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Why ‘The Challenger Sale’ isn’t challenging enough

December 24, 2013

Books specifically relating to B2B (rather than marketing, technology or business in general) are few and far between, so when one comes along that really seems to have gathered interest and momentum, it certainly makes me sit up and take notice. The groundswell of interest around ‘The Challenger Sale’ mades it 2013's candidate, and therefore an essential read for me – or so I thought.

Produced by business membership organisation CEB in the US (first published there in 2011), ‘The Challenger Sale’ aims to describe the next big step forward in the understanding of B2B selling, and provide some fairly practical guidance for organisations on how to make this transition. The authors, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, sifted through data from a huge organisational study conducted at the beginning of the recession to highlight which sales people were continuing to perform in the downturn, and uncover the secret of their success.

They categorise all B2B sales people into one of five categories (the lone wolf, the relationship builder, the hard worker, the problem solver and the challenger) but claim the final category is spectacularly outperforming all the others. Therefore, pretty obviously, it’s this kind of individual that organisation need, and in order to succeed organisations need to be geared around creating and cultivating this kind of individual – not the other four types.

The implications are pretty profound… but I found myself distinctly underwhelmed. Firstly, because I thought the initial categorisation seemed very familiar with revelations and genuine insights few and far between. But secondly, and more importantly, because this books seems to exist in a fantasy world where marketing does not. The only direct reference to marketing, as far as I can tell, is a fairly paltry four pages in the conclusion entitled ‘lessons for marketers’, which was a small segment of a larger chapter on implications for other business functions (sales, CEO etc). That’s four pages out of 200 – two per cent of the total book. Can you imagine a credible book about B2B marketing in today’s world that gave sales the same short shrift? I can’t.

The reality is that sales and marketing can and must work hand in hand for organisational success. Whilst I’m not suggesting that this book is without merit or insight for sales people, or that the authors haven’t done a great job in collating the data, I am suggesting that it shows yet again that the sales ‘establishment’ in B2B doesn’t really understand, recognise or rate what marketing does. And for a marketing protagonist, that’s pretty depressing. If even the thought leaders in sales are going to ignore marketing, then if sales and marketing are going to get along, it has to marketing that takes charge of that process – if left to sales, it simply won’t happen.

So would I recommend this book? If you want to know how the ‘other side’ thinks (or should think), then possibly yes. It’s hardly a challenging read, and the historical context was great. But if you want some insights on your own job, not really. There are many better books out there for B2B marketers. Don’t waste your time.

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