Are ‘challenging’ accountants more successful?

Kashflow logo
Mark Lee
Mentor and Speaker for accountants
Share this content

Mark Lee explores how accountants who adopt the ‘challenger’ model might distinguish themselves in a positive and profitable way.

Who controls the conversation when you meet with a prospective new client? Conventional wisdom suggests that we should listen more than we talk and that we should get people to talk about their problems, challenges and issues.

We then aim to find some connection, affinity and rapport and demonstrate our expertise and relevant experience. All without coming across as boring or unpleasant. But is this really the best way to win more clients and more work from existing clients?

In 2011 ‘Harvard Business Review’ (HBR) published the results of a global survey of thousands of top B2B sales reps. The HBR articles drew on research by the CEB Sales Leadership Council that categorised sales reps into one of the following primary styles: relationship builder; hard worker; lone wolf; reactive problem solver; or challenger.

I’m not suggesting there is any similarity between professional accountants and the average sales rep. But I have seen so many references to the challenger model that I decided it was worth exploring in the context of accountancy practice.

Register for free and log in to see the full article, which covers:

  • What sets challengers apart?
  • Continuing importance of relationship building
  • Stand-out accountants
  • Caveats

If this article sparks sufficient interest Mark Lee will return to the topic next month.

Mark Lee is consultant practice editor of AccountingWEB and writes the BookMarkLee blog where he asserts that Boring Is Optional. He is on a mission to help accountants overcome the stereotype and to be more successful in practice, online and in life. He is also chairman of the Tax Advice Network of independent tax experts.

Please Login or Register to read the full article

The full article is available to registered members only. To read the rest of this article you’ll need to login or register. Registration is FREE and allows you to view all content, ask questions, comment and much more.


Please login or register to join the discussion.

18th Mar 2013 18:46

Not sure I understand

Sorry Mark, don't really understand what a Challenger is and how you differentiate that role from the others, it all seems a bit narrow to me, ie a sole practitioner who is a challenger may win lots of new clients but then be unable to hang on to them (because a lot of what an accountant does is still boring and unchallenging).

I can understand it from a sales rep's point of view, after all their role is to sell for others to manage/do but unless you have the classic seller, manager, doer set up of a 3 partner/director firm then we all have to try and be a mix, don't we?

I'm also worried about winning business for the sake of it, or for the top line, ie just to make up big numbers.  How you recognise success these days is more expansive than that, well it is for me.

Thanks (2)
18th Mar 2013 22:03

Not sure I follow you....

Thanks for this Paul but I'm not sure I follow how you reach your conclusions as to what a challenger is or does. 

It hadn't occurred to me that a challenger need be any more or less involved in doing the work, or that they would try to win work for the sake of it.


Thanks (0)

More please



I am very interested in this area, many thanks for your research and time. 


I was always told to use my ears and mouth in the proportions they were given to me!!!! (old boss)


I now have my own practice and thus have my own style, and funnily enough, only this morning, commented that I should be in sales!



Thanks (2)
By Debz
19th Mar 2013 11:52

The challenger model

I would like to see more on this topic if possible 

Many thanks 

Thanks (2)
19th Mar 2013 12:07

Too Woolly For Me

So much management theory goes over my head. Why? Because it is largely clothed in gobbledegook that mere mortals like myself struggle to understand and there is no clear set of instructions for dimwits like myself to follow.

No, I don't think I'm a dimwit or stupid.

But a lot articles like this (coupled with AVN's aggressive approaches to training) leave me feeling backed into a corner, with the assumption that if what I'm doing isn't anything like what is proposed I must be doing it wrong.

Mark - if you are going to pass on what you consider pearls of wisdom, then please strip them of the massive egotism of management speak and explain in detail what it is we need to do. And if you aren't sure yourself what those details are, then is it wise to write nerdy articles like this?

I would rather you stuck to what you know, which is far superior than this tosh. Sorry to be so rude.

Thanks (5)
19th Mar 2013 21:21

"Sorry to be so rude"

Hi 'moonbeam'

Starting at the end of your note, if you were really sorry you wouldn't be rude, you'd revise the wording of your post to avoid the need for such an apology. Anyway I will assume that that you didn't intend to be rude. 

Thanks for your feedback. Each to their own.

Sorry if I didn't express my take on the subject sufficiently clearly. I certainly tried.

If you've read any of my earlier articles you will know (I hope) that I invariably note that 'if what you are doing is working sufficiently well for you, then carry on doing what you're doing, if you are happy'. I don't always use the same words but the message is consistent as that's what I think and I believe it's what sensible people do anyway.  You may or may not find alternative views of interest. Some do - if only to conclude that perhaps they might be able to improve on their outcomes by adapting their approach.

