Challenger Customer Implications for B2B Sales Professionals

Most sales executives I’ve asked about their view on CEB’s book Challenger Customer have completely missed the value for their sales program. “Oh yeah, I read Challenger Sale a couple of years ago, good book.”

In our view, Challenger Customer is a must read for sales leaders who are trying to execute a “value selling” sales model, or to shift from their transactional, product selling model.

Challenger Sale introduced concepts about what B2B sellers should do. But few recommendations were really actionable by most sales leaders and their teams.

Challenger Customer provides the roadmap, AND the accelerant.

The book presents the results of extensive research. They looked at what the best B2B sales people have actually been doing. They explain simply, and show graphically, the results achieved compared to average and poor sales performers.

But sales behavior change and results will not be realized simply by having sales teams read the book.

We’ve been applying Challenger Customer principles and practices in our client work for almost a year. We’ve discovered many nuances that have a significant effect on the quality of execution and level of results.

Being aware of Challenger concepts is one thing, applying them through effective practices that produce significant results is very different.

This article is for people who have read the book and believe they have a good understanding of Challenger Customer concepts. If you haven’t yet read the book, or need a refresher before exploring these concepts at a deeper, somewhat nuanced level, I recommend Unpacking Challenger Customer Insights. Our key points here will be more useful if you’ve read the book.

Contextual Summary

Challenger Customer is primarily focused on the “high value” (margin) B2B sale. This post doesn’t address how these ideas might apply to transactional or replacement sales.

The value sale is characterized by complexity. Offers, buying decision process, sales process, and customer options (your competition) are all complex, for buyers and sellers alike. There are many opportunities for failure, or bad decisions.

So this means:

Change initiative — you’re really selling change

The “sales problem” is caused in large part due to dysfunctional buying decision-making. An average of 5.4 people on the B2B buying team. Each bring different perspectives, opinions, motivations, incentives, egos and politics. Everyone is operating within organizational “systems” and processes — operating, physical, and technical.

External entities can’t fully understand, influence or control these factors. CEB isn’t alone making this point. Sharon Drew Morgen has been teaching this for a long time. She has developed a facilitation process to address it.

This means external sellers must find, rely on and support the right people inside their buyer’s organization. We used to call these “Sponsors.” But sponsors imply they are working on the vendor’s behalf. To buyer stakeholders, “sponsors” are biased.

CEB introduces the concept of “Mobilizers”. Sellers should find and work through these people who see the need to change. They must have the interest and competency to navigate internal systems. They have the credibility to enroll diverse buying team members on the need to change from status quo methods.

Sellers help by providing relevant insights, questions, decision methodologies, frameworks, support, and proof, all supported by content.

B2B Sales Execution Implications

We’ve found it useful to consider the implications of Challenger Customer principles and practices for B2B sales professionals in these categories:

  • Mindset
  • Approach — to sales, marketing, content
  • Sales Resources + Competencies
  • Sales and Customer Engagement Process
  • Conversations and Messages
  • Content
  • Outcomes and Measures
  • Collaboration, Coaching and Support


For B2B selling, mindset drives everything. When sales managers and reps “get” the mindset and shifts required, practices are better understood and easier to remember.

Value selling and Challenger Customer practices require important shifts in seller mindset, from:

  • Vendor and product focus, to customer-centric (“outside-in” vs. “inside-out”)
  • Trying to find people to sell, to bringing a “buying mindset” to their work.
  • Selling a product (transactional selling), to selling change
  • Slow down at the front end of the sales process, rather than getting as quickly as possible to discussing products.
  • Controlling the sale to selling through internal Mobilizers and aligning with buyer’s decision process and cadence
  • Telling, pitching, presenting and telling (stories), to asking the right questions the right way
  • Need to educate and un-teach self-educating buyers
  • The value sales model is much more about changing buyer beliefs, behavior, and organizational “systems,” than presenting compelling product features, benefits and “value propositions”.

Change Your Approach

The starting point for value selling is your unique commercial insight. This “breaks the customer’s frame of how they see their business.” This is needed to raise the buyer’s awareness to a “must change” level. (Higher than a “must have” standard.)

