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The Challenger Sales Model: Methodology And What You Need To Know

Jonathan Costet January 21, 2022

Most sales methodologies focus on uncovering and satisfying buyers’ needs. As such, a majority of sales leaders train their reps to ‘go along to get along,’ right from the word go.

The Challenger Sales model folks say that’s a problem. A major one. It ignores what they see as the most important element in successful selling: challenging the buyer.

The perfect pairing, according to the Challenger Sales model, is a disruptive insight and a corresponding solution. Your solution (i.e., service or product). Craft yourself a disruptive insight into a major problem, and you’ve got the makings of a winning playbook on your hands.

We grant you that the Challenger Sales methodology isn’t for every team. It’s a model that requires more than run-of-the-mill reps have on offer. But for high-performing teams, a sophisticated sales methodology that runs hot numbers holds some serious appeal.

If you’ve got solid talent on your team, dig a little further. Your quota will thank you.

What exactly is the Challenger Sales methodology?

First and foremost, the Challenger Sales model is a teaching-based sales model that focuses on having sales reps educate buyers. That requires two things: 1) an insight into an underlying problem and 2) a solution. 

It doesn’t matter whether the buyer knows about the problem, undervalues it, or has never heard of it before. What matters is that the problem exists, and can be legitimately framed as negatively affecting the buyer.

It’s also necessary to have a major insight into the problem — something revolutionary to say. Preferably, your insight is linked to a major challenge in the buyer’s industry. It can be a known issue, or something they think of as ‘the cost of doing business”.

Once a buyer understands how deeply they’re impacted by this issue, they’ll be primed to want a solution. 

Allow me to demonstrate…

Say, for example, that you work at TaylorMade. Imagine revealing to buyers that the design of all previous golf drivers was wrong, and that a new discovery has cracked the code on making it right. You’d be offering an astounding insight into a problem that every golfer faces: hitting a ball further. 

The golfer already knows they want to hit the ball further, but the insight is that their golf club is the real barrier to their progress. Demonstrate that convincingly, and the buyer will slap down their credit card before you show them a redesigned club. (And thanks, TaylorMade, for a perfect video of the Challenger Sales model in action.)

In its simplest form, the Challenger Sales methodology uses six clear phases:

The warmer: Your rep describes the problem to your buyer in a way that gets the buyer to nod in agreement.

The reframe: Then they deliver a (preferably surprising) insight about the problem that the buyer hadn’t previously considered. The buyer starts thinking about the problem in a new way.

Rational drowning: The rep names the costs associated with the problem in a way that makes the buyer feel concerned.

Emotional impact: The rep shares a story about how the problem typically impacts other companies like their buyer’s company, naming situations that are familiar and painful.

A new way: Then it’s time to introduce the behavioral changes the buyer would have to adopt to make good on solving the problem.

Your company’s solution: The rep closes by introducing your solution and explaining how it helps buyers adopt that behavior better than any other approach.

This “challenging” approach is only one among many sales methodologies. Read about popular models here, in the “Top 12 Sales Methodologies: How to Choose the Right One”, from Gong.

Learn about the other models, and you’ll inevitably wonder what really sets the Challenger Sales methodology apart from its peers. It’s worth talking about…

What sets the Challenger Sales methodology apart

At its core, the Challenger Sales model is about teaching all your reps to behave like your top reps. There’s nothing sales leaders would love more than cloning their best performers, and the Challenger Sales model is a (laboratory-free) step in that direction.

(PS: Want more ways to “clone” your reps? Check out Gong’s sales training software. It’s light on opinions and heavy on data-backed ways to get your entire team to win more often… just like your A-players. Imagine, a team that’s all rockstars, all the time.)

Top reps are particularly well-suited to selling in today’s market. That’s also true of the “disruptive” Challenger Sales model, which is tailor-made for a tough selling landscape — one in which it’s hard to differentiate yourself.

Today, reps in every industry operate in a wild environment that was around even before COVID hit. They sell to buyers who are armed with more information than any previous generation of buyers.

What a position — staring down buyers who are loaded to the teeth with opinions on the features they want, the customization they need, and the price they think they can get elsewhere. 

And you know who handles that well? Your top reps.

