Beware The Challenger: a model that looks great and is not for everyone


The Challenger sales rep.  It just exudes images of Arnold Schwarzenegger dressed in a beautiful suit, wielding an iPad and a broadsword, ready to engage his inner Closer the Barbarian upon some unsuspecting Star Trek redshirt procurement officer, otherwise known as…the client.  Redshirt won’t even know what hit him.

Sexy right?  Full of revenue-gathering testosterone.  And very “me” oriented.  An individual contributor’s dream state, later riding off on the armoured horse to fight another day.  Into the sunset of course .

Let me be clear, this is NOT an article chastising the challenger model.  I have participated in Challenger training, as a sales leader, and was and still am fascinated by the work and insights that created this model. This article is about urging caution to all sales leaders and senior leaders who are beguiled by the idea that all sales people can become Arnold in a two-piece Armani.

I’ve heard many stories and references to the Challenger model both directly and indirectly from sales leadership and in some cases farther up the org chart.  “We need to challenge ourselves and our clients to wake up to new ideas so they can buy more from us!”  This is a complete misconception of two important players in this model: the individual contributor (or as you know them – the sales professional) and, wait for it, the client!

A while back I had an amazing experience as a sales leader blessed with a team of individuals who together performed and delivered an incredible year for themselves and me personally.  It vaulted me to a #1 sales leader status, plaques and incentive trips included.  They were my most unique team in that each one identified as one of the sales personas in the Challenger model: Challenger, Hard Worker, Lone Wolf, Relationship Builder, Problem Solver. 

In a sales team, 40% of high performers typically represent a challenger persona.  More than 50% of all-star performers overall fit the Challenger in complex sales.  Only 7% of top performers are Relationship Builders.  This is sauce for the goose, one big temptation dangling out there for a sales leader to grasp at.

The lesson I really learned from my team is that each member was built differently.  How they approached the world, the information they gathered, how they organized it and ultimately how they presented it and themselves back out into that world, were different. I also learned that when a competent leader recognizes how each person approaches problems, they can coach them to great success.  There were additional factors, of course,starting with each team member desiring success.  At that particular time in their lives, they each wanted to be professional salespeople and wanted the recognition that comes with this career: money and … recognition! And maybe for some, validation that they were spending their time on this world fulfilled.  

Can each persona become a challenger?  My opinion is no, because you are asking them to become something that they are not.  They can all become “challenger-ish.” And that’s perfectly fine.  They can get to their destination, mutually agreed to by you, their leader; then let them find the route that suits them and get out of the way a bit.  The road is built for the muscle car and the minivan.  The journey, the ride, the experience will certainly be different and that’s OK as long as you reach the beach. Enjoy the sunset.

I guide emerging sales professionals to build trust, become more relevant, and surpass their competitors, thereby creating the ultimate personal, professional, and financial success for them and their businesses.”  What could your next version of you, the emerging sales professional, be like if your approach was to focus on another’s agenda first? Here’s a link to start creating that discussion right now!

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