What is the Challenger® Sales Methodology?

Everything to know about the groundbreaking book "The Challenger Sale," and how it changed sales forever.

January 16, 2024

First introduced in “The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation,” the Challenger Sales Method disrupted decades of sales thinking. (Which was a very Challenger-like thing to do, as you’ll learn…)

In the book, authors Matt Dixon and Brent Adamson upend the assumption that selling is all about building relationships. Instead, research into thousands of sellers revealed something revolutionary about the best performers: They educated and challenged their customer’s conventional way of thinking.

Dixon and Adamson began the Challenger research during the Great Recession, a time when financial pressure and mounting corporate anxiety created elongated, difficult sales cycles. Their research divided sellers into five distinct profiles and uncovered a contradiction. Traditional sales models demanded that seller work hard to woo clients, learn their birthdays, ask after their children, and keep them happy. Yet Challenger research revealed this profile, the Relationship Builder, performed the worst in complex sales. Far and away, one profile outperformed the rest: The Challenger. These sellers weren’t just meeting their quotas but consistently exceeding them, even in a difficult economy.

Yet the researchers also observed that while Challenger behaviors might be innate for some, they can be learned by everyone. Following the steps of the Challenger methodology to learn to teach, tailor, take control, and build constructive tension can make any seller effective in closing complex sales.

Let’s dive into the Challenger methodology and explore how it’s grown into a living, breathing framework used by enterprise companies around the world. You’ll see why the Challenger way of selling is more relevant now than ever before and how it stacks up against other sales frameworks, and then we’ll explore why Challengers win — and what Challenger customers say about their experience.

Origin of "The Challenger Sale"

The original Challenger research started with a study of customer loyalty from CEB, now Gartner. In uncertain economic conditions, client retention becomes essential, and marketing researchers wanted to know which factors propelled customers to stay or to churn. They were surprised to learn that 53% of customer loyalty comes down to the quality of the sales experience. Not company reputation, or the product, or the price, but instead, how the seller guided the customer to a purchase decision.

Biggest driver of customer loyalty is the sales experience

Their findings also sparked another question: What made some sellers win in spite of economic uncertainty, when others failed?

To answer this question, sales researchers sought to build a picture of the skills and competencies shared among all sellers. Using a series of manager-led assessments, researchers asked managers to evaluate their reps against each other on 44 attributes and skills, such as their goal orientation, business acumen, and ability to negotiate, for example.

When they analyzed the results, they found that certain skills clump together into proficiencies. Put simply, they found five clusters of behaviors, or profiles, of salespeople.

While many reps aim to be one kind of seller, that profile is the least successful. Can you guess which one? Read on for insights into each of the five profiles.

Introducing the five profiles of sales reps

The Problem Solver (14%)
This seller lives to solve problems for customers, even after the deal closes. This is more important to them than finding new business, to the detriment of their own performance. The smallest number of reps, about 14%, fall into this category.

The Lone Wolf (18%)
This seller is self-assured and confident in their instincts. Sales managers know them well because they rarely update their CRM, typically skip trainings, and generally resist any guidance or coaching. They hit their quota, and in return, managers tolerate their behavior. About 18% of sellers fall into this category.

The Hard Worker (21%)
This seller always goes the extra mile. They’re the first to come into the office and the last to leave. The Hard Worker doesn’t give up easily, is self-motivated, and seeks out feedback for personal development. It’s easy to love Hard Workers — and that’s one reason their performance in complex sales is so disappointing. About one-fifth (21%) of sellers fall into this category.

The Relationship Builder (21%)
Customers ask for this seller by name. They build strong advocates in their customer’s organizations, give generously of their time, and get along well with everyone. Another 21% of sellers fall into this category.

The Challenger (27%)
Challengers stand out because they see the world differently. They understand their customer’s business and build growth opportunities around specific commercial insights. The Challenger relishes debate and isn’t afraid to push customers. A little over one-quarter (27%) of sellers fall into this category.

Why Challenger sellers win

After sorting reps into the five profiles, Dixon and Adamson looked at how each performed. They asked participating companies to identify the top 20% of their sales force as measured by performance against goal.

What they found regarding complex sales surprised them — and the sales industry:

  • Core performers came from every category.
  • Star performers came from one dominant category: The Challenger. Of all the high performers in the study, nearly 40% were Challengers.
  • The profile that generated the fewest star performers? Relationship Builders (at just 7%).

