What Customer Success Managers can learn from “The Challenger Customer”

“The Challenger Customer” is a follow-up to the CEB team’s widely popular “The Challenger Sale”. The authors build on their existing challenger sales model which looks at the relationship between buyer/ seller, and turn their attention to how group dynamics influence the buying process. The main argument behind “The Challenger Customer” is with today’s buying groups comprising an average of 5.4 people, the diversity of responsibilities, points of view, and authority among these individual buyers creates conflict and buying dysfunction.

The lessons CSMs learned from “The Challenger Sale” still hold true: challenge customers; change the status quo; and deliver solutions to problems. This book tells us to add the following principles: identify and nurture “mobilizers”; don’t search for common ground.

Partner with a “mobilizer” within the customer’s organization

CSMs know a signature on a dotted line is only the first step on the path to delivering value to customers. The same group dysfunction that derails sales teams can create roadblocks for CSMs during the post-sales process. One of the most effective ways to overcome these hurdles is to find and nurture internal champions, or “mobilizers” who help you make a compelling case for change within the customer’s organization and across stakeholders. We must then equip these folks with the insights and tools they need to drive buying consensus. How do you create a mobilizer? Start by challenging the customer’s current worldview in a way that persuades them to change their behavior. 

“[We need to present customers with] a credible demonstration that the customer’s current mental model is not only flawed, but costing them money or exposing them to risk in ways they never fully realized.”- The Challenger Customer

It’s a story about the customer and how they’ve missed something materially important to the performance of their business (a concept that originated in “The Challenger Sale”). Folks who respond to this type of message are likely to be mobilizers. After you have your mobilizer, your focus should be on facilitating collective learning across the buying group. Collective learning should aim to bring the group together to find shared goals and make a joint decision.

Below are the key stages in coaching the mobilizer to engage the buying group in collective learning:

Stage 1: Help the mobilizer construct a plan for building consensus

Stage 2: Help the mobilizer confirm their organization understands its true problem and the best course of action

Stage 3: Support your mobilizer in surfacing and addressing any remaining stakeholder concerns

Stage 4: Establish negotiable points related to the purchase

Stage 5: Secure stakeholder commitment to move forward

Notice the similarities between this process and your existing customer onboarding or success plan frameworks.

Avoid searching for common ground

Imagine this scenario: sales closes a deal and on your first call with the customer you realize they’re only half-bought into your product or solution. If the people you’re talking to were involved in the buying process, why aren’t they already sold? And why is their planned implementation so limited? When you’re handed this kind of half-baked deal, it’s likely the sales person didn’t employ a Challenger Customer model.

“Left to their own devices, various stakeholders come together to consider a purchase, and if they find few shared priorities, or little common ground for mutual understanding, they settled on the lowest common denominator where they’re most likely to agree. Things like: avoid risk, move cautiously, reduce disruption, and save money.” – The Challenger Customer

These types of “good enough” compromises are doomed to failure before they ever get off the ground. CSMs who find themselves in this situation need to return to the basic principles of the challenger sales and customer models: challenging the customer, identifying and nurturing mobilizers, changing the status quo, and delivering solutions to problems. Not only will this increase the likelihood the company can deliver on their initial promises, CEB research suggests that by bringing diverse customer groups together you can boost customer willingness to pay a premium- which will prove useful during renewal or expansion conversations.

The majority of CSMs have some element of variable compensation tied to their role, which means we occasionally need to brush up on sales principles and best practices. While I didn’t find this book as thought provoking as its predecessor, it’s still worth a read for CSMs who want to get into a collaboration and consensus-building mindset.