Solution Selling vs The Challenger Sale

Tony Hughes


The Challenger Sale is essential reading for anyone in complex B2B selling and many enterprise sales organizations are embracing the concepts. Challenger provides three big benefits: 1) It forces sales and marketing to finally come together and it's impossible to succeed unless they do, 2) It drives strategic demand generation of the right opportunities, 3) creates a focus on value as defined by the customer. Harvard Business Review (HBR) published a must read article referencing Corporate Executive Board (CEB) research and The Challenger Sale book.

Neil Rackham's input to The Challenger Sale book is excellent and he clearly influenced their thinking. He writes the foreword and highlights how this is only the second time (SPIN Selling was the first) that a new sales methodology has been proposed as the result of rigorous (university standards) research.

Let me say at the outset that I'm a fan but there are challenges in implementing Challenger Selling because it's an aspirational methodology / framework, not a process, and it demands significant investment and change management. Although it's positioned as 'the next big thing' to replace other proven sales processes and methodologies, it's actually iterative, not revolutionary. This is evidenced by the fact that Neil Rackham's SAFE:BOLD tool is reproduced (and credited) on page 82 of the book. Challenger is a combination of Value Selling (Rackham / Huthwaite), Insight Selling (numerous derivations) which were built on the solid foundation of Solution Selling (Keith Eades) and also the work on Strategic Selling by Bob Miller and Steve Heiman. Jim Holden is also a pioneer in strategic selling (Power Base Selling) and his eFox process is excellent. My own book (The Joshua Principle) which was published before Challenger has been acknowledged by Dave Stein as articulating Challenger principles.

Challenger is important and can make a real contribution to sales transformation initiatives and enable sales people to elevate the conversation with prospects and customers. Simon Tate is Asia-Pacific VP at SAP for their Cloud business and says, "The biggest benefit of The Challenger Sale model is that it creates pipeline." Simon is right and very focused on coaching and mentoring for his people. He also knows not to underestimate the complexity and implementing Challenger in the field. SAP and other successful companies understand that Challenger is an organizational capability(marketing, management and sales), not just the profile or persona for the best hunter sales people. Again; management, marketing and sales all need to dig deep together to find genuine relevant insights that can be positively yet provocatively taken to customers and prospects at senior levels.

A potential problem with Challenger is that sales people could easily lapse back into a 'telling is selling' approach and the framework tends to under-value the role of relationships in selling. We all know that you'd better have a very good relationship with someone if you plan on telling them that their baby is ugly. Both the Trusted Advisor and Challenger models are aspirational but Challenger must be extremely well engineered and strongly evidenced to be effective, especially where you don't have strong relationships. The term 'Challenger' is best avoided in Asian markets for obvious reasons. It is best used to frame strategy for penetrating new accounts but it must be executed by someone with gravitas and genuine customer industry expertise.

On a positive note, the Challenger model forces the sales person to take well researched insights to the most senior stakeholders within their prospect or customer and then provoke conversation and thought with a hypothesis concerning how the customer's world can be changed by more than just solving a problem or unlocking greater value. It moves beyond cliche and the big questions for sales people are:

  1. What insights can you take to the prospective customer?
  2. Which customer executives should be engaged?
  3. How will you shape the conversation with relevance to their world?
  4. What is your [tested] hypothesis concerning the creation of business value?
  5. Do you have compelling relevant evidence specific to their business to support your dramatic claims?
  6. Do you have the necessary relationships or trust for creating constructive tension?
  7. Does it all link back to unique value you offer the market to eliminate your competition?

Key benefits of Challenger are that it forces sales and marketing to [finally] come together for effective strategic demand generation. It also creates a focus on transformational business value as defined by the customer and their markets. There are however key points to consider to manage implementation risks for Challenger in the real world:

  • It's not a silver bullet but rather a complex and difficult strategy requiring deep analysis and capability
  • It's not about hiring a particular persona of sales person (hunter and domain expert)
  • Challenger must be an organizational capability, not a sales strategy
  • Success with Challenger demands high investment and organizational change
  • Sales and Marketing must come together under a single leader to execute
  • You must have unique intrinsic value around which you can build a Challenger strategy
  • You rise or fall on the strength, insight and execution capability of sales management
  • Poor execution can result in demand generation for your competitor if you educate and fail to close.
  • Don't de-emphasize executive relationships (with customers think: 'trusted advisor with provocative insights')
  • Avoid using the term 'Challenger' in Asian markets (complete cultural mismatch and potentially offensive)
  • Don't even think about trying to make amiable personalities adopt the Challenger persona (unnatural act)

How do you start with your Challenger implementation?

  1. Honestly and critically assess your competitive differentiation in the eyes of the customer (what matters to them)
  2. Then identify the elements that deliver real unique business value (by segment and buyer role) combining the intrinsic (product or service) and extrinsic (how you operate) value elements
  3. Create questions to the customer that lead to your unique business value for them
  4. Identify insights that you can use to secure appointments and frame conversations
  5. Create collateral that supports insights and evidences provocative claims
  6. Find and target the senior 'Mobilizer' within the customer organization
  7. Obsess about disciplined execution of your strategy. Sales management is key!

Questions for the sales leadership and enablement community:

  • Is Challenger really more sophisticated than other methodologies or just more difficult to implement?
  • Is Challenger more a 'push selling' approach and therefore contrary to SPIN, Solution & Value Selling?
  • How can Challenger as a methodology be integrated into an organization's sales process and other tools (eFox, TAS, etc)?
  • What are the biggest risks with Challenger (finding the rights reps, training, sales management, internal alignment, etc)?
  • Can Challenger be implemented successfully if sales and marketing remain two separate departments?
  • Can Challenger work even when you're selling a commodity and without a unique business model?
  • Is Challenger best suited to selling to existing clients or to new business prospects?

The Challenger Sale provokes excellent thought and a focus on value, as defined by customers, but execution is just as important as strategy. Cracking The Sales Management Code by Jason Jordan is also essential reading as it provides the framework for excellence in execution.


Tony Hughes is ranked as the #1 influencer on professional selling in Asia-Pacific and is a keynote speaker and best selling author. This article was originally published in LinkedIn where you can also follow Tony's award winning blog. Also visit Tony's keynote speaker website at or his sales methodology website at

Main image photo by Flickr: Dennis Skley


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