2020, it seems safe to say, will be remembered as a year when events conspired to accelerate the digitization of everything. Speaking personally, beyond any of the various eye-popping stats around 2020 time spent online, I knew things had changed for good when my 73-year-old mother told me she had started to do her monthly shopping online, and my 94-year-old great-father-in-law shared that he and his girlfriend figured out how to do crossword puzzles over zoom. Their goals didn’t change, but their environment did.

Back to selling: We knew it would change in 2020. Buyers told us they were taking control of the purchase process by reprioritizing every dollar of spend and by making sure that purchases aligned with a new slate of pandemic-era corporate priorities. What was a little less clear was how the best sellers might respond, beyond finding themselves working all hours of the day.

Challenger’s ongoing seller assessment provided a lot of insight in this regard. We asked managers to perform these “downward” assessments as they are best placed to provide objective ratings: sales managers almost always have sales experience, they often observe individual sellers engage with customers, and they are well positioned to compare individuals against each other. In 2020, we had managers perform 1,220 assessments of individuals in B2B sales roles. What we found, perhaps not surprisingly, is that “Challenger” sellers continue to outpace their peers. In this sample, Challengers made up 48% (a significant plurality) of all high performers.

You’ll remember the original Challenger study (published in our book The Challenger Sale) found the profile represented a plurality (39%) of high performers generally and just over half (54%) of high performers in complex selling environments. Even without isolating for a complex selling environment, we see Challengers now represent nearly 50% of the high performer population.

While comparing the two studies, it’s also interesting to point out that Lone Wolves still over represent in the high performing population. As before, sales leaders keep them around when they perform, but are quick to make them someone else’s headache when they don’t.

The Relationship Builder took a beating in the original study – and deservedly so. Social relationships in a complex, consensus-based, part digital buying environment will not take a seller very far. At 10% of the high performer population, that is still true today. But there might be an interesting new target for criticism. At 4% of high performers, the Problem Solver is struggling to get the job done. Why is that? That’s something we’ll explore in later blogs.

To close out, I go back to my mother. She was rightfully proud of figuring out online shopping, but fundamentally speaking, she wasn’t trying to do much more than get groceries.

And so it is with sales. For all the March/April 2020 conversations around the mechanics of online/virtual selling, almost a year later, the conversation is back to the “fundamentals” of selling: how to change a customer’s mind around how a problem is best solved. As a sales leader told us, 2020 meant: “Slower decisions; more stakeholders; way lower risk tolerance. Expect long term virtual selling, which naturally leads to lower engagement, to make developing trusted relationships much more difficult and lengthier.” This is the kind of environment that we would expect Challengers to do well in.

However, the Challengers of today look a bit different than they did a decade ago. Great salespeople evolve to meet the opportunities of the market they serve, and to this end we have seen a small number of specific behaviors that have become a lot more important in recent years. And that’s what we want to unpack next. Stay tuned…

Check out the video reviews of the Challenger Skills in 2021 series, featuring Timur Hicyilmaz, here.

Timur Hicyilmaz

Timur has been conducting research for most of his career. He was part of the team that researched many of the original concepts behind Challenger. Mostly focused on trying to better understand how commercial organizations succeed, Timur has spent time working on everything from trying to understand consumer attitudes toward energy consumption to identifying best practices for hospital operations leaders. His passion is for trying to identify strategies that are more likely to deliver a desired outcome than any others.