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Mixed messaging: Challenger vs. Relationship Builder


Is it better to be challenging or to be liked?

There’s an age-old question leaders throughout time have faced: is it better to be liked or feared? In sales, a similar sentiment applies: is it better to be liked by your prospects or is it better to challenge them?

Sales teams often face conflicting messaging from their managers and online sales content they read.

They’re blasted with articles and trainings that tell them to be personable, improve the customer experience and that “the customer is always right.”

On the other hand, they’re told to read ‘The Challenger Sale,’ to fight opposition and be in control of their sales.

They are being pushed to two different extremes – many scrambling to figure out which sales methodology will actually close a deal.

For those that haven’t read ‘The Challenger Sale’ yet, it introduces a new selling persona – the Challenger, which encourages reps to challenge their prospect’s perspective by bringing new ideas and adding value.

At the time of its release, the book shook up the sales world since most teams were built to support Relationship Builders. This persona always puts the customer first and attempts to develop long-lasting loyalty between the rep and customer. However, the book pegs the Relationship Builder as the least effective.

What authors, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, argue is quite groundbreaking. Why would anyone want to purchase a product from someone who challenges what they know? Isn’t the customer always right?

But the data can’t be ignored. Let’s break down both the Relationship Builder and the contrary Challenger method that pits building an ideal customer relationship against a bold, educational approach.

Relationship Builder

Most sales reps are Relationship Builders. They have enjoyable conversations, seek to satisfy customer demands, give a good experience and resolve tension. They are generous with their time and use it to help others and generally get along with everyone.

Another important book for salespeople, ‘Influence: Psychology of Persuasion’ has an entire chapter about liking. The author, Robert B. Cialdini, says people want to say ‘yes’ to people they like.

There are two strong examples he references that display the power of liking.

The first is an astounding car salesman, Joe Girard, who made $200,000 each year selling on the showroom floor. On average, he sold more than five cars every day. And for all his triumph, he was dubbed “the world’s greatest car salesman” by the Guinness Book of World Records.

His formula for success? Giving customers a fair price and having them buy from someone they like.

How did he get them to like him? Every month, Girard sent a holiday greeting card to his 13,000 customers that said, “I like you.” This is a seemingly large task that likely would bring little reward. However, Girard says this was a contributing factor to his success.

The second example Cialdini mentions is Tupperware parties. These are sales parties hosted by a Tupperware representative but are organized by a customer (these tend to be women with tight social circles) who invite their friends over to their house to buy Tupperware.

The power of liking doesn’t come into play from the Tupperware rep, but the person who is hosting the party at their house. That individual has a strong connection to all of the invitees and each of them knows the host is getting a cut of the profits. It’s essentially early influencer marketing.

One study showed that the strength of the social bond is twice as likely to encourage someone to buy, rather than the product itself.

Some participants said they don’t need anymore but yet, they still attended these parties. Why? The desire to say ‘yes’ to their friend was greater than their adversity to the product.

Cialdini makes his point loud and clear with these relationship builder examples: liking leads to sales.

Challenger Sale

Challenger sales reps take a different tactic by having a strong understanding of the customer’s industry, encouraging debate and maintaining tension. Rather than focusing on pleasing the customer, Challengers help the customer better understand their problem.

In this modern selling age, customers are already 57 percent through the buying process before they make contact with a seller. Since customers can learn about a product online and easily compare competitors, they start their buying journey with preconceived ideas about what products and features they want to buy and how much it should cost.

This creates a difficult situation for salespeople if they’re not prepared.

The Challenger rep relies on his/her knowledge of the customer’s industry to drive new conversations and cut through the customer’s thought process. These are typically dialogues about ROI, cutting costs and dodging risks.

Let’s use the example from the book: an office partition. The prospect comes to the rep wanting to divide their office space into two to use the room more efficiently and already has an idea of what they want.

The sales rep understands the goal is office space efficiency; he/she can be an expert and provide value to the prospect on the topic. The sales rep challenges the prospect by opposing their opinion and educating them on the best use of an office partition, in this case, it’s buying additional partitions so that space can be used in more than two ways at a time.

This challenges the prospect’s opinion, teaches them something new, tailors the approach to their goal and allows the rep to take control by offering a more beneficial solution than what the prospect originally thought they wanted.

The Challenger pushes the customer out of their comfort zone and paints their problem (and solution) in a new way.

Customer experience

By 2020, the customer experience (CX) will surpass both price and product as the most important brand differentiator. In the next two years, companies need to narrow in on CX as it will become the largest influencer on a customer’s decision to buy.

The CX is already affecting revenue. Fifty-five percent of consumers pay more for a guaranteed good customer experience. And customers who are satisfied with their CX contribute 14x more money than a dissatisfied one.

And a bad CX has a bigger impact on losses. Each year, American businesses lose $62 billion due to negative CXs. Forty-nine percent switch services or products to escape bad service; 49 percent said they switched because they felt unappreciated, while 37 percent said the staff was rude and unhelpful.

The Challenger and Relationship Builder have two different tactics for providing a good CX.

The Relationship Builder says that a good CX means providing assistance and appeasing the prospect’s requests; steering clear of tensions and conflict. The customer is assisted quickly, given as much time and attention as needed and makes a personable relationship during the interaction.

A good Challenger CX comes from adding value. Reps add value by providing free strategic insight and industry advice to the prospect with ongoing education and relevant content.

To add value the sales rep must understand the customer’s pain points and offer solutions on all fronts. In this case, the sales rep is seen as a trustworthy and knowledgeable source, the product is framed as a solution and the buyer feels affirmed that they are avoiding risk.

The data

A 2018 study by Gartner shows that 39 percent of high performing sales representatives were categorized as Challengers, and in complex sales situations that number increased to 54 percent.

The Relationship Builder had the lowest proportion of star performers, at only seven percent. But made up the largest portion of the core performers at 26 percent.


Find a balance

Your managers are asking you to walk the tightrope. Get people to buy both by getting them to like you and by challenging them. But, the mixed messaging comes with good reason.

It’s in our instinct to want to be friendly and kind, especially to those who we want to buy from us, but the data from Gartner suggests we abandon those instincts in favor of the Challenger method.

It’s a tough balance to find — but it’s vital to have aspects of both in your sales process.

Have quality, relationship-provoking conversations that make your customers feel appreciated while teaching them and challenging what they know in a constructive (and non-aggressive) way.

Challenger and Relationship Builder sales tactics both have negative and positive aspects that they bring to the sales process. Provide your customers with the best of both worlds by perfecting an approach that works best for your personality, product and sales process.

By Jessica Munday