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[March 8, 2004]

Customers Are The SolutionTM

By Promise Phelon

Building A Bridge To The Field: Actionable Strategies To Gain Sales' Buy-in Of Your Companys Customer Reference Program

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In past articles, I discussed the impact satisfied and successful customers have on sales activities and marketing programs. A simple way of looking at this is that buyers rely on the following, in order of importance and relevance, when making IT purchasing decisions:

  1. Their own experiences;

  2. Experiences of other companies, especially those in their industries and with similar business challenges;

  3. Assessments provided by objective, third parties such as industry analysts and the press;

  4. And, finally, the words of vendors selling products

This illustrates the importance of customer references in convincing and persuading prospects to make large, business-critical purchases. Referencing, for most enterprise companies, requires more than logos on the Web site and glossy stories. Instead, it requires building a portfolio of satisfied customers willing to speak to the business impact of your companys solutions.

In relation to your reference program, Sales major role is to act as gatekeeper between the reference program and key customers. Sales needs qualified reference customers and tools to sell your company, its products and solutions effectively without having to spend valuable resources discounting or conducting proofs of concept. Another equally important role is that Sales can be the best advocate and enabler for your program. When things work, Sales sings the loudest. Their successes, such as productivity and effectiveness gains, when attributed to the reference program, are not only convincing, but also, find merit with sales management and corporate executives.

Since Sales allegiance is invaluable yet difficult to attain, we are often asked to provide recommendations on how reference programs can build and fortify a bridge to the field. The following four actionable strategies will help your program gain allies in Sales.

1. Know the Sales Organizations Functions and Dysfunctions.
Over the past 10 years, Sales organizations have grown increasingly complex -- with sales overlays; technical, services and solution sales; channel and partner sales; strategic account management; post-sales maintenance and technical support; etc. Not only does Sales slice functionally, it orients by regional, customer profile and other factors. Why is this important? Because it is difficult to identify the customer gatekeeper and to find out what is required to support Sales teams without knowing its players and their respective roles. Without that information, you cannot pinpoint the customers actual gatekeeper. Nor can you know who has the most accurate customer information and the greatest leverage with the customer. Uncovering this knowledge keeps you from wasting time and resources. Additionally, access to upcoming sales strategies helps you focus reference efforts on key products, competitors and regions instead of on daily distractions.

2. Get the Sales Stamp.
With so many initiatives cropping up in enterprise companies, its natural that programs lacking support from key stakeholders and potential advocates will most likely struggle. Before launching anything that will impact the field, understand its requirements. Test and vet strategies at the Sales grassroots and senior management levels. When you get the Sales stamp, your program will be stronger; it will have greater visibility within Sales; and Sales will understand the program and its value, leading to greater adoption and potential success.

3. Build Credibility. But Know It Will Not Be Easy.
Because of much training and conditioning, the average account manager or sales rep is extremely results-oriented and has a short attention span. They complain, Do not tell me, show me! With that in mind, focus your communications and actions on simplifying Sales members lives. Gain credibility by being reliable, consistent and by managing expectations. Try to keep commitments and achieve service levels with all stakeholders, especially Sales. For instance, one company re-launching and re-branding its customer reference organization hung the "under new management" shingle and set very aggressive service level commitments with Sales. After only one quarter in full operation, the customer reference program lost critical funding and headcount, thus reducing its ability to even partially meet the commitments it established. The problem? The reference organization set overly aggressive expectations and never met them. It happens.

If your organization sets expectations with the field, do so cautiously and only if you believe your team can exceed those expectations. Establishing service levels with key stakeholders is critical because they define your customers expectation levels and identify what is required from those "customers." Being proactive in on-boarding sales and setting expectations often results in greater credibility and trust, even if the expectations your group sets are conservative.

Another way to build credibility with Sales is through identification. Selling anything can be tough. Selling multimillion dollar deals can be Herculean. Most sales reps respect people who have spent time carrying a bag. Walk a mile in Sales shoes. Go to the Sales office; visit customers with sales reps; pitch the program to existing customers to test positioning that works. And, provide Sales with tools that make selling your program easy.

4. Treat Sales as a Shareholder.
Take Sales into consideration before making major programmatic decisions. Sales reps and marketing types enjoy counseling so get and use their feedback. Recognize Sales when major programmatic successes occur or if a particular region, account manager or customer goes above and beyond. Regularly communicate with Sales in a manner that relates to what is important to its members. Good information is not really good if those on the receiving end do not listen. Most importantly, tie your success to Sales successes. If your organization is struggling in areas where Sales can be of assistance, ask for their help by clearly communicating -- in its members own words -- the "challenge," how Sales can help, and what benefits its members realize from helping you.

Remember, Sales has an interest in the success of your program -- even though its members might not know it yet, just as they might not know that less than successful reference programs carry repercussions as well. First, Sales loses much-needed efficiency by spending more time searching for good references and validating customer information. What typically happens then is that Sales begins building its own success stories and tools; and, most damning to you, is not imposed with fielding unqualified reference requests. Second, its customers become overloaded with formal (and rogue) requests from Sales, Marketing and Product Development. This environment creates a high probability that Sales key accounts will be abused and burned out. In our experience, Sales finds itself fixing account issues or discounting future sales because customers feel entitled. The result is that without a reference program, the job of selling becomes more challenging. And, as enterprise software, hardware and services vendors require more from Sales -- larger territories and more accounts, larger sales, a large bag or suite of products to sell, less support from telesales organizations, etc. -- programs and organizations that help its members do more with less become invaluable. Be clear with Sales about what to expect from your organization, what you will do and how, and you will build the necessary credibility to gain allegiance and open the gate to customers.

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Promise Phelon is the founder and principal at Phelon Consulting, a consulting firm focused on enabling enterprise software companies to shorten their sales cycles by leveraging sales and customer successes. She may be contacted at [email protected].

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