ImplicationSales people should be readily able to explain what is your target buyer is missing or wrong about their business, that your commercial insight illuminates?

Commercial insight is best developed through an effective mapping of your buyer’s “mental model.” This defines and clarifies for all sellers how your buyer sees their business. This understanding informs value creating sales conversations.

Implication Sales people should be readily able to explain what beliefs, behaviors and systems will most buyers have to be willing to change to adopt your Solution Approach?

In fact, each of your buying stakeholders holds their own “mental model.” They may each represent a different “business” within the business as a whole. So, in addition to generic mental models, stakeholder-specific models represent a deeper application of this practice. This can be elevated even further in major account selling and account-based-marketing (ABM) initiatives.

Each stakeholder also holds a different “value model”. This can be part of their mental model, but is seldom thought defined explicitly. This is how they see or define value, different from the group or business.

Mental and value model differences are a major source of buying conflict. Sales people must “speak into” and align with buyer value models.

ImplicationSales people should be readily able to explain where will each buying stakeholder or the group as a whole create or experience conflict? Where and how can consensus be reached?

All sales conversations and content must be derived from commercial insight. And commercial insight must “lead to your unique and sustainable capabilities.”

For some of the best value selling organizations, a critical capability is for sales to create value and differentiate through the way they sell.

Sales Resources And Competencies

As challenging as the mindshift changes are for managers and reps, the value sales model demands very different selling competencies and experience.

Dave Kurlan at Objective Management Group has monitored sales competencies for decades. 

“If you are a fan of the Challenger Sale, the Challenger is one of 5 types of salespeople according to its authors.  In OMG language, the Challenger is one of the elite 6%, with a Sales Quotient of 140 (SQ ranges to 173) or higher and Sales DNA of 83 (ranges up to 100) or higher.  Practically speaking, it means that 94% of salespeople don’t have the Sales DNA or Sales Capabilities to sell like a Challenger.”  (See Sales Coaching and the Challenges of Different Types of Salespeople)

Implication — You’d better have a strategy to deal with this reality. Your “competition” really starts with competing for the right talent.

One approach is to shift to a team selling approach. This means shifting from the traditional big sales gun slinger (or the knight with a lance on his black horse) that was often a myth anyway, to a collaborative selling team comprised of the primary rep, inside sales, sales engineers and SMEs, as well as executives. Marketing, especially to provide content support, is an important part of this team approach.

Effective sales content and sales coaching are two critical support elements that are required for value selling success.

Change Your Sales Process

Many value sellers have understood this requires changes to their sales process. This starts by aligning to the customer’s buying process. Some have shifted and based their entire sales process on the customer’s buying process stages and activities.

In our experience, Challenger introduces a really interesting process change idea.

ImplicationSee your sale as three, distinct “sales”:

1. The first sale is to address the “A.”

This means buyers must shift from acceptance of the current state relative to business problems. This stage could occupy an order of 60% of sales time and effort after the initial engagement. It must quantify the cost and risk of the current state. A successful result of this first “sale” is to confirm consensus the customer “must change”. This can be verified by asking buyers: “what level of investment are you willing to make to resolve this problem and related costs?”

This allows sellers to determine if buyers will likely make any buying decision. It identifies buyer propensity to invest. Until this is achieved it is premature for buyers and sellers to move to the next stage.

2. The second stage CEB refers to as the “B”

This stage begins with a discussion of solution options with buyers. It uncovers their thinking and knowledge about their options and implications.

Implication – This means sellers must be proficient discussing the pros and cons of buyer solution options.

The objective of this “second sale” is to get buyers to reach consensus on a Solution Approach that aligns with a seller’s offer. It gets buyers to identify the key capabilities they require to execute that approach.

Sellers must appreciate the reality that this involves buyers changing beliefs, behaviors and systems.

Buyers must determine if they own or have access to those capabilities, or how they see acquiring them. This is verified by asking buyers (again): “what level of investment are you willing to make to acquire those capabilities?”

