As the world confronts the human and economic cost of COVID-19, sales leaders must focus on a strategy to survive and position their businesses for success in 2021. Our Five Imperatives series, based on the five steps we feel sales leaders must take now to stay ahead of the curve, details our recommendations and perspectives on how to thrive, even in uncertainty. Part Three details the steps you should be taking when reviewing your coverage to help manage risk in this complex environment.


Napoleon was of the opinion that winning battles was more than just a matter of being good, it was a matter of being lucky. Famously, he made his own luck, using his superior appreciation of the terrain to outmaneuver opponents and bring overwhelming force to bear.

Sales, as we’ve come to understand, is similar — winning is about identifying opportunities where you are uniquely well-positioned to offer an overwhelming amount of value to your customers. Our CEO at CEB (where Challenger was born) called these opportunities “unfair fights”. Targeted pursuit in market segments where you are best positioned to win is how you make your own luck in B2B sales.  First you identify the right terrain, then you bring along the right tools, in the form of an Ideal Customer Profile (ICP).

Most companies and sellers eventually gain appreciation for their commercial terrain over time. Experience teaches anyone where an offer might be well-received and where it falls flat.  The question, in two parts, is (1) whether you can survive long enough to learn and (2) whether the market will hold steady and not shift and erase your experience. 

Currently, in April 2020, past experience is less useful as markets the world over reconfigure themselves to a “new normal”. We don’t know exactly what shape the market will take, but we do, at a minimum, know it will be smaller. Crucially, we also now know that any sudden snap-back of the economy is unlikely. The volume of economic destruction, and debt levels assumed, will act as a considerable drag on investment. All of this puts a considerable premium on revenue quality:  In such an economic environment, both buyers and sellers will want to be more certain that an enduring, mutually profitable relationship is possible. Laser-focused on cash, Finance, in particular, will have less appetite for the untried and untested and will want to know how any new purchase helps maintain and improve current business. 

Looking beyond what is likely to be an exceptionally bad Q2 (sales leaders forecast Q2 revenue to decline by 47%), sales leaders need to begin rethinking revenue plans based on what early information they have. A first step is to identify groups of customers whose businesses are positioned to outperform the market. Work done with existing accounts can act as a helpful baseline. Click here for our previous perspective on account planning. 

Identifying hot spots 

Most territory plans are likely based on some of the following considerations: 

  • Geography 
  • Account size (for example, Enterprise, Middle Market, SMB) 
  • Prospects vs. Existing Customers 
  • Industry Verticals 
  • Products 

In today’s environment, however, Challenger recommends taking a bottoms-up perspective, based on what you know from your current accounts and interactions with prospects, to confirm whether viable demand exists. You can no longer rely on past segmentation to build your territories. For example, companies within the travel sector have taken a major hit, there will be hidden gems, but they will take hard work to find. Manufacturing companies, on the other hand, report highly variable results based on the markets they serve.

While never perfect, we recommend developing an internal market plan by scoring existing and prospective accounts using the following question rubric. You can then use the aggregated scores to identify sectors better positioned for growth: 

Talent Position 

  1. Has the account made layoffs? 
  2. Has the account laid off sellers, in particular? (this could indicate an expectation that future demand will be lower) 
  3. Additionally, has the account furloughed staff?

Cash Flow Position 

  1. Does the account continue to place orders? 
  2. Is the account paying bills on time? 
  3. Does your buyer’s department still have budget and/or discretion over budget? 

Transaction Position 

  1. Does this account approach buying differently than they have in the past? 
  2. Will a virtual environment make it more difficult for them to collaborate, make decisions and implement solutions? 

Public Market Position 

  1. If a public company, what does management expect for the remainder of 2020? 
  2. If a public company, has the account’s stock price performed worse than the broader market since the beginning of March? 

Scoring current and prospective accounts across these various positions will provide a more grounded perspective on where business can be found, and provide ammunition for a few audacious maneuvers ahead of the competition.   

