Building A Bridge To The Field: Actionable
Strategies To Gain Sales' Buy-in Of Your Companys Customer Reference
Respond to this column in
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:
Their own experiences;
Experiences of other companies, especially
those in their industries and with similar business challenges;
Assessments provided by objective, third
parties such as industry analysts and the press;
And, finally, the words of vendors selling
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
WHAT ROLE DO SALES PLAY IN THE SUCCESS OF YOUR REFERENCE PROGRAM?
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
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
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.
Respond to this column in
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
reprints of this article by calling (800) 290-5460 or buy them directly
online at www.reprintbuyer.com.