3. “Why You?” Sale

This third sale is where traditional sellers start, or try to get to as quickly as possible. Typical seller thinking is something like, “when they see what we have, what we can do …”

With this sales approach, sellers wait to present their capabilities only after buyers have identified that they need. And they focus on the important capabilities that differentiate their offer and optimize the buyer’s value model.

This is the value part of the value sale. Sellers identify how they can provide better capabilities at a better value than buyer alternatives.

ImplicationSales people should be readily able to explain what unique, sustainable capabilities do you bring that are must haves for buyers, in order to execute the Solution Approach you espouse for optimum value?   

This approach lowers buyer-seller friction as the seller focuses on demonstrating how they best help buyers achieve their business objectives. 

Change Your Prospecting, Qualifying Process And Lead Definitions

Challenger Customer prospecting implications are for sellers to find buyers who are beginning to investigate business problems you can address before they decide to talk to vendors.

The qualifying approach is based not on traditional BANT metrics, but qualifying based on fit and the likelihood the customer will change, in a way the vendor requires.

“Customers are typically 37 percent of the way through a purchase decision when group conflict peaks – and in some cases this stalls or, worse, kills the deal all together. On top of that, those customers don’t meaningfully engage suppliers’ sales reps until they are, on average, 57 percent of the way through the journey. 

The resulting gap between the two raises a very practical and pretty troubling question: how many times have suppliers lost a deal that they never even knew was in play to begin with as the customer couldn’t make it past the 37% mark on their own? Or more simply: have many times have sellers lost before they could ever attempt a win?” (CEB, Challenger Customer)

This also requires changing how “leads” are defined and understood. We refer to “leads” at the 57% point as “find opportunities,” active buyers. This is where vendors and products are commoditized by buyers. We call this “red ocean selling.”

Ahead of that 57% stage we call “selling ahead of the herd.” These are “create opportunities.” It means getting a jump on competition. Lots of good things result for those who can do this.

Implication – This requires a different kind of selling. We’ve written about this in Find vs. Create Sales Opportunities.

We call selling much earlier than the 57% point, especially around that 37% point, selling into the “hidden opportunity market.” This is true consultative, value creating, “blue ocean selling.”

Marketing lead gen teams must understand this distinction. Value sellers need earlier indication of “purchase intent.” Having the right content plays an important role in this. (See below)

Implication — For sales prospecting, this requires leading with insights.

It must trigger their investigation, not into products and services, but into the cost and risk of their current state, their “status quo.”

Are your sales people still prospecting to “talk about how we can help you …?” Or to show prospects your great features or worse, do a demo?

Last prospecting point: the ultimate goal is to find a true change agent, a “Mobilizer.” We’ve long had this a part of our ideal customer profile. We evaluate potential opportunities based on many factors, but the presence of a Mobilizer, and the identification of most of the buying stakeholders are top criteria.

Implication — No Mobilizer, no high propensity to change, you have a weak or premature opportunity.

“Must change” means must change.  This approach lowers the risk of happy ears and deals that will end with “no decision”. 

Design Key Sales Conversations

The consultative, or value selling model requires very different customer conversations than traditional product selling. (See Top 7 Things That Consultative Sellers Do) But “with fewer than 15% of all sales people (who) have learned to do this” what can you do?

CEB recommends you adopt “a disciplined, systematic approach to use insights to change thinking, beliefs, and create the need to change.”

Implication — We’ve discovered key sales conversations must be designed.

I’m not suggesting scripted. Design means build out the conversation framework. Sales conversations require more and better questions. Insights must be delivered and supported the right way. Sellers need to know how to listen, and in certain cases, what to listen for.

By designing key conversations, you have a way to determine if you need to improve your “what to say,” or “how to say it,” or change the messenger.

Educate And “Unteach” Self-educating Buyers To Gain Consensus

One of the important Challenger Customer recommendations requires educating buyers. CEB takes it further to address the need to “unteach” self-educating buyers. Conducting workshops is one technique to execute on this tactic.

This is an excellent example of how your sales process might change, key conversations must be designed, and sales people must learn how to use content effectively, to sell in a Challenger selling model.