Challengers achieve their success, even under difficult circumstances, by convincing reluctant customers to think differently about their problems. When the authors of The Challenger Sale zeroed in on Challenger behavior, they found that this type of seller excels at three interwoven skills.

Teach: Challengers understand their customer’s business so deeply and can communicate so effectively that they come to sales conversations with a unique perspective their customer hasn’t even considered. They teach for differentiation, offering insights that disrupt a client’s status quo.

Tailor: Using their understanding of what’s driving the customer, they tailor their message for resonance. Challengers know how to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time.

Take Control: Finally, Challengers make themselves comfortable with the aspects of sales conversations that make Relationship Builders cringe. They can discuss money, press their customers on commitments, and use customer verifiers to control the sale — and ensure a better sales experience.

One more skill separates Challengers from the rest. Challengers build constructive tension while teaching, tailoring, and taking control. They push their customers to think differently — even if they don’t immediately see eye-to-eye.

We’ll put it another way: Challengers would rather light their lead list on fire than begin a call with the typical, “What keeps you up at night?” question. They know their job at the start of a sales conversation isn’t to ask but to tell customers what should be keeping them up.

This idea of commercial teaching is an entirely new way to approach the “sales pitch” — a welcome one for anyone who has sat through 10+ slides on a vendor’s mission, vision, office locations, employee headshots, and customer logos (which we’ve dubbed the NASCAR slide).

The Challenger Selling Method teaches sellers to execute this new approach through a six-step choreography that forms a commercial insight.

Moving a customer through this choreography is one way to take control of the sales experience. It’s a dance — with a Challenger leading. So what are the six steps?

Step 1: The Warmer
The traditional approach to the start of a sales call asks customers to do the work. Instead, Challengers look to change the nature of a sales call. Rather than leading with questions, they lead with their understanding and knowledge so that the prospect immediately feels they aren’t wasting their time. This “warmer” builds your credibility by showing the customer you’ve done your homework, and you understand their business.

Step 2: The Reframe
In the second step, you build on the challenges your customer just shared and provide a reframe of this “status quo,” the way they’re attacking this problem today. Challengers come prepared to describe why and how the problem the customer is experiencing is connected to a larger, more troublesome issue than they realized. It’s something they were unaware of until now. It’s something surprising. And it’s really, really painful for the business.

Step 3: Rational Drowning
Next, Challengers lay out a business case for why the “reframe” deserves customers’ time and attention. It should make clear exactly how much inaction will cost them, using numbers and graphs that drive your point home. If executed well, “rational drowning” should amp up your prospects’ fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD). By the end of this step, they should begin to feel the pain of staying the same (i.e., the pain of sticking with the status quo).

Step 4: Emotional Impact
Challenger reps are skilled storytellers who can successfully elucidate the emotional impact of a problem. They do this by creating a narrative that looks eerily familiar. It shows customers how companies similar to their own are suffering because of behaviors they recognize and because of a commitment to the status quo — and exactly what will happen if they don’t correct course.

Step 5: A New Way
It’s tempting, at this point, to launch into your solution. But Challengers follow a different approach. Instead, before debuting their solution, they sell the solution. The customer should understand how much better their lives would be if they acted differently. When they acknowledge that the solution itself makes sense, they’re ready for the final step.

Step 6: Your Solution
The goal of this final step in the choreography is to lead to your unique differentiators, equipping your customer to exceed both their expectations and the status quo. This step feels familiar to most reps, because it’s all about putting your solution’s capabilities front and center.

Keep in mind the Commercial Teaching choreography isn’t a script. It’s a series of steps that can be tailored to each client. Following this framework is one way sellers can learn to become Challengers, but it doesn’t stop here.

Can anyone learn to be a Challenger?

The good news is that Challengers aren’t born (not all of them, anyway). Selling like a Challenger can be taught and learned.

The clusters of behaviors that create the five profiles aren’t set in stone. Relationship Builders can become Challengers. Hard Workers can become Challengers. In fact, Challenger sales methodology training is not about innate individual characteristics but about behavioral capability and coachability.

Challenger selling isn’t just a “sales process” or set of skills but rather a mindset that changes how you approach buyers and sales conversations. This makes it flexible, broadly applicable, and good for just about anyone looking to sell a complex product — one that works best when your entire team is on board.

Coaching to the Challenger

When developing a sales team into Challenger sellers, coaching, and not just upskilling individual sales reps, is essential. Motivating and inspiring sales teams to become Challengers is so important that Challenger separates coaching from training completely.