Reworking ICPs 

Once organizations have a better sense for the types of customers to target, it’s then time to rethink Ideal Customer Profiles (ICP). Challenger’s perspective is that a market-relevant ICP is more important than ever given the focus on business quality. 

We believe that the scoring approach outlined earlier can help identify those groups of companies who will be more reliable long-term partners through dip and recovery. Beyond these mostly firmographic considerations, we also find that companies need to identify whether or not customers view their offer as being critical. At the same time, they will want to identify if there are aspects of their current offer that are now either redundant or that are now dissatisfiers. 

A time-tested way to fast-cycle this kind of consideration is to adapt a design or quality measurement methodology, where you systematically go through aspects of your current offer to identify where the various features and benefits stand. The thought process might be as follows: 

  1. What does our customer need? Do they still need our services to do the same jobs as before? 

    As we speak to different companies about their businesses, we hear everything from ‘I need to keep operations running while putting in place measures to physically distance operators’ to ‘I’m looking to minimize future obligations.’ These statements offer clues to what the market might need. Vendors of subscription products, for example, will find it hard to sell on standard terms and conditions with massive changes in their customer’s ability to pay. 
  2. What aspects of our offer are most important for prospective customers?

    This list will vary but should always include: 
    º Features - the technical aspects of your offer
    º Benefits - the reliability, and or quality of your offer, this is typically where you focus your insights
    º Terms and conditions - what typical commitments do you need from your customer, and what is needed, at a minimum, to transact business in today’s environment

This exercise will provide sales leaders an early read on what the market requires. This new  ICP serves as a foundation to discuss and negotiate with functional leaders involved in solution development across the enterprise, such as marketing, design, manufacturing, and finance. 

The updated ICP may suggest a complete solution redesign (this is for the long run), but in the short run, it can be used to formulate market-relevant insights and messaging to test with customers.   

Re-allocating staff 

Once you have a new perspective on where business can be had and the ICP and target solution for that business, you must decide the best talent to capitalize on the opportunity. This is not an easy decision to make. Challenger found that 20% of companies in our study  cut the sales force to some extent as of April 15, a trend we expect to continue. With fewer total salespeople, and even fewer fully capable to effectively sell today, the difference between success and failure depends on a few well-placed bets.

The default response for many firms is to allocate accounts that seem most likely to yield value to known high performers. But we have learned, during the recession of 2008, that current role performance is not always a good predictor of how well a person will respond in a crisis. What appear to be high performers in good times could be babysitting hot territories. In a difficult economic environment, we recommend looking for those individuals ‘stepping up to the plate’, and ‘going the extra mile’. Sellers seeing greater top of funnel success (more opportunities, better first meetings) will likely see more bottom funnel success. Also, look for those who best demonstrate a best practice sales approach.

We recommend identifying whether or not reps possess the Challenger competencies most associated with high performance:

  1. Teaching customers new insights
  2. Tailoring those insights to the customer’s unique needs
  3. Taking control of the purchase process, guiding the customer toward the right answer
  4. Using constructive tension to break through status quo, and overcome risk aversion


While a bit of luck certainly never hurts, the current environment shows us that chance favors the prepared. It’s important to understand that what we knew before about our market was built on a foundation that has shifted so dramatically that little of that old-world knowledge is now accurate. The best first steps in this new world are to identify hot spots for business opportunity, re-work ICPs as necessary and re-allocate high performing staff to best capture the most fruitful opportunities. 

If you’ve enjoyed our thoughts on engaging high performers, rethinking account plans, and transforming coverage plans, we hope you’ll like our next post. It will take a more careful look at how companies currently align commercial insights. 

If you’d like to have further conversation with Challenger about these ideas, please fill out the form below.

Spencer Wixom & Timur Hicyilmaz

Spencer is Senior Vice President of Marketing at Challenger, and has helped transform sales and marketing teams in some of the biggest and best companies in the world.

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.