They’re not having discovery calls that just anyone can handle, with fresh-faced buyers who have straightforward questions. They’re dealing with buyers who are on the offensive, with stats and technical info up their sleeve.

In fact, when Gartner dug into the Challenger Sales model, it found that customers typically made it 57% of the way through the purchase process before they connected with a seller. They’re more than halfway there by the time they see your top reps’ smiling faces! They’re way down the buying path. And having made it that far, they think they know just about everything they need to know about your product. It’s a rep’s job to show them they don’t. 

A serious shake up is in order. Frankly, it’s one of the best ways to differentiate your product, quickly. Your top reps are the ones best suited to doing that well. That’s because your average reps (the rest of your team) will focus on standard-issue topics, like pain points, features, and benefits. That approach gets them lumped in with similar products faster than buyers can say budgetary concerns and hang up.

Your top reps know how to take a different tack.

If buyers are already well down the garden path, it’s your reps’ job to show them that in fact, they’re walking in a maze without a map. Introducing a startling new insight they hadn’t heard about makes the buyer realize they aren’t (at all) as well-informed as they thought. It positions your rep as the expert in the room, and opens the buyer up to receiving information, first about problems, then about solutions.

What problem does the “Challenger” model solve?

Having a roster of top reps might not seem like a problem at first glance. But if a minority of your team makes the majority of your sales, that is a problem. Those top reps can get promoted internally or pinched by other companies, taking a hearty chunk of your sales with them. 

That’s why you’d do well to focus on hiring — or shaping — more reps in their image. And it turns out that their image is made up, in large part, of Challenger-based sales skills. 

“Challengers” represent a higher percentage of top reps than any other personality type. It’s the most prolific personality profile among the most successful reps.

Careful, now… don’t confuse the “Challengers” we’re describing with reps who are just difficult or nay-sayers. True Challengers are incredibly adept at getting buyers to reframe how they perceive their context, problems, and future state. That ability to reshape a buyer’s understanding of the world is what makes Challengers outstanding sales reps whose numbers land well above those of their peers.

You need more of them because unfortunately, the most common profile on sales teams is what Gartner calls the “Relationship Builder”. These folks are exactly what you’d expect, and you definitely have some of them on your team. They prioritize connection, build up others (including advocates inside the buyer’s organization…. smart move), and are helpful to their core.

Sure, they’ll have successes now and again, but they’ll never dominate today’s market environment.. not the one in which buyers show up with pre-set opinions and piles of information.

Of the five main personality profiles on sales teams, relationship builders are the least likely to be among your top sales reps. On average, they only make up 7% of star performers. Compare that with the “Challenger” profile, who makes up about 39% of top-tier reps. 

That’s entirely because the most successful reps in today’s market have robust differentiation skills. That’s a hallmark of both the “Challenger” personality profile and the Challenger Sales model.

They aren’t just saying no. They aren’t just pushing back on whatever the buyer says. They’re challenging the buyer constructively

Being able to redirect and instruct someone while maintaining a respectful and engaging conversation is a beast of a skill. It’s the one you should aim for as you craft your team into a sales powerhouse.

And yes, you’re going to need a training plan for “the great reshaping”. You’d best check out this “Sales Training Plan: How To Turn Your Team Into A Sales Powerhouse”. It covers everything. Call coaching, deal coaching, self-coaching, and more.

Is the Challenger Sales Model A Good Fit For Your Team?

Don’t answer that question quickly.

It’s tempting to think about the personalities on your team, but there’s a larger influence on whether you should move toward this sales methodology: your market.

Are you creating a new product category? Selling in a well-established market? A competitive market?

That’s what you need to consider first if you’re selecting a sales methodology for your team. (Sales reps come next, and we’ll get to them.) 

If you sell in a new product category, it’s time to crack a smile. You’ve landed on a sales methodology that’s well-suited to your game. 

The buyers you encounter are probably comfortable with certain costs of doing business that you find problematic and unnecessary. They have an MO for operating, and they accept that some costs and risks are inherent to their business. But you don’t. 

Convincing them that they’re engaging in unnecessary risks or losses takes some “commercial teaching” — educating your buyer on a problem they don’t recognize as a problem. The Challenger Sales model is about to be your BFF.

If you’re in a (painfully) competitive market, you’re also in luck.

