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

This is a continuation of a series on the 4 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 more companies hiring more senior and dedicated individuals to lead their reference/advocacy program versus a more ad hoc approach where someone with little business and relationship management experience is simply given reference activities as one of many other responsibilities. This is a positive trend. It indicates that marketing leaders recognize this is a unique set of skills and experience that not just anyone has. It is both a profession and a discipline.

A customer advocate program demands a champion—an advocate hero!

Strategic vs. Tactical

The big leap forward, which we see less frequently, occurs when companies view customer referenceability as strategic and therefore taken into account in all customer-facing aspects (PR, product marketing, etc.) of the business. This means the program is factored 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 often say. In most cases this is someone with a senior manager, director title or higher depending on the company’s hierarchy.

We see four roles within a formal program:  the reference recruiter, the request fulfiller, the content/database manager and the strategic leader and/or consultant. It is this fourth role 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 evangelizing the program.
  • The ability to build business cases and persistence to fight for adequate resources to be successful.
  • Empathy, appreciation and understanding of how the sales force operates and the skill to translate its needs into program solutions.
  • 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.
  • The data aptitude and sophistication to determine what’s needed to support users, where it comes from (reliably), how it’s updated, and how it’s analyzed. All if for naught with bad data.
  • 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, usually 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 5 bullets above. Get a handle on these and the odds of success improve dramatically.

Has your program leader got the right stuff?

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