I think what you're really asking for is more examples to make clear the points I have shared in the article. That's a fair request and one I will endeavour to address should I return to the topic.


Thanks (1)
19th Mar 2013 23:03

Poor attention span

If I'm not engaged within the first three lines of an article I tend to switch off.

'Oh look, Krill'

Maybe its an age thing...

@Moonbeam :)

Thanks (0)
20th Mar 2013 10:39

I thought challenger

was a space shuttle that flew briefly then exploded spectacularly!

an apt analogy I thought.

Thanks (1)
20th Mar 2013 14:06

Are Challenging Accountants more successful?

The Challenger Sale – Taking control of the Customer conversation, was released in 2009, by what is now the Corporate Executive Board (CEB).

As the results were so surprising, the book has created a vast array of comment in the sales world since release. It’s a must read book for any aspiring salesperson.

Indeed the book has its own LinkedIn group, with over 2,500 members.

To “challenge your client”, is not a new tactic, uncovered by the CEB. Many individuals and alternative sales methodologies have long since suggested this approach – when it is appropriate.

With over 6,000 surveys undertaken, there is research, which the CEB base their conclusions on– the Challenger is the most effective sales model, and sales teams should adapt to this method of selling.

The CEB research is based on many sales teams of multi-national companies – Thomson Reuters - Markets Business Unit are credited in the book. These are businesses selling complex solutions, over a long sales cycle and to a complicated decision making unit. Is this representative of the sales process that many Accounting Web readers face – then absolutely not.

Is it fair to compare the accountancy profession with the world of complex sales models – NO.

Does the profession need to understand sales and demonstrate sales capabilities more effectively – Yes. Would I like to see more sales topics discussed on Accounting Web – Yes. However, I would suggest that it’s not best to start with The Challenger Sale.

Dermot Hamblin

Professionally sold to the profession since 1996.

Thanks (2)
By rpeterf
20th Mar 2013 19:14

In Re Challengers


I very much like the idea of accountants as challengers.  I am not an accountant, but a lawyer that has had accounting firms as clients for nearly twenty years.  As a lawyer, my clients want me to have a point of view, even if it challenges their own.  That is why they engaged me – to benefit from my accumulated experience perspective - to challenge theirs.   I believe the same can be said for accountants. Second, in the US, accountants, and auditors in particular, are required by professional standards and regulator practice rules (i.e. the SEC Rules of Practice) to apply a professional and healthy skepticism to their work; namely, challenge their clients. I suspect the ICAEW and the FAS feel the same way.   In fact, in the US, accountants get into serious legal trouble when they fail to challenge their clients.  (See my article on SEC Enforcement Under Rule 102.)  I believe clients respect accountants and lawyers who have a well-reasoned perspective and have the courage to share it - in a positive way - verses the milquetoast approach; and the clients/prospects are more interested in hiring and retaining them.

Thanks (1)
20th Mar 2013 19:27


If a client says something wrong I disagree (challenge them).

If a client says something right I agree.

It's madness just to have an attitude for the sake of it.


Thanks (0)
20th Mar 2013 20:17

"Madness" - it would be if anyone was suggesting that Peter

No one is though.


Thanks (0)
20th Mar 2013 20:27

Maybe a lot of us have misunderstood then

What do you think accountants do now and what do "challengers" do differently?

Are you suggesting that most accountants are "yes-people"?

Thanks (0)
20th Mar 2013 23:04

I'm not suggesting anything of the kind Peter

I'm also "not suggesting there is any similarity between professional accountants and the average sales rep."

The answer to your first question would be addressed in a follow up article - if I write one.


Thanks (0)
20th Mar 2013 23:12

Thanks Dermot

I had thought the CEB book followed on after the original research to which I referred. Happy to stand corrected.

"Is it fair to compare the accountancy profession with the world of complex sales models – NO" - Maybe we need to compare and contrast. I agree there are differences.

"Does the profession need to understand sales and demonstrate sales capabilities more effectively – Yes."  I agree

I'm sure the editors would welcome an article on a sales system that you think is more relevant Dermot.  I was simply introducing a new idea to this audience rather than repeating one I suspect they will have heard many times before.




Thanks (0)
21st Mar 2013 10:27

Mark, I have a challenging

question for you. As the government have taken one P off a pint do we now have to ask for an Int?

I view what you call "challenging" Accountants as "Accountants" and anyone else as number crunchers (no dis to number crunchers). In this day and age you have to be "challenging" to get anywhere.

However, when you start talking about sales in the same breath as Accountancy in any way shape or form, then you are heading for the same road the banks took and look where they are (mind you I wouldn't mind being paid £18m bonus).

Thanks (0)