesn’t make sense to continue engaging in further discussions”.

Now that’s how you push back!  Challengers recognize that they are investing in customers, and customers should expect to invest in them in return.  They maintain this level of control throughout the sale, not only reserve it for negotiations regarding price.  This does require an ability to handle tension in conversations which is something that can be developed; something I’ve been working on recently.


The Challenger Sale represents a more consistent and effective way for selling solutions and software in today’s business world.  Competing on product features and service alone is a losing battle.  Every company now-adays is a “market leader”, “innovator”, or has “excellent customer service”.  The Challenger Sales represents a proven way to cut through the noise and pull ahead of competition.

Providing customers with a unique insight, delivering it in a thoughtful emotion-activating story, and keeping control throughout the sale are a few of the main ways Challengers are far-and-away the best performing reps in organizations today.  If your sales manager hasn’t forced you to read this book yet, you can purchase a copy here.

Let me know your thoughts and happy selling,