According to the Challenger curriculum, good coaching is:

Ongoing: Coaching isn’t a single event or on-site kickoff. While your sales kickoff or national sales meeting might provide training, your sales leaders help sellers know what to expect at the kickoff, what behaviors to focus on learning during the event, and provide a debrief opportunity afterward.

Customized: Sales training usually involves encouraging sellers to follow the same pattern of activities or behaviors, but coaching is tailored to the individual. It requires sales managers to deeply understand their sellers’ individual strengths and weaknesses and customize their support to those needs.

Behavioral: Coaching goes beyond just imparting knowledge. It’s about how your sales reps put that knowledge to use. Through this lens, it isn’t just about racking up new certifications or learning new methods, but about how those newfound skills play out in the field.

The importance of organization-wide sales training

Adopting the Challenger Sales Method for your team depends on organizational commitment because sellers can’t win in a vacuum.

The Challenger framework means thinking differently about the sales process and the customer experience. To make it work, organizations need professional sales training to teach the necessary skills, as well as the commitment of sales leaders who can provide the inspiration and motivation to try a new selling system from the top of the organization all the way down.

Ready to transform your sales experience and win more loyal customers?

But frameworks alone aren’t enough. Individuals must be willing to embrace this change and the way it disrupts thinking not just about sales but about marketing and customer success. Leaders must hold each team member accountable to apply those skills and processes in their workflow. Challengers must execute their choreography across the sale while building constructive tension, and to do so, they’ll need support from a skilled manager — remember, coaching is essential to the Challenger experience.

Also essential is a scalable, repeatable process for developing commercial insights, which should never, ever be done in a silo. You need cross-functional buy in, support, and participation to power a commercial insight engine fueled by your research and business intelligence to help reps effectively tailor their messages, ideally with the help of marketing and sales enablement.

That’s why the most successful Challenger selling organizations implement training across their sales, marketing, and customer success functions. Then, they follow it up with regular support, updated playbooks, and reinforcement through elearning and integrations in the sales tech stack (e.g., embedding your sales methodology into your CRM or sales enablement platform).

In short, learning to be a Challenger isn’t an individual proposition. It’s an organizational commitment to a new way of valuing and serving customers.

How does Challenger compare to other sales methodologies?

Modern customers approach deals thinking they already know what products and features they want. They have an idea in mind of the value they’re willing to pay for, and they don’t think they need advice from sales reps. Challenger research found that buyers are, on average, 57% of the way through the buying process before ever approaching a seller.

For years, sales trainers taught reps to focus on selling their product’s benefits and building strong relationships with customers. But given the stat above, this approach no longer works. A modern B2B buyer knows their playbook well, and they believe they can save time by going around it. Challengers focus on delivering a stellar sales experience from the very first conversation and build on that throughout the customer lifecycle.

So, how does Challenger stack up against other sales methodologies?

Challenger vs. Solution Selling

Traditional solution selling involves intently listening as customers describe their problems and pain points, and then building tailored solutions to meet their needs. Of course, we can all agree that active listening is an important seller skill… but subscribing only to this approach puts more of the burden on customers and assumes they don’t already know about available solutions.

Because modern customers are, on average, already more than halfway through their buying process before speaking to sales, this methodology is nearly obsolete. Instead, Challenger sellers offer these already-educated customers a new way of looking at their problems, typically focusing on the negative impacts of sticking with the “status quo,” to guide them to the best solution.

Challenger vs. MEDDIC/Challenger vs. MEDDICC/Challenger vs. MEDDPICC

The MEDDIC (or the updated MEDDICC and MEDDPICC) formula is a set of clear qualifying criteria that enterprise sellers can use to progress their deals. If any one step (Metrics, Identify Pain, Decision Criteria, Decision Process, Economic Buyer, Champion, or [optionally] Customer and Paper Process) are not satisfied, a deal can’t move forward.

But while this checklist approach might help sellers construct a tactical sales process, it’s not enough on its own to create a buying journey oriented to the customer’s experience, industry, organization, or unique business needs.

Challenger sellers prioritizing tailoring sales conversations to the customer over checking the right boxes in a qualification list. While they might organically hit each of the MEDDIC criteria, they do so as part of a choreography that centers the customer experience.

