sosI’m not going to lie…

Launching (or even reinvigorating) a customer reference program is hard. But, if you execute properly, and have the proper internal support, a customer reference program will absolutely change the success of your business. More on how that’s done in a second.

Customer reference programs are multi-departmental – successful programs require insight, if not direct input, from a minimum of two different divisions:

  1. Sales
  2. Marketing

These groups, however, are infamous for their fratricidal attitudes, so getting them to work together can be difficult.  Overcoming this roadblock on your journey to launch requires a champion with the authority and political influence to straddle these divisions and ability to elevate your program to a corporate initiative.

Which means an Executive Sponsor.

Unfortunately, simply decreeing that a customer reference program is a good idea and that someone should make it happen isn’t enough.  To be effective in your efforts to get your project off the ground, it is an absolute necessity to have the support and mandate of senior executive management.

Thoughts On Executive Sponsorship...
For us, gaining executive level support – specifically from sales – was critical to our reference program. Getting buy-in from our Sales VP legitimized the need for a formal reference process and paved the way for acquiring funding for RO|ReferenceView. After implementation, his support also helped us roll out the program. We were given time to demo the new system at sales meetings and on weekly calls, which really helped educate the sales teams and has enabled us to take the program to new heights.

–Eric Andre, Sr. Program Manager – Creative Services, Five9

What does it mean to be an Executive Sponsor?

Anyone that has played this role successfully will tell you that a great deal more goes into it beyond initiating the project.  While the list below is not exhaustive, it might provide a good roadmap for outlining the responsibilities of an executive champion of such a program (or for reference managers looking to recruit one).

Keep the project aligned with company strategy

The world is filled with good ideas, but trying to pursue all of them will inevitably end in catastrophe.  Any reference program (any project really) has numerous variables in its execution, but trying to make it all things to all people will only end up making everyone unhappy, or at least deeply confused.

It isn’t necessarily an executive sponsor’s role to provide the details of the execution, but reviewing the process and its deliverables to make sure they are aligned with the company’s strategy is critical.  To put it more simply, “Because it’s really COOL!” is not sufficient reason to include something in the program and it’s the executive sponsor’s role to keep this kind of enthusiasm in check.

Engage stakeholders

Like any program, user adoption is one of the primary keys to success.  As such, the executive champion will need to create a shared vision of success to engage all these different stakeholders.  The executive sponsor also has the job of being receptive to feedback, particularly in the initial stages.  This means:

  1. Help you articulate the vision of what the program is meant to achieve and how it will benefit the different groups involved and the company as a whole
  2. Translating this vision into tactical actions for each group or even individuals
  3. Stick to the core value of the program when reality or feedback changes the details

While creating a vision for the program may be one of the items that requires the most work in the beginning, it is important to get right. It will act as a guiding star throughout, engaging the program stakeholders buy-in and thus ensuring the success of a major facet of the program.

Message consistency in mission and training

While the details of mission and training may fall to others, it is the executive stakeholder’s purpose to provide overall alignment between these and the shared vision.  During a long implementation, folks are bound to wander away from the core purpose of the program, or perhaps begin to misunderstand it (much like in a game of Telephone).  The executive stakeholder needs to keep an eye out on important announcements and training events to verify that these events are aligned with the core vision.

Clarify priorities

There will be a lot of tasks to complete to get your program going, but not everything can be done at the same time.  It is the executive stakeholders function to prioritize what needs to be done first and when, then to communicate this to the proper stakeholders.  This is an area ripe for disagreement, so conflict resolution will be a key component of the executive sponsor’s role as well.

Coordinate cross-department actions on an executive level

All of those departments that will need to provide input to make a successful customer reference program?  Well, they have people who are in charge of them and they have projects of their own.  It’s up to the executive stakeholder to let them know what’s expected of their departments, how they’ll need to work with other departments, and what the end goal is.

Ensure continuity of sponsorship

Eventually, the executive sponsor will go on vacation, leave for a new position, have a family emergency, or maybe win the lottery…leaving a leadership void at the top of your program. If the other areas of your program are tended to diligently, there’s a chance your program may be able to continue for a period of time on its own without executive support. However, eventually it will fall into disuse if the void of senior leadership support is not filled.   To protect against this risk, it is the responsibility of the executive champion to help identify a new executive sponsor who will pick up the torch and carry forward for the good of the program and the company.

If you are seeking long term success of your reference program, the role of an executive sponsor is a component you definitely do not want to overlook. Their support and ability to elevate the visibility of your program (or lack thereof) is a huge differentiator in the programs we see that are alive and thriving, and ones that are fighting to just stay afloat.

But that’s just my experience. What do you think? Contact me and let’s talk about it!

Matthew McLean
Matthew McLean is a Program Manager at RO Innovation. He has a passion for helping organizations and individuals increase sales and market share through the design and application of software. With over 15 years of experience in customer relationship management, project management, and product management with companies ranging from startups to Fortune 500 in a variety of industry verticals, McLean can help your company grow via sales and marketing best practices.