If you take the same old approach to your buyer’s challenges — as in, the one that everyone else is taking — it’s tough to stand out in the crowd. But if you get your buyer to focus on a problem they weren’t previously focused on, that your product solves, you’ll have an easier time differentiating yourself. 

Every salesperson highlights their product’s strengths, even its value, as they should. But teams using the Challenger Sales model focus on new ideas, new insights, and new problems first. If they do it well, they create tremendous urgency around that problem, and the buyer is primed to want a solution. Your pitch on insights and problems should teach your buyer to value your differentiators.

If you’re in one of those Challenger-friendly markets, your next step is taking a look at your sales reps and organization.

To be frank, if you have a lot of junior reps, this sales methodology probably isn’t for you. No amount of sales coaching will give them the foundation they need to do well with the Challenger Sales methodology quickly.

It’s best suited to reps who have substantial domain knowledge and an in-depth understanding of how businesses work. That means having more than a passable understanding of how your buyers’ organizations make money, and how their strategies and decisions impact financial, operational, and sales results. Those are the folks you can coach to win using the Challenger Sales methodology.

(PS: Want to up your coaching, whether it’s for junior or senior reps? There’s a template for that. It’s “The Sales Coaching Template for High-Performing Teams,” from Gong. It has a five-point framework to identify opportunities for improvement and boost win rates.)

Reps will also need deep market knowledge if they want to reframe buyers’ understandings of their own industry. You can’t teach the experts unless you yourself are an expert. Don’t place that burden on a junior rep’s shoulders. It sets them up to fail. Leave the Challenger Sales Methodology to people who already have some pretty polished industry chops.

If they don’t have that knowledge, your reps won’t be able to mentally maneuver quickly enough to pull off this sales methodology. If, however, that business knowledge is second nature to them, they’ll be able to align whatever comes up in conversation with their selling position. Junior reps, no matter how impressive they are, simply won’t have the library of knowledge to pull this approach off credibly.

There’s another threat you need to watch for, as it can send this sales methodology sideways: insecurity. We’re not talking about your reps’ confidence levels. No, no. We’re talking about your buyers’ internal harmony. Specifically, we’re talking about the ones who feel unsure of their power and position within their own company. This insecurity can result from their own emotional baggage, from an unstable organization, or any combination thereof.

They don’t like being confronted in any way. If the Challenger Sales model has any hope with these folks, it’s because your reps have used the most tactful and refined phrasing under the sun. Anything less is repellent to these buyers, who get their backs up easily.

If your sales reps are up to the job of using the Challenger Sales model, you’d better make sure the rest of your sales org is ready as well. That means domain knowledge is just as necessary across the sales org as it is for reps. 

You need a marketing team that can ready your sales reps, boosting them with vital information about the market, buyer personas, and pain points. And of course, you’ll need your data team to provide you with brilliant insights that set you apart from the crowd.

Whether or not you go with the Challenger Sales model, it’s important to align your sales org (sales enablement, marketing, customer success) around that model. Fail on that front, and you’ll push a hodge-podge of messaging out the door.

What Does the Challenger Methodology Recommend doing?

In short, reframing your buyer’s world. 

Your reps need to educate buyers using reframing techniques that get them thinking about new insights. That likely means (re)training your reps so they know how to focus on teaching more than relationship building. 

Below is a blown-out example of the six Challenger Sales model phases mentioned in section one. Run training sessions with your reps, using everyday objects to start, and have them practice all six stages. Once they’re comfortable with the stages, switch to your company’s product, and eventually practice scenarios in which they bump up against common objections.

Situation: Your reps sell low-flow showerheads for home use. Here’s what they might say to buyers, using the Challenger Sales methodology…

The warmer: (Describe a problem your customer faces.) Many people want more environmentally friendly homes, so they focus on recycling and using less energy. Have you taken steps like that as well?

The reframe: (Deliver an insight.) It might surprise you to learn that most homeowners miss out on the easiest cost-saving switch of all: a low-flow showerhead. Showers make up 30-40% of a household’s water use, so even small changes can have a great environmental impact and save you, the homeowner, money. How many people use a shower in your household?

