The Challenger Sale model – and now the Challenger Customer – are narrowly prescriptive, contends Mark Erskine, adaptive selling is the way to go

The Challenger Sale – promoted by the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) and often considered in Winning Edge – is tagged as the most important advance in selling for many years by none other than Neil Rackham of SPIN selling fame. He adds that it may indeed justify the rare and coveted label of a sales breakthrough.

To recap, the challenger model claims that salespeople fall into five distinct profiles:

  1. Hard worker
  2. Challenger
  3. Relationship builder
  4. Lone wolf
  5. Reactive problem solver

Quite simply, the book contends that the very best salespeople are just one of these five sales rep personality types, namely challengers. The challenger rep, claim the authors, brings a unique perspective of the customer’s business to the table, creates constructive tension in the buyer/seller conversation, debates the customer’s values and challenges, tailors the solution so that it resonates with the customer, is very comfortable discussing money and is more than happy to pressure the customer. In short, challengers are a breed of rep with the ability to teach, tailor and take control. In the view of the authors, challenger reps deliver the most consistently high performance. They’ve mastered the complex sale – and operate successfully in any economic environment, boom or bust. Sounds compelling, doesn’t it?

My contention, however, is that The Challenger Sale focuses on skill sets and techniques that are far too narrow, and doesn’t really teach us anything we didn’t already know. Neuroscience tells us that everyone has a unique profile and that someone’s profile is a blend of styles or “orientations”. Humans are not one-dimensional and that’s what makes the ability to sell both complex and fascinating. Based on what we now know about neuroscience, you cannot put people into five “buckets”. After all, we’ve learned more about the brain in the last ten years than in the whole of prior history combined. As someone who champions the use of psychometric and behavioural profiling in sales. Putting people into one “bucket”, whether they are talking about a colleague, the boss or a prospect, is erroneous and I’m afraid that this is where The Challenger Sale argument falls down. We are all a blend of the orientations and all of them add value to a sales process to a greater or lesser degree. If you delve deeper into the research undertaken by CEB, the five profiles in The Challenger Sale are described more as “behavioural clusters” rather than fixed types. Also, the analysis was based on interviews with frontline sales managers about members of their teams (one-star performer and two average performers). But the power of proper profiling lies in the results being derived from responses from individuals themselves, based on the fact that we all know ourselves far better than anyone else. Instead, the challenger results rely on a manager’s assessment of a small number of their people. Given that the CEB owns a well-respected profiling tool – SHL – it begs the question as to why it didn’t follow profiling best practice and adhere to strict psychometric analysis rather than subjective feedback. Challenger reps and the characteristics or behaviours they exhibit are very akin to “controlling” behaviours, such as assertiveness, taking control, seeking change and pressuring.

Are these characteristics essential to sales success?

Absolutely – in the right situation. But you also need to know how to adopt and maximise all of the orientations, as they all offer huge value too. According to the challenger model, and most surprisingly to my mind, one of their five profile types – the relationship builder – falls far behind. In fact, in a world where customers are often reluctant to buy, a world where findable business – through the tried and trusted channels of great service, good products, empathy, mutual understanding, collaboration, integrity and trust – has all but vanished, the authors reckon relationship builders are “doomed to fail”. And furthermore that, “If you think winning more business is about building relationships – you’d be wrong…” In all my sales management experience, the preferred orientations of the most successful sales hunters are a blend of “adapting” and “controlling” – one eye on the relationship and one eye on delivering a result. However, we should also recognise that the other two behavioural orientations, “conserving” and “supporting”, play a pivotal role in the sales process too, and it is up to the organisation to develop their people to use all the orientations, not the narrow set that The Challenger Sale proposes. For example, the often-neglected orientation of “conserving” in salespeople means they often push back against sales process and procedures and may not be disciplined or structured enough to maximise their success. This is where the methodologies of organisations such as Miller Heiman have filled the gap for more than 30 years, by providing a logical, sequential and documented sales process. In the same vein, it should be no surprise that so many salespeople struggle with CRM systems adoption and even filling out expense claim forms – after all, that’s conserving behaviour too. The other neglected strength not often found in “hunters” is that of supporting. This orientation, however, is vital in account management, with its focus on quality, responsiveness and teamwork. And, in recent years, sales directors have increasingly sought out team-based collaborative sales processes, rather than relying on one individual that fronts the sale.

