In this blog entry, I will highlight the concepts in the The Challenger Sale book of most use to Customer-Facing Engineers (CFEs), rather than salespeople. My first advice is therefore to start your reading with the Afterword, ‘Challenging Beyond Sales’, at the back of the book, which addresses the topic of how the Challenger approach can benefit non-Sales functions.

A Challenger is one of five salesperson types (please see Profiles: Challenger, PCM and Star Trek) that Dixon and Adamson, the authors, identified in research done after the 2008 stock market crash. They concluded that someone with a Challenger profile is far more likely to be successful than a person with one of the other four profiles, especially for complex sales in the modern economy (characterised by easy access to information and impatient buyers with high expectations). When applied to CFEs, this can be applied not only to complex sales, but to complex support situations in general.

Three Challenger skills are identified:

  • Teach for differentiation—use a ‘Reframe’ teaching pitch in order to deliver insight
  • Tailor for resonance—to allow Challengers to adapt their solutions to the needs of many different types of stakeholder across the client organisation
  • Take control—for converting conversations and ideas into action, through good judgement, assertiveness and negotiation skills.

The first of these three skills—the ability to deliver a ‘Challenger Reframe Teaching Pitch’—is a distinctive feature of the methodology. However, skill #3, ’Take control’, can also be extremely valuable to CFEs, allowing them to achieve balance between the roles of reactive problem solver and proactive, trusted advisor. I was not as moved by the ‘Tailoring for Resonance’ chapter, though there are some good points about building widespread support across large, complex accounts. For ideas on why and how to adapt a message to its audience, I prefer, for example, Miller & Heiman’s The New Strategic Selling.

My experience of Challenger as a Sales methodology is that it is attractive to companies that wish to move up the value chain, since such a move requires redefining the way they work with customers. The methodology can help communicate such changes in positioning. Even if this is not an issue, however, CFEs can find some excellent arguments and advice about dealing with modern customers. As the ‘Challenger’ title implies, just being reactive to customer requests is not enough. To add significant value, a CFE has to know when and how to nudge their customers out of their comfort zones.

Easier said than done, and the deployment of the methodology is quite difficult, for reasons that Dixon and Adamson explain. It requires changes in the organisational and excellent training at the individual level, since the concepts are of little use unless they are fully integrated into the adopter’s skills and habits. Perhaps it is for these reasons that The Challenger Sale stands out from the Sales book crowd. While it promises great results, it does not understate the work required to achieve them.