The Challenger Sale – A breakthrough in understanding High Performance Talent, or just another business school inspired fad?

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Book review: The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson

“The Challenger Sale” was originally published in 2011, and since then has sold over half a million copies. It is clearly influential, and I began to notice a trend among some healthcare companies that have begun programs to adopt the principles into sales training programs for their sales forces. Hence I thought it a good book for me to read and review, as some of the claims appear to be relatively radical and interesting, particularly to those of us that are interested in the pursuit of High Performance Talent, and what I refer to as High Performance Talent Indicators (HPTI).

One of the interesting aspects of the book that I found highly intriguing is its ability to polarise opinion. In the UK we would call this a “Marmite effect”. When reading reviews online, it seems that some people are highly evangelical about the concepts, and some strenuously damning. When any business philosophy creates such a divergence of opinion it has got to be worth a read, if only for the fun of having a go at bursting its hyperbolic bubble perhaps?! 

Some online reviews seemed to suggest that the 5 selling types described in the book (The Hard Worker, The Relationship Builder, The Lone Wolf, The Reactive Problem Solver, The Challenger) were distinct and clear in their order of virtuousness. From my reading, the authors’ assertions are much more nuanced than this. Firstly they make it clear that the 5 types are in a sense preferences, like “majors” in a degree. In this analogy you therefore do a degree in sales, with a major in Relationship Building, Challenger behaviour etc.

The most interesting aspect is that they observed that core performers can appear in any of the five profiles, average performers can also be in any profile, but the Challenger type dominates for top performers.

The principles are therefore of great interest for those who are focussed on talent management, particularly from a talent sourcing perspective. The book states that recent studies have demonstrated that in a transactional selling environment, when the performance gap between average and star performers is measured, the star performer sells one and a half times as much as the core performer. Where solutions selling is key this increases to a differential of 200 percent! If these principles can then be adapted to improve performance within existing teams, or in the selection of new teams or individuals then this can be very attractive.

The authors sensibly point out that the model works best with high complexity sales, and has less impact on low complexity sales. My view is that this may be exacerbated by the likelihood that the Challenger type naturally gravitates to the more complex selling arena. If your sales model is relatively transactional and not very complex you might worry less about inducting a load of Challengers into your sales team.

However, if your organisation has a sophisticated, complex selling model this may be for you. I would think it particularly appropriate for organisations that are genuinely “high performance” in their cultures. Whatever sector or speciality you are in you will know who these organisations are. For these companies, the Challenger concept will not be difficult to grasp or integrate.

For the more traditional companies with conservative cultures, a radical culture shift, with its inherent risks, may be required to implement the Challenger model. Some might argue that this is what these companies need perhaps! Part of the book refers to the necessary of having the right managers in place being a prerequisite. If your organisation is full of “David Brents”, you may need to address this first!

Would I recommend this book? Well, like many of you browsing this article, I have read numerous business and personal development books over the years. Most I have found are sadly best described as what my kids would call “meh”; largely uninspiring, even if interesting in parts. At the outstanding, game changing end of my spectrum there are only a few books I have read more than once, or would strongly recommend. Authors include Napoleon Hill, Gary Karrass, Steven Covey, and more recently Daniel Pink. Would “The Challenger Sale” fit into my top ten? Not quite, but it is good, and I would recommend it as definitely worth a read, with you giving consideration to how it might enhance some of your sales behaviours, or the behaviours of your organisation. Is it game changing for the world of sales? Not really; I would describe it as interesting and useful; an enhancement.

Will you like it? I think that depends on which of the 5 types you identify with!

Author: Nigel Job

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