Inbound Marketing & Sales Development Inspiration

Is your selling style the best?

Posted February 6, 2016
4 minute read

September of 2008 forever changed the world of B2B selling.  That’s the month the Great Recession began.  The years following forced buyers in the B2B space to change the way they interact with salespeople.  It was a dramatic change.  What happened and how has it changed B2B selling?  

This article describes how selling styles have shifted since the Great Recession, and provides a brief description of what has emerged as the best selling style. 

Prior to the great recession millions of dollars were spent on wining and dining buyers, giving them expensive gifts, sending them on nice trips, and winning their affection and loyalty by building friendly relationships.  That seemed the best way to generate sales.  When the Great Recession hit, buyers become much more demanding and shifted their focus from having a great relationship with the seller to ensuring the solutions were the best and economics were right, regardless of the salesperson. 

Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson initiated a study to measure the impact of this shift in buyer priorities.  Their research study was documented in their book The Challenger Sale.  In their book, they studied thousands of B2B salespeople to identify the characteristics that represent the best selling style of the elite salespeople in this new economic environment.  They defined elite salespeople as those in the top 20% of performers.  What their research revealed was revolutionary.  

5 Types of B2B Salespeople 

The Challenger research study revealed 5 main salesperson styles as follows: 

  1. Hard Worker – through sheer will, long hours and dedication, this type of salesperson is able to succeed – the classic case that sales is a numbers game
  2. Challenger – researches the customer and its competition, and focuses on innovative solutions and creating constructive tension to “challenge” the customer
  3. Relationship Builder – creates a strong personal relationship with the buyer and focuses most energy on nurturing that relationship with gifts, friendship and the like
  4. Lone Wolf – breaks most of the rules, goes his/her own way and typically achieves success through unconventional, individualized effort
  5. Reactive Problem Solver – focuses energy on identifying the customer’s current problem, then communicates traditional ways about how the product and/or service can solve that problem 

Which Type is Most Likely to be an Elite Salesperson 

One of the most significant findings is the “Relationship Builder” sales style, thought to be the most effective, is actually the least likely style among elite salespeople.  Dixon’s and Adamson’s research compared the elite salespeople (top 20%) to core performers (middle 60%), and found the following: 

Sales Styles

% of Elite performers

% of core performers

Hard Worker






Relationship Builder



Lone Wolf



Reactive Problem Solver




Their studies revealed that only 8% of B2B salespeople practicing the “Relationship Builder” style were performing in the top 20% of their firm – the lowest among all the sales types.  On the flip side, 39% of B2B salespeople practicing the “Challenger” style were performing in the top 20%.  

It is important to note that the environment in which the research study was conducted involved complex sales – those that were either big-ticket capital investments, enterprise-wide IT solutions, and a variety of professional services.      

What Does a Challenger Salesperson Do? 

Here’s a brief summary of behaviors and attributes of the “Challenger” sales style…  

  • Does extensive research into the buyer and his/her competition
  • Understands well the buyer’s economic objectives and value drivers
  • Focuses from the very beginning on the buyer’s economic goals
  • Has a good understanding of how the buyer conducts his/her business
  • Acts as a consultant from the very beginning, sharing valuable information for free
  • Creates constructive tension by challenging the buyer’s current methods
  • Offers unique and innovative perspectives on how to solve the buyer’s problems
  • Is skilled and comfortable discussing the customer’s sales, profits, economics, etc. 

While the “Relationship Builder” might be a great person and fun to party with, the Challenger” focuses on adding meaningful value by focusing on the economics and bringing new perspectives to the buyer.  Also, by acting as a consultant, even before a sale is made, and showing an innovative path toward problem solving, the “Challenger” salesperson gains credibility and respect that trump those of the other selling styles. 

Think about this scenario.  A buyer has a good relationship with a certain salesperson who has served his/her basic needs for some time.  A “Challenger” working for the competition comes in and shares a unique perspective never before presented by a “Relationship Builder”, and that perspective is linked directly to the buyer’s economic value drivers.  That customer will no doubt pay close attention to what the “Challenger” has to say.  That buyer will likely do one of two things: 1) go back to the “Relationship Builder” and ask why he/she hasn’t presented this type of solution before, and/or 2) simply begin buying from the “Challenger”.  Neither case is positive for the incumbent salesperson. 

In our own research, we asked decision makers who purchase B2B goods and services about how they would react to a salesperson challenging them about their current methods.  We asked, “If a salesperson challenges your assumptions about your business, how would you react?”  86% of respondents said “favorably – I’m willing to listen to a different perspective.”  Only 14% would react unfavorably.      

In summary, the world of B2B selling has changed.  The behaviors of the most elite salespeople have had to evolve from simply building strong relationships with their buyers to a style in which the salesperson behaves like a “challenger” - focusing on the economics and value drivers, acting as a trusted consultant, and challenging the buyer’s assumptions and proven methods. 


Topics Sales, Sales & Marketing

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