BY Russell Wardrop

DATE: 21 SEP 2018


I first read about The Challenger Sale on a BA flight to London. Much of the narrative never distracted me from my spicy tomato juice. There are five sales types: Relationship Builder, Problem Solver, Lone Wolf, Challenger, Hard Worker. Their respective strengths are: likeability and empathy; reliability and focus on detail; instinct and super confidence; push back and lover of debate; self-motivation and persistence.

Every trait is important for sales, to be sure. The conclusion that Challengers win by far the most business and Relationship Builders by far the least however, had me ignoring the sweet ‘n salty popcorn and ordering the book when my 4G kicked back in, because I know many professionals who are as nice as ninepence, well networked, scrub up smashing and seem set fair. Yet they have no work, or lots of low value work.

There are lies, damned lies and statistics as Twain and Disraeli said (take your pick) and Dixon & Adamson have a book called The Challenger Sale, so it would be surprising if the data did not support their hypothesis. Spoiler, it does. But data aside the thesis does resonate with my own experience over 20 years. My journey tells me there is a time to be the likeable relationship builder and a time to be the assertive, confident Challenger. The authors do say that if you are too much The Challenger you may become “The Jerk” and pushing too hard, telling not selling, trying to close too early, not knowing when to let your prospect win and many other well know tropes need to be taken heed of.

But worrying about these can stop us dead when we might be tempted to say something that cuts through the crap and if you are too much the Relationship Builder you become “The Patsy” who gets on with everyone but is passed over when the big prizes are presented: always there, always listening, hugely empathetic, ever agreeable, incredibly flexible, on the deferential side of respectful.

And, fearful of offending, sometimes forgetting to ask for the business. Clients love Relationships Builders, if only because they need not provide biscuits for meetings because they know the cake will be brought in. And too often they give the big contracts to the Challengers. You could say they like to have their cake and eat it. Here it is, in a nutshell, from the authors “Challengers are assertive- they tend to “press” customers a little- both on their thinking and around things like pricing. And as many sales leaders will tell you, they don’t reserve their Challenger mentality for customers alone. They tend to push their own managers and senior leaders as well.”

I could write “Assertiveness” on a flipchart in front of any audience and spend half a day discussing what it means, how it’s done, it’s close cousin confidence, how it relates to leadership and to sales. Challengers are action-oriented disruptors and calculating risk takers. To find out how much of a challenger you are ask yourself, do you:

  • Offer a unique perspective
  • Have strong two-way communication skills
  • Know your prospect’s value drivers
  • Identify your prospect’s economic drivers
  • Talk easily about money
  • Pressure the customer when needed

The Challenger Sale is not essential reading, in fact the paper will give you what you need, but it does contain an essential message. When the yards are hard won and the environment as competitive as mother’s race on Sports Day, there is a time to smile and play nice and a time for sharp elbows and proper footwear. If you are going to win you need to come prepared to do both and the smart money is always on the lady with the big handbag and pedal pushers.

Take heed if you are tasked with building relationships over time that aim to result in the delivery of high value clever stuff to sophisticated, knowledgable, hard bitten clients. And especially if you are someone with lots of great contacts but not enough high value clients.

It’s nice to be nice, but not too nice.


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about the author

Russell Wardrop is our Chief Executive and he creates Rainmakers. If you would like to to be a Rainmaker, drop him an email and he'll be in touch.

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