By understanding the value of behavioural profiling tools, salespeople can be taught to manage and develop their selling style by:

  • Confirming their strengths – becoming more self-aware
  • Capitalising on those strengths so they are “playing off the front foot”
  • Moderating excesses caused by over-playing strengths that get in the way of the relationship Extending their skills by using their least preferred orientations, so they never drop the ball
  • Supplementing, by using others to help fill their blind spots and building a strong network of internal support
  • Bridging to other people’s orientations through adaptive selling

The last strategy of “bridging” is one that the challenger model, I believe, has not really considered. This is the ability and need to change your style and sales strategy, chameleon-like, according to the prospect in front of you. At its core, this means understanding how our growing knowledge of neuroscience can affect selling techniques. This is the real sales breakthrough we have been waiting a long time for. Until recently, we had not had any means of knowing how the brain “feels” about messages, products and services. But now, with great advances in brain imaging technology, coinciding with huge leaps in computer algorithmic and analytical capabilities, we know with considerable certainty what the brain likes and what it rejects. Most organisations have not even considered the potential of this new knowledge, but a few trailblazers, like Honda in Japan, have introduced neuroscience concepts into selling in a controlled number of dealerships – and realised a 24% increase in sales over a 12-month period. There are an increasing number of other powerful examples like this. Relying heavily on one style, as The Challenger Sale encourages, is potentially very limiting. That style may appeal to prospects of similar orientations, but may alienate many more. A prospect with a preference for conserving will fear new ideas or unique perspectives, preferring tried and trusted solutions. Those whose preferential orientation is supporting will shy away from dominant assertive selling by salespeople who take control of the conversation and pressure them. But let’s be fair to the challenger model, because over-reliance on adapting through great relationship building – potentially selling without any real substance – won’t deliver success either. Selling to diametrically opposite orientations, as illustrated by the orientations diagram on the opposite page, will always be difficult as the styles may overtly clash, while neighbouring orientations will often blend more easily. The challenger’s reactive problem solver type is apparently another poor relation among profile types. Consultative and solution selling have been the methodologies of choice for the last 30 years and at the heart of these is the premise that you understand the client’s needs and tailor your solution to meet those needs and solve their problems. Accomplished sellers have always known they may have to “teach” the client about a problem that they may not have realised they had by exploring the situation, then grow the implications and generate needs pay-off. There is nothing wrong with this approach. Is Neil Rackham really saying that his SPIN selling approach, which has truly stood the test of time, has now been superseded? And as for relegating the importance of the hard worker type, maybe we should all remember Gary Player’s famous golfing quote: “The harder I practise, the luckier I get.” In summary, the challenger model correctly recognises the value of certain sales behaviours and its authors are right to highlight their importance in selling success. But challenger is no silver bullet, because successful salespeople need to master a range of behaviours and skills and adapt their style to the customer in front of them, rather than offer the same approach to all. The most successful sellers are those who are most aware of their strengths, learn not to over-play them and work hard on weaker or neglected behaviours that they need to improve to maximise their performance. The sales leader has an important role in providing the mirror to develop that self-awareness through understanding and employing behavioural profiling as a developmental tool, and embracing the powerful recent developments in neuroscience.

The Challenger Customer, the new book by the CEB’s challenger team (reviewed on pages 18-21 of this edition), focuses on the buyer’s role in the purchasing process, rightly recognising that often too much attention is paid to the selling aspect, when the real power lies with the buyer. The authors’ research has identified seven stakeholder types: go-getter, sceptic, friend, teacher, guide, climber and blocker. Trying to understand the motivation of a buyer is, of course, critical in sales success, so they must be right to encourage sellers to focus on this area, and providing a reference framework can be helpful. Everyone, after all, likes to be able to categorise people.

My concern, based on early scrutiny, is founded on the truism articulated by Joe Galvin, chief research officer, MHI Global, which I think all sales directors unfortunately appreciate when they get a deal rejection: “Every buyer makes every decision differently – every time.” Depending on the situation, the same buyer could be a sceptic, a guide or a blocker, or indeed any of the stakeholder types identified. These are attitudes to a specific sales proposition and situation, not personality “types”. Buyers will be influenced by many factors in a given sale – their boss, internal politics, colleagues, their current aspirations, workload, corporate success or failure – the list goes on. Focusing on a buyer’s orientation, through adaptive selling, rather than on their attitude at a particular point in time, will better help a seller to adjust their selling style and strategy. In this way, they will be able to convince sceptics, work around blockers, develop guides and friends, and so on. One thing is for sure: CEB’s challenger team continues to stimulate heated debate.


Authored and Contributed by: Mark Erskine, Fellow of the ISMM and director and owner of Seller Performance, which specialises in sales improvement based on psychometric and behavioural profiling. Visit