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Sales Role Agility

by David Brock on May 23rd, 2013

It’s human nature to categorize things and people.  It enables us to build models and constructs.  It enables us to more easily deal with ambiguity, abstractions, and other things.  Somehow things seem easier and clearer when everything has a box and everything is in its box.

We characterize and categorize sales people–putting the different types into boxes–hunters/farmers, lone wolves, consultative, connectors, challengers, relationship builders, conductors, builders, transactors, and so forth.  Each has it’s own characteristics.  Depending on the fashion of the times, or one’s biases, one is perceived as better than the other.  Need to acquire new customers, an executive will say, “We need a sales force of hunters.”  Launching a new company, we treasure the lone wolf.  In driving insight we want to build sales organizations of Challengers.

The problem with categorization, many models or constructs is they represent an approximation of the real world at a point in time.  But reality changes things, everything isn’t as clean, we can’t put everything into a box and construct the ideal sales person or ideal sales organization.  Build an organization of challengers in a transaction focused buying environment, and you will drive customers (and your own company) crazy.  Look at a complex buying cycle and you may need a “challenger” to get the customer committed to change, but then you may need a “hard worker” to work with the customer in the myriad of details of planning, risk assessment, evaluation through other parts of the sales cycle, and then in implementation, you may need someone who is more empathetic or “relationship” oriented to keep the customer moving forward.  Have an unhappy customer and a “problem solver” approach might be most appropriate.  (I’ll use the Challenger categories for many of the examples in this post).

Matt Dixon and Brent Adamson would say (At least I’ve heard Matt say), that sometimes Challengers display Hard Worker, Relationship Builder, Problem Solver or other characteristics.  Or that a Problem Solver may display some Challenger characteristics.

So while these categories give us interesting models to look at developing our sales people and organizations, I think it’s important to consider another dimension to this issue—that is individual and organizational agility (nimbleness, flexibility).

Perhaps, while we may want a sales force that displays more of certain types of characteristic, say challenging, than others,what we may really need is sales people who are nimble or adaptable to the specific situation.  The challenger may need to display more problem solving characteristics with certain customers or at certain points in the buying cycle.  Or they may need to display more relationship builder characteristics.

So sales people who are agile or flexible–moving between roles as appropriate are probably more effective in addressing changing customer engagement expectations than those that are “hard-wired” into one category.

But it’s probably a very rare individual that can be equally good at all.  We can train and develop people to improve their capabilities in each area, but it is probably unrealistic to expect large numbers of sales people to be agile in all roles.

But in looking at an organization, we have a lot more possibilities and flexibility in designing our organizations.  Particularly when we consider, in complex B2B sales, sales success is more of a team sport than the result of a single individual contributor.  We already know we the breadth of our solutions demands specialization, and teams of various specialists working together create a more effective overall organizational deployment model.

We may be better served (and more effectively engage our customers) by having teams composed characteristics.  Perhaps teams composed of challengers, hard workers, problems solvers and relationship builders.

We might imagine the challenger inciting the customer to change, a problem solver or hard worker taking the lead in the tedium of evaluating alternatives, proving our superiority and so forth.  At times, the challenger may need to re-engage, as might the others.

When we look at behavioral analysis, for example, Meyers Briggs type of analysis, we know the strongest and most effective teams have a mix of all the behavior types.  That teams dominated by one behavior type, say drivers, are often very ineffective.  But teams with all the behavior types complement the individual strength and weaknesses, performing at higher levels.

A more simple example–a baseball team composed exclusively of 9 pitchers won’t be very successful.

So perhaps we want to look at team and organizational design differently.  Maybe it’s wrong to build an organization of just Challengers–as flexible as they may be as individuals, they still will revert to challenging behaviors.  Likewise with problem solvers, hard workers, relationship builders and so forth.

We can’t build an organization of just one characteristic, because one size does not fit every customer buying situation.  Maybe the highest performing organizations look building a set of complementary skills, and develop the organizational agility to put the right player in at the right time in the right situation.

While categorization is very helpful in looking at developing organizations and people, aligning with our strategies and customers, we can’t stop there.  We also have to overlay role adaptability (within the individual and/or the organization), nimbleness and agility to maximize our ability to be most responsive in all customer situations.


  1. Brian MacIver permalink

    Great Blog, Dave.
    Both Customers and Salespeople see Salespeople in a far broader light than Sales Training Manuals would have us believe.
    Here is a list gathered from Customer Engagements, with over 300 Salespeople with their Customers [in Big Telecom]. Answering the Question:
    “How do you see the Salesperson’s role?”
    Problem Solver
    Deal Maker
    Account Manager

    Most Customers, and Salespeople, saw between 3 and 5 roles, some saw ALL the roles. Nobody saw just one role!

    • I think it’s an important point–no one can be just one role, ad we can’t be all roles. I think we build stronger organizations by having a mix of the roles. Thanks for the great data point!

  2. Dave;

    I have just finished reading “The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation.”

    While some of the short studies were of interest, the idea of a challenger sale would have been very familiar to those selling adding machines, telephones, cash registers in the early 1900’s.