Rational drowning: (Name the costs.) Failing to make this easy switch ensures that you end up spending more than necessary on your water bill — as much as 15% annually! Given that you have four people using the shower every day, that’s a significant amount of water. What’s a typical water bill in your household?

Emotional impact: (Mention how the problem impacts others in similar situations.) That sounds like a fairly high water bill! My neighbors also have a four-person household, and they had a similar water bill. I know they would have liked to put that money elsewhere, like towards their kids’ education, and I imagine you could find other places to spend it as well…

A new way: (Introduce a necessary behavioral change.) Would you be open to doing something simple, like changing the showerheads in your home, if you had the right support to make that happen?

Your solution: (Introduce your solution.) That’s great! We have an introductory offer for homeowners who install multiple low-flow showerheads in their homes. Is that deal something you’d be interested in learning about?

There are plenty of resources out there for training your team on the Challenger Sales model (more on those at the end of this post). Have your reps practice dozens of scenarios until this selling style is second nature.

Challenger Sales Question Examples

When your reps engage in real-world Challenger Sales, several questions can keep them on track. 

  1. The first is a two-part question they should ask themselves after their first conversation with the buyer: “Is my buyer a healthy skeptic, and are they genuinely interested in helping their organization?” 

Yes to both means a solid match for the Challenger Sales model. A no on either front means a further conversation is needed. If the buyer isn’t a curious person who’s interested in solutions, this approach may not work. 

If they’re more interested in their own position within the company than its well-being, the rep may need to adjust their approach to suit the buyer’s worldview. … And that’s fine, as long as the buyer has purchasing power. If they don’t, the rep should connect with someone else (i.e., get to power) so they don’t have to present different arguments to different people at different stages in the deal.

  1. It’s fine to present new information, insights, and ideas throughout the deal… as long as reps verify that they land with the buyer. Do the points reflect the buyer’s reality? Check in and ask, but avoid questions that get yes/no answers. Use phrasing along the lines of, “How do you currently manage [TOPIC] without bumping up against [ISSUE]?”

 

  1. Is the buyer really ready to purchase? Learn where they are in their purchasing journey by asking how they’re involving other stakeholders, and which solutions they’re currently using to tackle the issue at hand. For example, “What timeline are you looking at to implement X solution?’

 

  1. If the rep wants to gauge this readiness more deeply, they can make a serious request of the buyer. They can ask for something relevant — something that will indicate the buyer’s level of engagement and readiness to buy. They might, for example, ask for data that pertains to the problem at hand. They can couch it as necessary to determine how much their solution will save the buyer monthly or annually. Serious buyers will hand over that information, or some variation of it.

Want a free list of Challenger Sales model questions your reps can use in meetings? Of course you do. Grab our 25 High-Impact Challenger Sales Questions right now and hand them around to your team. There’s no easier way to start a conversation than to fill in the blanks on these 25 gems.

MEDDIC vs. Challenger

Feeling like your reps don’t quite fit the profile of ideal Challenger Sales reps? Wishing for an alternative… maybe even a methodology that’s its polar opposite? You’re in luck.

Most teams who don’t suit the Challenger Sales model are tripped up by the need for senior reps. If most of your team doesn’t know its industry well enough to teach buyers, you’re going to have a tough time getting the Challenger Sales model to work at your organization. Reps can’t teach what they don’t know.

That’s why we’re going to take a hot minute here to profile the MEDDIC sales process. It is, in many ways, the Challenger Sales methodology’s antithesis. The Challenger Sales model was born out of research, while MEDDIC emerged from real-life trial and error. You can think of MEDDIC as ‘boots on the ground’, and Challenger more as ‘research papers at a conference’. 

Given that Gong is deeply invested in data-backed practices, you’ll know that we don’t necessarily see Challenger’s background as a bad thing. There’s a place — a need — for research in every sales methodology. But there’s also something to be said for methodologies that are easy to implement across any team, and the Challenger Sales model isn’t one of those. It’s for specialists. So if your desks are full of those, the Challenger Sales model could be the best thing that ever happened to you and your reps.

MEDDIC, on the other hand, can be taught in very short order  — usually in two hours or so  — instead of over several days, like Challenger. Both take practice to master, obviously, but MEDDIC can be cracked in much less time, this MEDDIC discovery checklist can help quickly implement the methodology.