Challenger vs. SPIN Selling

The SPIN selling method is an acronym: Situation, Problem, Implication, Need-Payoff. SPIN sellers ask prospects questions from these four categories in order to appropriately tailor the sales process. But peppering customers with question after question starts to feel more like an interrogation than a conversation… and again, puts the burden on the customer.

Where SPIN sellers ask questions, Challengers come armed with insights and a carefully choreographed message that offers a new perspective on the customer’s business problem — and leads them directly to their solution. Of course they leave room for questions, but they don’t build their sales process around them.

Challenger vs. SNAP Selling

The SNAP selling approach focuses on defining the modern buyer’s desire to make snap judgments about solutions. In SNAP selling, reps are trained to sell to these stressed-out buyers by developing certain skills, such as offering simple answers and aligning the solution with their customers’ top priorities. The focus is on speed, quickly answering questions and staying top of mind, over thoughtfulness and tailored conversations.

It doesn’t faze a Challenger to slow down or match the customer’s speed because they become the type of trusted advisors that customers don’t want to leave behind. Challengers set themselves apart by bringing insights, not quick fixes or rapid-fire answers.

Challenger vs. Consultative Selling

Consultative sellers use open-ended questions to guide their prospects toward identifying their own pain points. Then, sellers and prospects work together to find solutions.

There are flavors of Challenger in consultative selling (both center on finding the pain and diagnosing a solution) with one distinct difference: where the problem identification comes from.

Consultative sellers want the customer to draw their own conclusions on the problem(s) to solve. They ask questions and rely on the customer to dig for answers.

Challengers take a stance on the problem itself, or the size of the problem, and show customers the right way to tackle that problem. It’s still a consultative experience — they share expert perspectives and guide the customer to a purchase decision — but it’s the seller leading the journey, not the buyer.

Challenger vs. GAP Selling

In GAP selling, reps take a consultative approach designed to help customers understand the “gap” between their “current state” and their “future state.” GAP sellers are taught to collaborate with the buyer in order to find a path out of their pain and into that desired future state.

It’s not too dissimilar to Challenger, which also establishes a “current state” (i.e., status quo) and presents the ideal solution for addressing a gap or need. But where GAP selling lets the customer take the lead, it also limits the potential to only what the customer knows.

Challengers teach customers what they should care about, informed by numerous conversations with similar customers, and guide them to the best possible future state, not just what the customer can dream up.

Is "The Challenger Sale" still relevant?

Matt Dixon and Brent Adamson wrote the original Challenger text, Winning The Challenger Sale, in 2010. So, why should you care about a book that came out more than a decade ago? For one thing, because Challenger research didn’t stop in 2010. Newer research, including a 2019 study of roughly 600 sellers, shows that Challengers still win.

For another, the economic climate now — full of uncertainty, hesitation, and indecision — makes Challenger skills more relevant than ever.

How’s that, you might ask? Let’s revisit the circumstances around the Great Recession, the worst economic downturn in the U.S. since the Great Depression. Starting in 2008, rising interest rates and predatory lending practices caused a wave of foreclosures. That snowballed into a financial market breakdown. Several banks collapsed, and the U.S. government stepped in to bail out banks and mortgage companies. Companies laid off workers and froze budgets, which turned B2B buying on its head.

Now, let’s fast-forward to today. During the pandemic, a wave of layoffs and budget freezes brought some businesses to a standstill, while others boomed. It was a recession, but just as quickly, it wasn’t. In 2022, a bear market and historic inflation (the highest seen since the 1980s) made the market contract. Some industries suffered more than others; tech companies laid off 261,885 workers in 2022 and 2023. While this period wasn’t *technically* “as bad” as the Great Recession, it had an undeniable effect on businesses and their buying behavior.

What’s more, the buying process has only become more complex since The Challenger Sale’s publication. More stakeholders than ever participate in the purchasing process. According to our research, sellers need five internal team members to close a deal, and those deals typically involve six to eleven stakeholders on the buyer’s side. The post-pandemic era has led to another shift that threatens deals, a fear of messing up that makes it easier to avoid making a decision even when they understand the pain of staying the same. According to recent research spanning 2.5 million sales calls, 40-60% of deals are lost to “no decision.”

However, Challengers aren’t just primed to win in down economies. The only constant is change, and the Challenger Sales Method gives reps the skills specifically choreographed for complex sales. By uncovering a commercial insight that disrupts the status quo, Challengers can win in any economic environment.