    Further, simple game theoretic principles would tell you that for any complex game, it is simply unlikely that there one dominant strategy.

    • Michael: Thanks for the great insight 😉 Yes, the underlying principles of Challenger sales have been around a long time. To me the interesting thing is if the principles are not new, why is it that sales organizations have failed to make these common, sustained practice. In virtually every other function, e.g., manufacturing, engineering, finance, admin, they identify critical performance issues, fix them (as a profession) and move forward. In sales, we’ve been rehashing the same principles under different names, for decades.

      Having said that, Matt and Brent have done an outstanding job of getting some compelling data and a message. packaging it and catching the attention of the profession. The issue will be, can people sustain this.

      While much that has been written about Challenger, I think the authors, Matt and Brent would say there is a need for some role agility, that Challenger display Problem Solver, Hard Worked, or Relationship building characteristics.

      There never will be a perfect model, but there are some great things we can learn from these models. As, always, you add such great insight with your comments Michael, thanks so much. Regards, dave

      • Dave writes: “To me the interesting thing is if the principles are not new, why is it that sales organizations have failed to make these common, sustained practice.”

        Yes, I agree with this.

        But, you can see the same phenomena even in the sciences. Ideas which should have been worked on and developed are forgotten as newer graduate student have to “discover something new”.

        Corporations being even more fragile and dysfunctional than universities, it is not surprising that they lack focus.

        • Brian MacIver permalink

          And yet, Michael “Tit-for-Tat” continues to be a dominant Success strategy for repeated play The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

          The success of The Challenger Sale is not, a Sales Strategy per se. But is a flexible Behavioural Set [not published in the book] which can support a wide range of Sales Strategies.
          One of which may well be the appropriate Sales strategy for the Buying situation you encounter!

          • Great comment Brian. You make an important point, which many (including me–for some time) misunderstand, it’s the flexible behavior set. Too many misunderstand the challenger, thinking they don’t display characteristics of the hard worker, problem solver, etc. But they do show some role agility in incorporating behavioral elements appropriate for the situation.

            Each behavioral type has (or should have) some of this flexibility–but I like to think, perhaps incorrectly, of a hierarchy of behaviors. So problem solvers might display characteristics of hardworkes, but would probably have great difficulty sustaining the behaviors of the challenger. Am I on target with my thinking here?

            I think this is a great misunderstanding of challengers–I’m not sure CEB has done a great job of communicating this.

      • @Brian who says: “And yet, Michael “Tit-for-Tat” continues to be a dominant Success strategy for repeated play The Prisoner’s Dilemma.”

        Yes, but you overstate the case. Tit for tat doesn’t is an dominant strategy, working no matter what.

        Over time, many iterations, there are more people using tit for tat than other strategies -other strategies which beat tit for tat, but themselves are beatable.

        I much more interested in this claim: “The success of The Challenger Sale is not, a Sales Strategy per se. But is a flexible Behavioural Set [not published in the book].”

        Why wouldn’t the authors have made this point explicit? Or in my haste, did I just overlook it? Thanks.

        • Hi Michael and Dave,
          This is an interesting discussion, on a key area, you are both asking the right questions, after so much ‘smoke’ on The Challenger Sale.

          First of all a “Dominant” Strategy does not ‘always’ win,
          it is just more ‘likely’ to win than other Strategies.

          On the behavioural sets,
          first of all to most Sales Researchers,
          and to me in particular,
          the biggest ‘gift’ from TCS was the TWO Top Performers!

          Challenger and Lone Wolf, previously I had “Top Performer”, and a broad range of possible behaviours.

          The TCS division allowed me to review a my Behavioural research in that light. And, the “Challenger” does come into “Behavioural” focus.
          Challengers are behaving differently than Lone Wolves.

          Next, having identified The Challenger, compare the Top Performer Challenger to the Core Performer Challenger,
          this allows a sharp focus on key ‘Challenger’ Behaviours.

          Finally, last but definitely not least:
          “What happens when “Core” Challengers ‘modify’ their behaviour and behave like “Top Performing” Challengers.

          Why, their success increases!

          I have published ‘snippets’ from this on my blog:


          Why did TCS, not contain detailed “Behavioural” sets?

          Because they used a completely different research approach.

        • Michael, in my view, there is still a lot of confusion–even within CEB. There has been a lot introduced in the book, a lot more blog posts, speeches, etc. So it is evolving, and our understanding is limited by where we have intercepted it. Also, Matt and Brent continue to evolve their thinking–which is as it should be. As a result, sometimes we and up talking past each other when we discuss these.

          I think there are some interesting questions, just focused around, what’s the right mix in building a sales force. I’m not sure the rush in trying to make all our sales people Challengers, is necessarily the most effective sales deployment strategy. If the issue is “insight” there are others ways of bringing insight to customers. If the issue is the behavioral sets, there is overlap with the other types of sales people. So there is no one size fits all, just as there is no right sales strategy.

          Unfortunately, too many of the conversations don’t get into the substantive issues as you and Brian are, so we don’t deepen our understanding or abilities to drive sales performance.

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