In 2011, Matt Dixon and Brent Adamson published The Challenger Sale.

In the book, they outlined five selling styles:

  • The Hard Worker - self-motivated and persistent
  • The Lone Wolf - instinctual and challenging to manage
  • The Relationship-builder - classic consultative, relationship-driven seller
  • The Challenger - unique perspective, pushes the customer, controls the process
  • The Problem Solver - responsive to stated customer needs and problems

Across 6,000 sellers and over 90 companies, they found that 40% of the highest-performing sellers used a "Challenger" style.

Only 7% of top performers used a "Relationship-builder" approach; it was the least effective of all the profiles.

The challenger approach focuses on teaching, tailoring, and taking control of a sales experience. Meanwhile, the relationship-builder represents the more traditional, solution sales motion of in the '90s and early '00s.

While The Challenger Sale focused on, well... sales, Dixon found a similar phenomenon in the support world. In his 2013 book, The Effortless Experience, he contrasts customer service "Controllers" and "Relationship-builders" as follows:

“[The relationship builder] is the people person, the person who loves the customer. They genuinely feel bad that the customer’s experiencing a problem. But it turns out, they’re actually not the best at delivering a low effort experience. That’s the ‘controller,’ a sharp-elbowed, opinionated know-it-all. They relish in their subject matter expertise. They know the company’s products and services. They’ve seen it all before.

In a world where customers are trying to self-serve, when they finally give up and they pick up the phone, the last thing they want in that moment is an apology. What they want in that moment is to talk to somebody who’s actually smarter than they are about the issues they’re experiencing, somebody who can take them by the hand and pull them across the finish line to victory.”

According to Dixon's research, challengers and controllers perform better and enable a better (effortless) customer experience than relationship-builders in both sales and service.

But what about Customer Success?

Customer success has long been thought of as a relationship-oriented role, and indeed, it is. But relationships aren't the primary function of a CSM.

The average company uses dozens or hundreds of SaaS products. Each one with CSMs who would love to have a recurring call and an executive business review with them each quarter.  

As a customer, it's overwhelming. Often more a nuisance than a help.

How can we stand out amongst the crowd?

Aside from shipping a high-quality, high-value product, we stand out with our expertise; by providing the most competent and prescriptive guidance based on our collective knowledge of our products, the industry, and each of our customers.

The primary role of a CSM is to ensure that each assigned customer maximizes the business value of the products and services they buy, thereby increasing the likelihood they will renew and expand.

The best CSMs I've seen perform like management consultants. They identify improvement opportunities available to customers and they urge the customer to act on them.

They operate at the intersection of the product, standard industry practices, and each customer's specific situation (which limits or enables our product to be successful in their environment).

They drive value to the customer by challenging their preconceived notions.

They help the customer see the world from a different perspective.

They are confident, competent, and unafraid to challenge the status quo.

Whether they know it or not, they exhibit three challenger behaviors:

  1. They teach, providing new insights based on their deep understanding of the customer's business, industry practices, our product, and other products in the ecosystem.
  2. They tailor, giving guidance that aligns with a customer's unique situation and goals. No generic recommendations found here.
  3. They control, they are keenly aware of economic and value drivers for the customer and aren't afraid to address lack of value and ROI head-on.

While they are assertive, challengers are not aggressive.

They utilize their considerable domain expertise and two-way communication skills to motivate action. They get the customer unstuck and moving forward.

Challenger CSMs build relationships based on business value versus empathy. They are empathetic but demonstrate it by driving toward results versus apologies and commiseration.

Dixon describes challengers and controllers as the personal trainers of the sales and support world.

Personal trainers push your thinking. They tell you what you need to hear versus what you want to hear. They get you out of bed in the morning.

Their relationship with you is based on your desired outcome of feeling better, becoming more fit, and adopting a healthy lifestyle. To that end, they help you remain accountable to your end of the bargain - consistent exercise, a good diet, and plenty of sleep.

As a customer, do you want a bartender, who will be a friend when you need one and do everything promptly when you ask?

Or do you want a personal trainer who understands the science behind fitness, understands your goals and obstacles, and pushes you down a path to a healthy lifestyle?

I know what I prefer and what I need.

Are your CSMs bartenders or personal trainers?


More resources:

  • We had Matt on the Gain Grow Retain podcast a few months ago where he walked through the bartender vs. personal trainer analogy. Would recommend giving the entire episode a listen, but in particular, the 5 minute excerpt below (25:50 - 31:10):
The Importance of Personal Trainers vs. Bartenders in Sales and Customer Support | 5min snip from Gain Grow Retain
5min snip from Effortless Experience | Gain Grow Retain
  • I am certainly not the first person to connect challenger with customer success. When writing this article, I ran across Brooke Goodbary's Medium article on the same topic and would recommend taking five minutes to read it as well.