That’s why we’re still here. The Challenger journey didn’t stop in 2010. Three additional books, The Effortless Experience (2013), The Challenger Customer (2015), and The JOLT Effect (2022) build on the original Challenger Sale methodology to improve customer experience and tackle the problem of selling in complex deals.

Winning The Challenger Sale Podcast

And does the Challenger Sales Method work?

The Challenger sales experience disrupts customers’ current thinking by teaching them something, not just selling them something. And it works: Since the start of 2022, our clients self-reported over $1.1 billion in revenue impact attributed to Challenger.

See how revenue leaders at leading companies put Challenger to work for them.

Metrie is the largest supplier and manufacturer of solid wood and composite moulding in North America, focusing on high-quality interior architectural elements. Facing increased commoditization and customer consolidation, Metrie partnered with Challenger to deploy the Activation Program to a pilot group of sellers targeting key accounts.

In partnership with Challenger, Metrie built a commercial insight engine that produced sales messaging aimed at teaching builders and distributors about the total value of certain types of molding and showed that purchase price was not always the best datapoint to rely on when deciding. Metrie saw a measurable increase in value provided to customers when delivering the Challenger sales experience. Although builders agreed to only a small increase in materials cost, this approach translated into finely crafted, higher quality architectural elements and an improved aesthetic design, resulting in greater value and satisfaction to homeowners. This in turn improved Metrie’s success in important commercial metrics, prompting further investment in the program across the entire commercial organization year over year.

  • Increased sales leading to a 28x return on 2021 Challenger investment
  • 94% of sellers report they are provided the necessary support to embed Challenger into their day-to-day workflow
  • 96% of sellers prepare more thoroughly for sales interactions and feel that Challenger
  • Activation is a worthwhile investment of their time
  • 71% of opportunities brought to the workshop have closed or progressed
  • 94% of sellers would recommend Challenger Activation to their peers

“I have worked in this industry for 20 years. As a salesman, meeting the customers needs has always been my focus. Challenger has taught me to look at business in new ways, to discover pain points that customers have, and most importantly to look for every opportunity to teach and tailor messages for the different stakeholders.“ — David Douglas, Territory Manager

Read more about Metrie’s Challenger experience

SAP deployed Challenger sales training and coaching training to nearly 4,300 sellers and 1,400 managers in nine languages across all regions of the world. Trainees from SAP attributed $51 million in closed business and $198.2 million in anticipated business to Challenger.

SAP compared the sales pipelines of individuals who attended Challenger training to pipelines of those who did not. Challenger-trained individuals:

  • Closed 26% more deals
  • Brought in 27% more sales revenue
  • Shortened sales cycles on average by more than a month
  • Consistently landed larger deal sizes

SAP received a Brandon Hall gold medal for its global sales training program, citing Challenger training as a significant factor behind the honor.

“Challenger has significantly contributed to our revenue streams from both new opportunities and additional business generated from existing customers. SAP’s global, unified rollout of Challenger to our sales organization and management was the key driver to delivering extensive customer impact.” — Rainer Stern, Global Vice President, SAP Sales Acceleration & Leadership

Read more about SAP’s Challenger experience

Xerox redefined success when it adopted Challenger skills and behaviors to teach customers to see the benefits of color materials in student performance, not the cost of printers and ink. The company’s sales interactions started producing astonishing results.

  • 17% increase in sales
  • 50% increase in quality of coaching effectiveness
  • 90% of participants cited overall performance improvement 3 months after rollout
  • $65 million in contract value attributed to Challenger skills

“The Challenger Sale speaks to the core of how we’re engaging with our clients. We want our salesforce to deliver insight and value, not sales pitches. That’s why our entire organization is being trained on the skills and behaviors that make Challengers successful.” — Kevin Warren, President, US Client Operations

Read more about Xerox’s Challenger experience

Continue your Challenger learning journey

Whether you’re an individual contributor or a sales leader, the Challenger sales methodology offers tools and resources for marketers, customer success teams, and your entire organization to support customers well beyond the sale.

Remember that not all Challengers are born that way. Challenger selling skills can be learned at any point in any career.

If this article is the first step in your journey, know that we view sales as part of the ongoing customer experience, rather than a goal to be achieved or a single transactional moment in time. We’re pushing the vision of “The Challenger Sale” forward by exploring the latest developments in sales and marketing through expert interviews in our webinar series, Leading The Challenger Sale, and our podcast, Winning The Challenger Sale.

Join us there, and take the next step in your Challenger journey.

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