Teach Sales Reps How To Use Content To Sell, Educate, Facilitate Consensus Building

As we have written, (New Sales Competency — Use Content to Sell) using content to engage buyers before they are “ready to buy,” to educate, unteach and build consensus must be recognized as a new selling competency. This is true for sales managers as well as reps.

Product collateral, case study delivery and PowerPoint presentations don’t come close to what we’re describing. And, as Challenge Customer points out, “how you deliver matters”.   

 Get The Right Content

Implication — This means sales organizations require the right content.
(See The Most Underserved Content Requirements.)

In our view, the sales organization should not be contracting for content development.

The digital era and self-educating buyers have changed the strategic importance of having “right content available at the right time.”

CEB says content must be created from “precision design principles.” We say sales content must be pre-produced “on purpose.” That is, based on an effective sales content strategy.

Implication — Sales leaders must drive the need for this.

We suggest they define key sales use case requirements for content. These should be turned into content specifications. This is similar to the way product feature requests are documented.

This enables content creators, unfamiliar with the way sales will use content, to create the right content the right way.

Here are some of the many content factors we communicate to our marketing clients, that sales leaders should be aware of.

  • Create content based on Mental Models and Insights — everything leads from Commercial Insights based on the mental model, and then to your unique capabilities
  • Build content for three categories of content CEB recommends: to Spark, Introduce, and Confront. CEB asks, “where in your content does the customer see they are wrong?”
  • 60% of content (approximately) should focus on the “A” – to “break down the customer’s A.”

This content helps buyers understand Why Change? Through the Commercial Insight and Mental Model this content helps buyers see their business differently. Status quo or problem/cost calculators are a good tool. Perspective and proof points are best delivered in the “voice” of customers and experts more than the vendor. It should connect with buyer value models.

  • 30% of content should focus on the “B” – to “build up the B (Solution Approach and required capabilities)

This content helps buyer Mobilizers and stakeholders consider their alternatives.  It helps sales people discuss the pros and cons of those options. This is content to educate and “unteach” stakeholders. It must facilitate consensus building,

  • 10% of content addresses “Why You?”It focuses on company and product specific factors, especially implementation, adoption and support (“what happens after I say ‘yes’?”).
  • Create content that Mobilizers can use to enroll stakeholders and create consensus
  • Deploy inventories of … sales emails linked to relevant, supporting content
  • Educate, Un-teach points, Workshop content
  • Sales training and coaching content — to explain mental models, insights, value models, sales conversations, and using content to sell (as well as consultative selling skills and techniques.)

 What’s Different?

All value is relative. From a buyer’s perspective, perhaps 80% or more of the value is attributed to the initiative, not the vendor or their products.

Part of the value customers realize is relative to removing the costs of the status quo and problem itself. Value is also derived relative to the inherent value of the solution approach.

Implication — Vendor and product value is relative to buyer alternatives for acquiring the capabilities they require to execute the Solution Approach.

Your value comes from how you help buyers execute better, not from the initiative itself (in the minds of your buyers).

You might get halo effect from helping buyers realize the need to change, and/or introducing a new solution approach. But too many “value propositions” are not credible because they claim attribution for all the value. Buyers know better. Sellers that don’t, lose credibility.

When a value sale is executed well using Challenger Customer principles and practices we see the following outcomes:

  • Sales professionals engage prospects sooner, qualify better and faster, and abandon weak opportunities sooner.
  • Early entry gets selling teams better information and greater influence over buyer thinking and buying criteria. This visibility, coupled with the selling mindset and process, enables them to deal with reality. They’re able to “set the opportunity up to win.” Or, they know when to walk away before significant investment and expectations are set.
  • As a result, sales professionals work better deals, have higher close rates, and much higher forecasting reliability. Much lower overall selling risk. They virtually never lose to “no decision.”
  • More efficient selling and higher yields per rep lowers selling costs.
  • Buyers have a better buying experience.

I hope these ideas bring greater clarity to your use of Challenger Customer insights for greater success with your value selling initiatives.