In a previous post, you saw that 82% of business executives think salespersons are unprepared. These buyers cited sellers’ lack of knowledge about their industry, business, and issues; and the inability to answer their questions, among other shortcomings.

Gartner research found that a company’s brand, products and services, and pricing are no longer the main drivers behind customers’ purchase decisions. Instead, the greatest differentiator between B2B sellers is the sales experience.

Buyers said they want to be challenged to think about things more creatively. As explained in the book The Challenger Sale, the challenger approach is one in which the seller:

  • actively teaches their prospect,

  • tailors their sales process, and

  • takes control of the customer conversation.

The Challenger Sales Model believes anyone can become a Challenger if they build the right combination of skills.

Challenger skills

To be an effective Challenger:

  • Use your understanding of your clients’ and prospects’ businesses to deliver new insights and drive their thinking in new and different ways. Bring new ideas, like how to save money or avoid risk, that the client hadn’t previously considered or fully appreciated on their own. In contrast to the “relationship builder,” Challengers are effective because they build constructive tension.

  • Teach for differentiation based on your deep knowledge of the client’s business and your unique perspective — using your ability for two-way dialogue during the sales interaction.

  • Tailor your message based on your strong sense of your client’s economic and value drivers.

  • Take control of the sale because you’re comfortable discussing money and can expose compelling reasons that motivate the customer to close.

A law firm example

Some years ago, our beta firm for a really radical client-team process (“Chaotic, messy, and loud, but transformative”) had as its best client an electric power utility. The Challenger book hadn’t come out yet, but I was unknowingly applying the principle of introducing emerging business issues as a means to gain the attention of, and access to, influential business executives.

We set about making the firm’s partners experts in the banking business. We brought in securities analysts who followed that space, and finance wizards from an area bank’s Capital Markets group to educate the partners about how that business worked, how it made money, around-the-bend issues, etc.

Using the issue-spotting discipline, one partner manufactured a big chunk of business out of whole cloth. He had had a US Navy career before going to law school. As a result, he knew that almost all skilled technicians at nuclear power plants were trained on the nuclear warships of the U.S. Navy. He also knew that the Navy was shrinking, meaning there were fewer nuclear vessels on which technicians can become qualified nuclear technicians. This fleet shrinkage had been ongoing since 1991, so the supply of nuclear technicians has not only been declining, but was also aging.

A high percentage of Navy-trained nuclear technicians, then in their 50s and 60s, were contemplating retirement. Nuclear power plants, having no ready supply of replacements, were trying to convince those at or nearing retirement age to stick around longer.


Human nature being what it is, those workers understandably tried to use their scarcity as leverage to try to mitigate some of their more restrictive workplace requirements, causing headaches for those plants’ Chief Engineers or Compliance Officers, who were required to enforce all nuclear-plant regulations rigidly or risk getting shut down.  

Given the scope and significance of this personnel problem, the outside lawyer reasonably concluded that the Chief Engineers or Compliance Officers at his client would have this problem, too.

He raised the issue with inside counsel, who hadn’t heard of it, but who immediately recognized its importance. To that point, the company had enforced an absolute prohibition against outside counsel speaking with line-of-business executives. Because inside counsel was uncomfortable with his ignorance about the issue, but also didn’t have the luxury to ignore it, he chose to include the outside lawyer when he briefed his internal clients, the nuclear plan managers.

The result of this single insight by that partner was a sizable engagement to help the company analyze and solve the problem, plus it also proved to be the beginning of the end of the prohibition against contact with business executives. Inside counsel realized how valuable outside counsel could be.

The label didn’t exist yet, but this was a Challenger sale.


The critical trait to cultivate is relevance. There is little reason for your clients to speak with you otherwise, and no reason for Suspects or Prospects to do so. You’re competing for a slice of the attention budget. The Challenger discipline ramps this up to what may feel, comparatively, like Olympic level, but the underlying principle is the same.

Learn about your clients’ industries and businesses beyond a surface level. If you aspire to be a trusted advisor with a seat at the decision table, you’ll have to invest in knowledge that enables you to bring something meaningful to that table.

When you see headlines about trends in those industries, mentally speculate about what it might mean, could mean, for various aspects of the business. For example, let’s say you’re a Banking lawyer, and you come across articles such as Driverless cars: the most disruptive technology of our time. If you’re inclined to ignore it because AVs, while interesting, aren’t relevant to your banking practice or clients, you’d probably be surprised to learn that it was published in International Banker.

You might be equally surprised to see Four ways the connected car will change banking published in The American Banker, telling you that “The revolution in automotive technology and mobility services will be a financial revolution as well. From frictionless payments to improved underwriting models, connected cars will rewrite the rules for how and where banks interact with their customers and change the way people manage and spend their money.”

Get informed, and get on with the task of challenging your clients and prospects.

Mike O’Horo

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