In terms of the career boost your chosen sales methodology gives your reps, we’re talking apples and oranges. MEDDIC is a very straightforward methodology that can move with your reps into any market or industry throughout their career. The Challenger Sales model can technically apply to any industry, but because it requires deep industry knowledge, the approach learned in one industry isn’t necessarily transferable to another. Your reps can’t always take what they learned with them. Plus, the Challenger Sales model isn’t as widely used, so employers may not value its skill set as much as the ability to implement MEDDIC from the first day on the job. 

That works in reverse too. As in, it’s going to be easier for you to find and hire reps who know MEDDIC. Plus, their training and ramp time will almost certainly be shorter than that of a Challenger rep.

That said, always remember that the largest group of top-tier reps embodies the “Challenger” personality and selling style.

Keep Challenging

Whichever sales methodology you choose, reinforcement is key during and after training season. 

That’s why Gong’s revenue intelligence software is critical to your sales team’s success in your chosen methodology. With it, you’ll be able to see where your reps need coaching, and where your sales playbook falls short.

Truly, there’s no point in investing in new reps if you don’t measure their progress from the word go. Track whether they’ve onboarded as expected, and see if they integrate your ongoing coaching advice when they’re flying solo with buyers.

Do the same for your chosen sales methodology. Watch how it plays out in the field. Without that visibility, you won’t be able to course correct new initiative launches or change tack on major plays in your playbook. 

Gong is designed to monitor and measure how your chosen sales methodology plays out in real life, across individual reps and entire teams. It’s the best way to see where your reps struggle (…and they do, even if they’re good at hiding it), then craft coaching plans that get reps back on track. 

You’ll get deal warnings that let you know when things are about to go sideways, so you can course correct on the double. And Gong’s ‘trackers’ feature alerts you to key words mentioned by your reps or buyers in near-real time. Have a particular phrase you want to watch out for? Get pinged every time it comes up in a call, as it happens.

Rolling out complex sales methodologies will be easier than ever if you use Gong to measure readiness across your new reps. You’ll know exactly who isn’t up to the task by the time you get to the end of the probation stage.

Gong is ready to help you track call stats, certify your reps on their sales process, and create training plans that reinforce all the right moves.

Ready to see what Gong can do for your team?

Implement Challenger Faster With This List Of Questions

A new methodology isn’t easy to learn.

This will help.

These 25 data-backed, Challenger sales questions will have your team mastering the methodology fast.

And getting those early wins in to keep pushing with Challenger.

These questions cover all of the main stages in the methodology:

  • the Warmer
  • the Reframe
  • Rational Drowning
  • Emotional Impact
  • Value Proposition
  • and Solution

All conveniently packaged in this simple PDF file for your convenience. Grab it (for free) now:

25 challenger sales model questions list

Additional Resources on Challenger Sales

Looks like you’re starting the year off with a bang… making major moves in sales methodologies.

Good on you. You’ll get nothing but props from our end. 

Well, that’s not entirely true… you’ll also get some resources to kickstart your journey. Check out these goodies:

  1. Every new path begins with a book or two from Amazon, no? We suggest starting with The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation. Here’s the frame-up:

What’s the secret to sales success? If you’re like most business leaders, you’d say it’s fundamentally about relationships-and you’d be wrong. The best salespeople don’t just build relationships with customers. They challenge them.

[PS: Feeling like you want to take a dip in all kinds of sales books? Check out “The 58 Best Sales Books of All Time: The Ultimate Master List”. There’s a summary for each one, so you can craft your reading list for the year. Or you can copy the article’s author — Gong’s very own Chris Orlob — and read every one of them several times!]

  1. Want your info straight from the horse’s mouth? Connect with the folks who do Challenger Sales model training around the world, on the daily: Challenger. They’ve got you covered in terms of training, messaging, coaching, development, execution, quality assurance, and more. (Yes, there’s more.)
  2. We’re fans of Matt Dixon. He co-wrote the book in #1, and this is his website. If you’re game to do some serious work and reap the rewards offered by the Challenger Sales model, having a convo with Matt is a smart move.
WRITTEN BY
Jonathan Costet

Senior Growth Marketing Manager @Gong | Au revoir opinions, bonjour reality