The Challenger Salesperson



By Brent Adamson and Matthew Dixon, PH.D.

In the unforgettable early months of 2009, as the bottom fell out of the global economy, business-to-business sales leaders around the world faced an epic problem and an even deeper mystery.

Customers had vanished overnight. Commerce had ground to a halt. Credit was scarce, and cash even scarcer. For anyone in business, times were tough. But for heads of sales, they were an absolute nightmare. Imagine having to get up every morning, rally your troops, and send them into a battle they couldn’t possibly win. To find business where none could be found. True, sales has always been about the good fight — about winning business often in the face of strong resistance. But this was different. It’s one thing to sell to reluctant, even nervous customers. It’s another thing altogether to sell to no one at all. And that’s where we were in early 2009.

Yet therein lay the mystery. Staring directly into the teeth of the toughest sales environment in decades — if not ever — a small but uniquely gifted number of sales reps were selling. In fact, they were selling a lot. While others struggled to close even the smallest of deals, these individuals were bringing in the kind of business most reps could only dream of even in an up economy. Were they lucky? Were they just born with it? And most important, how could you possibly capture that magic, bottle it, and export it to everyone else? For many companies, their very survival depended on the answer.

It was into this environment that the Sales Executive Council (SEC) — a program within the Corporate Executive Board — launched what has become one of the most important studies of sales rep productivity in decades. Tasked by our members — heads of sales from the world’s largest, best-known companies — we set out to identify what exactly set this very special group of sales reps apart. And having now studied that question intensively for the better part of four years, spanning dozens of companies and thousands of sales reps, we have discovered three core insights that have fundamentally rewritten the sales playbook and led B2B sales executives all over the world to think very differently about how they sell.

The first insight was something we weren’t originally even looking for. It turns out that just about every B2B sales rep in the world falls into one of five distinct profiles, a specific set of skills and behaviors that define his or her primary mode of interacting with customers. Now, that’s interesting in and of itself, as you’ll be able to find yourself and your colleagues in these profiles when you see them. These five profiles prove to be an incredibly practical way of dividing the world into a manageable set of alternative sales techniques.

That said, it’s really the second insight that changes everything. When you take those five profiles and compare them with actual sales performance, you find there is a very clear winner and a very clear loser: One of them spectacularly outperforms the other four, while one of them falls dramatically behind. Yet there is something very disturbing about these results. When we show them to sales leaders, we hear the same thing again and again. These leaders find the results deeply troubling, because they’ve placed by far their biggest bet on the profile least likely to win. This one insight has shattered the way many sales leaders think about the kind of reps they need to survive and thrive in a tough economy.

And that brings us to the third and final core insight from this work — arguably the most explosive of them all. As we dug deeper into the data, we found something even more surprising. While we’d set out four years ago to find the winning recipe for sales rep success in a down economy, all of the data indicate something far more important. The profile most likely to win isn’t winning because of the down economy, but irrespective of it. These reps are winning because they’ve mastered the complex sale, not because they’ve mastered a complex economy. In other words, when we unlocked the mystery of high performance in the down economy, the story turned out to be much bigger than anyone had anticipated. Your very best sales reps — the ones who carried you through the downturn — aren’t just the heroes of today, but are also the heroes of tomorrow, as they are far better able to drive sales and deliver customer value in any kind of economic environment. What we ultimately found is a dra- matically improved recipe for a successful solution sales rep. We call these winning reps Challengers.


Matthew Dixon, PH.D.  is a sought-after speaker and facilitator, with more than 20 years of experience as a professional researcher, teacher and trainer. A Principal Executive Advisor at CEB, now part of Gartner – a leading research and advisory company – Brent is the co-author of the The Challenger Sale and The Challenger Customer. In addition, Brent is a frequent contributor on sales topics on Harvard Business Review’s blog as well as being published in Bloomberg Businessweek and Selling Power.


Brent Adamson is Group Leader of the Financial Services and Customer Contact Practices at CEB, now part of Gartner, a leading research and advisory company. He is a sought-after speaker and advisor to corporate leadership teams around the world. Matt is also the co-author of the best-selling The Challenger Customer and The Effortless Experience.