Overcoming the Top 4 Reasons Customer Reference Programs Fail – Program Leadership

This is a continuation of a series on the four most common reasons that customer reference programs fail, and how to deal with them

Here’s our Rx for overcoming the third of these obstacles:  underpowered Program Leadership

Increasingly we see companies hiring more senior and assigning dedicated individuals to lead their reference program. This is a positive trend. The alternative is to arbitrarily give the responsibility to someone with insufficient business and relationship management experience along with many other responsibilities. Marketing leadership is beginning to recognize this function requires a unique set of skills and experience that not just anyone has. It is both a legitimate profession and a discipline.

A customer reference program demands passionate—an advocate champion/evangelist!

Strategic vs. Tactical

The big leap forward—not seen often enough—occurs when companies view customer referenceability as strategic and therefore factored into all customer-facing aspects (PR, product launches, product marketing, events, etc.) of the business. This means that advocates are institutionalized into annual planning and integrated into the company’s top objectives.

For this to happen the leader of the program must be sufficiently senior, know how to speak executives’ language, and be confident enough and savvy enough to earn a “seat at the table,” as we say. In most cases, this is someone with a senior manager, director title or higher depending on the company’s hierarchy.

There are many facets to program management. It is that of the strategic leader and/or consultant that is the focus of this post.

The individual chosen to lead the reference program will either inspire confidence from leadership and build trust within the sales force, or the program will be relegated to a reactive, tactical, transactional, low-impact function.

Here are the success factors needed for this role. No individual will have all of them in full strength, but the majority are needed for a good chance at success:

  • A passion for customer advocates!
  • The skill to translate company, sales and marketing objectives into customer reference program objectives.
  • The ability to identify, aggregate, analyze, and regularly communicate program performance to stakeholders in the program.
  • Fearlessness when it comes to interactions with executives and salespeople, and evangelizing the program.
  • The ability to build business cases and persistence to fight for adequate resources to be successful.
  • A high social IQ. This is a relationship game, and the players are executives, sales and customers. All must be well-served, especially a handful of executive sponsors.
  • Technical and data aptitude. Being comfortable with CRM systems, reporting and data management are foundational. Without a database aligned with company needs, there is no program.
  • Open-mindedness. The best ideas can come from unlikely places. It’s important to interact with peers in the community, learn from those with something to offer and challenge “it’s always been done that way” thinking.
  • Adaptability. The needs of the program’s customers will change routinely. It’s essential that demand is regularly analyzed relative to the program’s assets (customers, content), and changes are made accordingly.

Many programs have a single resource that plays all the roles listed above. That’s okay, but to manage effectively there must be enough bandwidth to address both strategic and tactical issues. Too many tactical distractions, often fire drills, will prevent the program from ever achieving its potential. Even the best, most-qualified program leaders can get caught in this trap. The way to avoid the trap is by having the goods covered in the first five bullets above. Get a handle on these, and the odds of success improve dramatically.

Has your program leader got the right stuff?