What do you look for in a great Sales Rep?


I talk to business owners pretty much every day and the one thing that I hear more than any other is how difficult it can be to find great sales reps. Sales is the heart (or at least the ignition) of the business and a good salesperson can have a huge impact on success…but where do you find them and what do they really look like?

That’s the question that the book The Challenger Sale looks to answer with research and data. The idea for the book was triggered by the observation that when the economy tanked back in 2008 sales were really hard to come by, but there were still a good number of sales people who were not only surviving, but thriving despite the difficult economy.

What made those sales reps different? Were they just lucky? Is it possible to build or find your own successful sales reps?

The answer was in the research…

To answer the question, the authors looked at dozens of attributes, skills and attitudes along with sales performance from 6000+ sales reps across all sorts of industries. Their research uncovered 5 different ‘styles’ of selling – along with a clear winner and a clear loser out of those 5 styles. *Note that all of these ‘styles’ share a common foundation of selling skills and attitudes – the research was based on active and average or better sales reps so they all have elements of product and industry knowledge, sales skills (like following a sales process, follow up, etc.). But the data uncovered these 5 variations representing certain tendencies and behaviors – this is how the 5 styles break out:

  • The Hard Worker (21% of reps): Driven, persistent, goes the extra mile, wants feedback and development.
  • The Relationship Builder (27%): Builds advocates in customer, generous supporter of client, focus on customer needs.
  • The Lone Wolf (18%): Confident, instinctive, independent, difficult to control, poor team player.
  • The Reactive Problem Solver (14%): Detail focus, reliable, dives in to sort out problems.
  • The Challenger (27%): Provides insights, debates, pushes customer thinking.

The breakdown of the 5 styles is interesting in and of itself – based on your experience (or maybe your current sales team) do you recognize any of these styles or tendencies? As you can see from the percentages for each style, they are fairly evenly distributed across the population.

Where this gets even more interesting is when you factor in the sales performance of the reps by the various styles.

Data / graphic from The Challenger Sale book

Data / graphic from The Challenger Sale book

The chart above shows the number of sales reps who follow each style broken out by High Performers vs. Core Performers (average). As you can see for average performers, the style doesn’t really matter – there are lots of ways to be average.  However for High Performers almost 40% of them follow the Challenger Style – contrasted with only 7% who follow the Relationship Builder style. And it’s not shown here, but that difference is even stronger when they analyzed it for more complex sales – then the Challenger advantage is 54%!

What makes this even more surprising is that there has been an ongoing push for the idea of Relationship Builders in the sales industry – it’s not what you know, but who you know (and how well you know them). This may have been true in years past, but with the economy tightening up customers can’t afford to just go with who they like, they are looking for a sales rep who can teach them something new, add real value to their business…someone who can, well, Challenge them.

What Challengers Do Differently

There are a lot of potential takeaways from this research and the book, but the one that stands out is clearly identifying what these Challenger Reps are doing differently and figuring out if there’s a way to implement that in your existing sales process. The good news is that there are things you can definitely do to be more like a Challenger – but they aren’t easy and they will require your entire business to look at things differently.

When you sort through all of the data and the details, Challengers do 3 things that other reps typically don’t do:

1. Teach for differentiation – they bring a new / unique perspective to customers and use strong communication skills to teach their clients something new.

2. Tailor the Message for resonance – one size does not fit all. Challenger reps understand the industries and the businesses they work with at an intimate level and tailor their sales message accordingly. They are comfortable talking to all aspects of the business and across industries. (Different message to the IT group than to the accounting department…).

3. Take Control of the overall sales discussion. Challenger reps know they (and their solutions) will make a positive impact on their clients so they drive the sales process to that outcome – even if that means ruffling the client and the relationship. They are pushing for an outcome not a relationship.

It’s just 3 things, but when you start to peel back what those 3 things really imply, you can appreciate how it becomes difficult. For example, in order to Teach a prospective something new and valuable for their business, the rep has to know the industry or the business function better than the potential client…or your company has to have done a lot of homework and taught your reps exactly why you are different and better than the competition. What do you know about your customers  that they don’t know? What problem do you solve that they aren’t addressing? What makes you different and better than your competition?

In order to really implement a Challenger Sales environment you’ll need to be able to answer those questions and more – but if you can do that, it will put you in a position to generate profitable demand on a regular basis…!

What do you think? Have you read The Challenger Sale? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Shawn Kinkade  Kansas City Business Coach