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Beyond the Challenger Sales Model

Has your organisation implemented the Challenger Sales Model?

It must surely be one of the most successful sales methodology roll-outs this millennium. Indeed, the godfather of SPIN, Neil Rackham quotes on the book’s cover “The most important advance in selling for many years”. High praise from someone who perhaps did make the most important advance in selling via the SPIN programme – one of the most well- known sales models around.


In praise of The Challenger Sale

There is no doubt that the Challenger Sale by Dixon & Adamson does a great job of bringing new knowledge to the profession. Its core spirit of challenging customers to adopt better practices linked to your organisation’s USPs is an instantly logical insight well explained. Also, the book contained some nuggets of wisdom that are less well talked about: For example, that the best contribution a sales manager can make is to “generate new ways of solving deal-level problems” (Sales innovation), counting for 29% of their front-line performance.

Take up in many sectors has been rapid, especially healthcare: With many organisations being members of the CEB (Corporate Executive Board), it was an obvious choice, and offered hope for all sales people facing busy clinical staff.

Not without its critics

The Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management featured an extensive academic review of the Challenger Sale (Vol 34. December 2014 Rapp et al.) The authors quote:

“As we demonstrate, while the Challenger Sales Model does not offer any new or novel insight, it is also subject to inherent empirical and conceptual limitations that actually represent fatal flaws”

No punches pulled there then!

From our perspective, we feel uncomfortable about the lack of interaction with customers during the given sales process. In the advice on how to structure client meetings, entitled “purposeful choreography”, are phases for ‘warming up’, ‘re-framing’ and ‘rational drowning’, but nothing for questioning, confirming and listening. It doesn’t smack of ‘adaptive selling’, a concept which repeatedly demonstrates its worth in sales research (See for example Goad & Jaramillo’s article in the same Issue).


Our love affair with airport sales books

A short stroll into history reveals a long line of sales methodologies that were rapidly sold into organisations, before going out of vogue (Think ‘Holden Power Base Selling’, ‘TAS Target Account Selling’ & ‘Professional Selling Skills’). Look at any airport business book best seller shelf, and you will see a new way to approach selling. And history is replete with organisations who have invested lots of £€$  in the latest book’s training programme, to see little return for the investment.

Why do we keep falling for them? They are the modern day equivalent of ‘snake oil’ – potions that can solve all our ailments. And since growing sales can be very challenging, it seems we are at the mercy of the market. Perhaps what we are doing wrong is spelt out exactly in that latest book…..!


Research led sales excellence

In fact, it doesn’t have to be this way. In the last ten years, the field of sales has made a quiet, but substantial transition from a craft / art, handed down by some kind of oral tradition (The orator usually wearing a shiny suit) to a scientific, objective field of business improvement, closer to operations / accounting now.

There is a plethora of academic research into what works and what doesn’t; there is objective evidence from the field, fuelled by the interest in big data, and there is a significant cadre of sales excellence practitioners who cannot use snake oil as evidence at their annual appraisal (e.g. Mark Roberge Sales Director who applied engineering thinking to grow sales to $100million at Hubspot).

We began building our own sales excellence research database in 2008, searching relentlessly to find evidence based best practices for sales organisations. Our objective then, and still is, to continually look for effective ways to grow sales, without being tied to one model / methodology.

We can then intelligently apply best practices to client projects, just as modern clinicians would. We call this “building sales DNA” – giving clients a set of practices that are truly effective for them, and importantly, self-replicate because in a Darwinian way, they work. Indeed, the first place we start searching is their existing sales success.


Building your own sales DNA
Here then is our advice to ‘grow your own’ and be a bit more discriminating in changing your sales model:

  1. Map your “universe of influence” – all the touch points where you can influence your clients. It is based on the process they use to buy from you. It is where they research solutions for their needs and it is digital domains they occupy.
  2. Identify and brainstorm best practices i.e. ways you could secure a positive influence in this universe. Here you can be inspired by books like The Challenger Sale and other evidence based best practices
  3. Find a simple way to codify your best practices so they can be transferred, diffused, adopted and implemented. These are your genes – the building blocks of sales excellence behaviour.
  4. Design programmes to replicate your sales DNA: Training, on-line forums, templates, account plans, sales meeting formats, coaching, induction etc.etc.


Projects created in this way can yield substantial returns. See our client cases from Spring Global Mail and Cooper Solutions to find out more.


And don’t worry if you didn’t get chance to read some of those airport books – we make it our business to do that for you.