The Best Kind of Sales Rep for B2B Sales

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The Best Kind of Sales Rep for B2B Sales

It’s natural for salespeople to want to be nice to their customers. But in business-to-business sales, where the stakes are high and customers are increasingly more sophisticated and risk-averse, being nice just doesn’t cut it. To be successful today, nice guys must challenge their customers out of their comfort zones and focus on delivering value.

To understand what makes top-performing sales representatives successful, Corporate Executive Board conducted a survey of more than 6,000 sales representatives across the globe and numerous industries. We identified five profile types that B2B sales reps fall into, based on the survey analysis:

  • The Hard Worker is always willing to go the extra mile, doesn’t give up easily, and is self-motivated.
  • The Problem Solver is detail-oriented; addresses service issues quickly, and places importance on post-sales follow through.
  • The Relationship Builder doesn’t want to appear pushy; focuses on customer needs, and is generous with his or her time.
  • The Lone Wolf is a salesperson that is self-assured, difficult to control, and follows his or her instincts.
  • The Challenger always has a different view of the world, understands the customer’s business, and loves to debate.


There is merit to each of these sales profiles, but only one is the clear winner in B2B complex-solutions selling: the Challenger. CEB research revealed that nearly 40% of all star-performing sales reps are Challengers. Sales professionals who strive to build personal relationships and diffuse tension with their clients came in dead last, representing only 7% of star performers. When you contrast transactional sales with complex-solution sales, the story becomes even more dramatic, with Challengers representing 54% of the star players and Relationship Builders falling off the map almost entirely.

Based on these findings, you probably wonder, what makes a Challenger rep so different? The Challenger is defined by the unique ability to use constructive tension throughout the sale and provide value to customers through a three-pillar approach of teaching, tailoring, and taking control.

Teaching: Today, how you sell matters much more than what you sell. More than 53% of what drives B2B customers’ purchase decisions is the salesperson’s ability to teach the customers something new or challenge their thinking. Challenger reps know that insight is the single quality that customers value most highly in a supplier, so they deliver information and ideas to help customers compete, save money or make money in ways they didn’t know were possible.

Using the Challenger Selling Model, W.W. Grainger, Inc., the distributor of maintenance, repair, and operations supplies, completely revamped how it interacted with its customers. Grainger went from leading with company facts and questions like “What’s keeping you up at night?” to focusing almost exclusively on a series of proprietary perceptions they developed about their customers to prompt them to think very differently about how to manage their spending—in ways that could potentially save them millions.

Tailoring: To successfully close a deal today, a sales professional must build consensus among customer stakeholders. CEB’s research shows that decision-makers care whether a given supplier has widespread support across their organization. Through a deep understanding of the economic drivers of the customer’s industry and how each individual stakeholder fits into the overall business, Challengers tailor messaging to address the specific quantifiable results that each individual customer wants to achieve. The Challenger’s ability to tailor the sales message makes him or her uniquely capable in this regard.

Solae, a maker of soy-based food ingredients, understands the importance of this point and created proprietary customer outcome cards to help reps have targeted conversations with various customer stakeholders, spelling out the specific capabilities and messages that would resonate most strongly with each individual.

Taking control: In the current economic environment, 80% of business is lost to no decision at all. When it comes to buying complex solutions, customers have become incredibly risk-averse. Challenger reps are not deterred by hesitation from customers. This is especially important when it comes to conversations about the commercial value of a deal. When a customer says, “If we could just get a 5% discount, I think we could get this done by the end of the week,” Challengers table the discount request altogether and instead push the conversation back to the value they’re offering the customer. They acknowledge the request for a price concession but defer a decision and, if pressed, offer an alternative.

This combination of teaching, tailoring, and taking control draws on constructive tension throughout the sales process. It may not get your customers to think you’re nice, but it will win you their loyalty— and win you the sale.

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