The Challenger Sales model: Everything you need to know

Learn how the Challenger Sales model enables customers to gain new business perspectives and buy solutions, not products.

By Donny Kelwig, Contributing Writer

Published October 20, 2021
Last updated March 12, 2022

Sales psychology is in a constant battle to keep up with customer needs and habits. Over the past 10 years, sales trends have seen a growing increase in customers who are well-researched and don’t want to be coddled. Instead, customers are arriving in sales situations with a wide variety of product options and too much data. It’s overwhelming.

The new Challenger Sales model strives to meet this new breed of customer by examining why they should buy rather than telling them what they should buy.

Below, we’ll dive into the details of the Challenger Sales model, its methodology, examples, and how it can benefit your business.

What is the Challenger Sales model?

The Challenger Sales model was developed in 2011 as a response to customers entering sales situations with more information than in previous years. Rather than trying to build relationships with prospects, this sales methodology encourages sales reps to take control of the sales process.

Let’s take a look at what makes a Challenger and why this new method might benefit your business.

What is a “Challenger?”

    According to Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, authors of The Challenger Sale: How To Take Control of the Customer Conversation, there are five primary types of sales reps:

  1. The Hard Worker: consistently gives 110 percent, loves development, easily motivated.
  2. The Relationship Builder: gets along with everyone and builds excellent customer relationships.
  3. The Lone Wolf: extremely independent, likely to follow their gut before the rules.
  4. The Problem Solver: always reliable and detail oriented.
  5. The Challenger: enjoys debate and pushes the customer out of their comfort zone.
  6. Challengers succeed by understanding the customer’s business well enough to point out flaws, create doubt, and then offer an alternative solution. It’s not a traditional tactic, but a good Challenger is typically successful at closing deals with well-informed customers by using debate rather than persuasion.

How can Challengers benefit businesses?

Sales psychology requires different tactics for transactional selling and complex selling. Transactional selling frequently occurs with customers who already know they want to buy (or at least want to buy a similar product). It isn’t a matter of creating a customer or negotiating, it’s a matter of guiding and providing information.

Complex selling is a different story. While the five sales personalities show relatively equal success in transactional sales, Challengers dominate complex sales, with 54 percent of the success rate. Additionally, over 50 percent of top complex sellers either fit the Challenger profile or use the Challenger Sales method. These numbers indicate that the Challenger Sales model is a proven success in revenue generation.

Challenger Sales model methodology

The methodology of Challenger Sales is a new vision that more closely aligns with consultative sales, or SPIN sales, rather than persuasive sales. Like any sales methodology, its success lies in understanding the current psychology of the consumer market and how customers are approaching their purchases.

According to a recent study, the average customer is 57 percent through the mental purchase process by the time they speak with a sales representative. It’s up to each business to decide what type of representative they should talk to and which methodology should greet them.

Let’s take a closer look at the Challenger Sales methodology.

What is the Challenger Sales methodology?

The Challenger Sales methodology is a transition from pitch-based selling to educational selling. Rather than pitching a specific product, a Challenger will respond to client needs, then analyze those needs, and finally present a solution the client may not have considered.

While this method has shown success, it can also be precarious. That’s because it requires sales reps to embrace a more direct, confrontational, and corrective attitude. Let’s examine the pros and cons of Challenger Sales.

Challenger pros

  • Gives the customer a unique perspective on the product and the customer’s own business.
  • Is built on an understanding of the customer’s business, which more easily secures loyal buyers.
  • Makes budget discussions less delicate, given the aggressive nature of the methodology.

Challenger cons

  • Can backfire on average or beginner reps who have not mastered the methodology.
  • Not as successful as other methods in transactional sales.
  • Difficult to implement in a seasoned rep whose training is rooted in other sales styles.

Improve your sales process

A good sales process is the foundation of any successful sales organization. Learn how to improve your sales process and close more deals.

Challenger Sales model steps

Challenger Sales Model steps

The Challenger Sales model is all about educating prospective customers rather than building customer relationships. It can sound antithetical to most sales models, and some salespeople find it tricky to get right. But with the dedicated practice of these six basic steps, any sales rep can develop the sales skills to master this unique sales model.

Step 1: The Warmer

Getting in the door and establishing credibility are critical. Other sales tactics start with the product, but the Challenger starts with the customer’s needs. The key is to show the customer that you are aware of their business and that you understand the struggles they’re likely facing.

Unlike cold calls or door-to-door sales, this “step one” is not really the first step. To start the Challenger sales model, a sales rep has to take the time to research their prospects. It’s a bit of extra work, but the results are worth it.

