We get asked this question frequently during our sales process. A prospective client recognizes the “customer reference problem,” and the need to put some focus on fixing it, but isn’t sure what department the customer reference program should call home.
Ten years ago, the vast majority of customer reference programs fell into the marketing department. Today, a little less so. One of the big changes over the last decade is the rise of the customer success function, which can dovetail nicely with customer advocacy. We also have clients who determined their program fits better into Sales Operations or Product Marketing.
The “right” home for the customer reference program depends on how the function is classified. Is it actually customer marketing, field enablement, PR, or customer experience? The answer to that question is founded in the program’s end goals and metrics used to determine if those goals are being achieved.
When we’re asked for a definitive answer, a best practice, we answer with a few questions:
- Which leader is most passionate about customer advocacy?
- Does the program “fit” with that leader’s other focus areas?
- Does that leader have the bandwidth to champion a newly formed function?
- Does that leader have a budget?
If the leader overseeing the customer reference function isn’t a believer, then the only way the program will succeed is if the program manager is passionate, influential, and a real go-getter. Still, it’s going to be an uphill battle without someone with a seat at the leadership table who is all-in.
We see programs that reside in a department where it is the outlier struggling to get traction. The program managers may attend department meetings and find they have little in common with their teammates, and feel isolated. It feels like they’re in a silo, there’s no synergy. Of the possible home base departments listed earlier, we tend to find product management to be the least successful option. Yes, product management does establish relationships with customers through beta testing, and possibly through customer advisory boards. But those intersections are too sporadic for most customer reference programs to thrive when located in product management.
A leader may have great intentions, but if they have a full plate of other initiatives/responsibilities, they won’t be able to provide the necessary executive support. Leadership’s vocal and visible support can make all the difference when a program needs help with backing changes in process, policy, and behaviors. The program may need IT support, which can be hard to come by, or inter-departmental coordination glitches may require leadership to articulate the end goal of collaboration and customer experience. If leadership doesn’t have the time to advocate for these needs, the customer reference program will flounder.
It’s ideal for a customer reference program to have a discrete budget for staff, technology, and potentially, contractors. Getting budget allocations ahead of producing results requires a leap of faith and vision. That tends to be leadership’s domain, a reason they are in strategic positions. A customer reference program without the necessary resources to recruit customers, manage access, and engage internal stakeholders is likely to fail.
In conclusion, be sure your company gives these considerations sufficient deliberation before moving forward with a customer reference program initiative. Our experience is that this decision can make all the difference between a program that thrives or merely exists. These same considerations come into play if the original executive sponsor departs. The replacement may have very different views and priorities. That change should prompt a re-evaluation of the program’s home, always with an eye toward providing the best chances of success for the program, and therefore its stakeholders, including sales, marketing, PR, demand gen, events, and more.