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Dear Commercial Acuman... do we need to get more Challengers into our industry?

Dear Commercial Acuman... do we need to get more Challengers into our industry?
It is not Relationship Builders, who acquiesce, but Challengers, who push back, that perform best in a complex environment.

Challengers are one of five key profiles identified by Matthew Dixon in his book The Challenger Sale; the book came out of some research he did for Harvard Business Review entitled Selling Is Not About Relationships.


Challengers understand the customer’s business, always have a different view of the world, love to debate and will push the customer.

It is these qualities that make Challengers by far the most successful sellers in complex B2B environments such as advertising – as Blair Enns told an IPA audience in 2016, Challengers who push back on the client’s idea of their problem, solutions and buying process outperform all other types put together.

By contrast, relationship builders - who acquiesce to the client’s perspective on the problem and the form of the solution - are the least successful of all performers.

Another way of looking at this is that Challengers are up-stream strategic advisors, whereas relationship-builders become to-do list completers.

In commercial terms, it will always be a struggle to charge a premium for basic executional work when clients can simply bring this in-house more cost-effectively; real value, for both client and agency, lies in the agency’s ability to bring strategic insight to a business problem.

Becoming more of a Challenger also addresses the issue identified in the 2015 Hall and Partners research, Mad Men to Sad Men, that agencies feel as if they are drifting downstream with mid-level marketers.


So, what is the best way to identify Challengers during the hiring process?

David Meikle, author of How To Buy A Gorilla, suggest asking them to describe a time when they've spoken an uncomfortable truth to power - in particular a client but also senior internal stakeholders. Then, he says, dig into the story to make sure they stood their ground, made the case - and that it was actually them that did it. 

Blair Enns of Win Without Pitching explains that what you really want to determine is if someone values authority and respect over the relationship. Put another way, would they prefer to be liked by someone or respected by them?

He advises, note how many times the candidate uses the words chemistry, rapport, relationship and networking in an interview. These are all red flags that say this person's affiliation needs (need to be liked) are higher than their power needs (need to be seen as the authority). 

He adds, someone who values networking highly will have a hard time challenging; you want someone who values speaking and writing. 

Max Blumberg of the Blumberg Partnership offers the following characteristics to look for (as well as how they are evidenced):

    1. Challengers offer a unique and value-based perspective; they emphasise customer benefits before supplier strengths and adapt their approach based on customer reactions.
    2. Challengers drive two-way communication; look for evidence of relationships based on an ability to teach around customer business challenges and examples of modifying behaviour based on non-verbal cues.
    3. Challengers know their customer value-drivers; they use a structured approach to identify key decision makers and their priorities; they tailor their approach to unique customer requirements; they demonstrate an ability to transition from supplier to partner relationship.
    4. Challengers identify economic drivers; they are knowledgeable about the economic and industry climate as it relates to their customer’s business; they frequently identify new business opportunities that grow share of wallet.
    5. Challengers are comfortable discussing money; they are able to get customers to see the value beyond the price and are then comfortable talking about price.
    6. Challengers can pressure the customer; they are skilled negotiators who understand the decision-making process and priorities of different stakeholders; they generate consensus among stakeholders and primarily target advocates rather than senior mosts to secure buy-in.

The IPA is running a survey in partnership with negotiation trainers Scotwork to establish organisational negotiation capability; the results will be presented at this year’s Business Growth Conference in July.

If you are interested in taking part in the survey, contact Tom Lewis at the IPA.


Relationship Builders focus on developing strong personal and professional relationships and advocates across the customer organization. They are generous with their time, strive to meet customers' every need, and work hard to resolve tensions in the commercial relationship.

Reactive Problem Solvers are, from the customers' standpoint, highly reliable and detail-oriented. They focus on post-sales follow-up, ensuring that service issues related to implementation and execution are addressed quickly and thoroughly.

Hard Workers show up early, stay late, and always go the extra mile. They'll make more calls in an hour and conduct more visits in a week than just about anyone else on the team.

Lone Wolves are the deeply self-confident, the rule-breaking cowboys of the sales force who do things their way or not at all.

Challengers use their deep understanding of their customers' business to push their thinking and take control of the sales conversation. They're not afraid to share even potentially controversial views and are assertive—with both their customers and bosses.

Last updated 15/03/2017

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