Step 2: Reframing

By the end of the warm-up, the sales rep should have a good idea of the prospect’s biggest problem and how the prospect thinks this problem should be solved. Through reframing, the sales rep can talk the prospect through the roots of the problem. Then, the sales rep can show the prospect that not only is their solution wrong, but that there is a better one.

Once again, this step is not about the product. The goal of step two is to enable the prospect to see better possibilities outside of their own solution. The product might eventually be the solution, but that won’t matter to the prospect if they’re stuck in a different mindset.

Step 3: Rational Drowning

Rational Drowning is simply backing up your reframing idea with solid data and evidence. This step can overlap with the reframe, but the important thing to remember is that this is not a pitch. The prospect still doesn’t need to be convinced to buy the product just yet. They simply need to be convinced that you understand their problem better than they do.

Simplicity is crucial to this step. Let the data speak for itself, and make sure you and your prospect are on the same page.

Step 4: Emotional Impact

No matter the sales model, up to 95 percent of sales decisions are driven by our emotional reactions. Up until step four, the Challenger Sales model focuses on facts and practical understanding. Now is the time to empathize with the prospect.

Let them know they are not alone. You’re not selling to them because they could benefit, you’re selling to them because others have already benefited. Solving their urgent problem isn’t just about revenue, it’s about their ambitions and bettering their lives.

If this step follows a solid reframe and Rational Drowning session, it’s highly unlikely that the prospect will be lost.

Step 5: Value proposition

It’s almost time to introduce the product, but not quite yet. Value proposition is the introduction of what your solution could accomplish. It’s similar to SPIN selling. Step five of Challenger selling paints a picture of what the prospect’s life would look like if their biggest problem were solved.

The product may get them there in the end. But the focus in this stage is to connect the dots between the prospect’s current struggle and their potential future. For example, if the key problem is slow inventory production, you’re showing them a world in which inventory turnaround is twice as fast.

If you do this right, you won’t have to sell your company’s machine that doubles their productivity. They’ll just ask you for it.

Step 6: The solution to the problem

Finally, it’s time for the product placement. The prospect’s problem has been identified and they’ve been convinced their original solution isn’t going to work. They recognize you relate to them, and they see a future with your solution.

If everything is lined up from the first five steps, the product should sell itself. Depending on the product, this might end in an immediate sale or in a commitment to a demo (such as in SaaS sales). Either way, the prospect becomes a customer, and the sale is a success.

Challenger Sales model example

The six steps of the Challenger Sales model become clearer in practice. Let’s take a look at an example sales scenario for a better picture. In this example, the prospective client owns a distribution company and is looking to increase revenue by reformatting their marketing strategy. They’ve decided the best way to do this is to design additional campaigns and put out more marketing content.

  • The Warmer: Example

    This prospect is looking for help in creating additional marketing campaigns. You might start by asking, “How much do you spend on advertising, and what results are you seeing?” You’re asking sales questions to get to know the problem, not jumping into the pitch.

  • Reframing: Example

    You discover this prospect is spending a larger than average amount on automated advertising. Rather than suggesting the product, you point out the flaw in their reasoning. “Did you know the average long-running automated ad actually ends up losing money?”

  • Rational Drowning: Example

    The prospect is horrified that they’ve been losing money and asks for proof. You point out a list of companies who are still spending money on ad space for products they may not even sell anymore. The prospect starts to realize the quantity of their marketing may not be the issue…

  • Emotional Impact: Example

    You’ve shown the prospect the facts and proven you are to be trusted, so now is the time to show empathy and understanding. A question like, “Do you ever feel stressed that you can’t keep up with campaign management?” indicates that you understand where the client is coming from. Make it obvious that you want to alleviate their stress.

  • Value proposition: Example

    The prospect doesn’t need a product by this point, they need a solution—a product pitch doesn’t ease stress. Instead, sell the idea: “Wouldn’t you be less stressed with a comprehensive platform that managed your campaigns and tracked your most frequent customers?”

  • The solution: Example

    The prospect says, “Absolutely, how can I find something like that?” You have the answer waiting.

    Notice the product or brand is never mentioned outright—it doesn’t need to be. The solution to the problem becomes clear, and thus the product, Zendesk Sell, sells itself.

Zendesk works for Challengers

Challengers need to know who they are selling to, what marketing those prospects have been exposed to, and how their businesses work. Zendesk provides a clientele database and breakdown in an easy-to-use, inclusive platform accessible by the entire company or sales department.

Types of clients can also be analyzed and then routed to the best type of seller for their situation, so Challengers always know they’re getting the best prospects.

Find your solution and request a demo of Zendesk today.

Improve your sales process

A good sales process is the foundation of any successful sales organization. Learn how to improve your sales process and close more deals.

Improve your sales process

A good sales process is the foundation of any successful sales organization. Learn how to improve your sales process and close more deals.

Read now