In a Fortune 500 company top customers bring in a disproportionate amount of the revenue and profit. And, if you can bring a creative and imaginative focus to these customers both of those numbers can be increased substantially.
Because of the potential, companies are instituting special Executive Sponsorship Programs for their top accounts where they assign a top senior manager (TM) to the account in addition to the Account Executive (AE). The purpose of these programs is to develop a special relationship with the C-level personnel in the customer organization so that partnering opportunities can be explored.
Several years ago Neil Rackham, Larry Friedman, and I interviewed marketing leading companies who were exploring these types of relationships. In Getting Partnering Right we delineated the best practices these companies were using to create and manage these relationships. Let’s take a look:
First do no harm. Because you are dealing with your top customers and you are dealing at the C-suite level, missteps and mistakes are extremely costly. The Executive Sponsorship Program requires extensive internal preparation and communication before launching. The trap is: while everyone thinks they have done this, they underestimate the level to which it has to be done for an effort of this importance.
Determine expectations, roles, and responsibilities. TMs and AEs individually cannot determine the “rules of the road” for the program. This is a corporate responsibility. On the other hand they must be engaged in the process of developing the expectations, roles, and responsibilities both for buy-in and understanding.
It is not a problem when the TMs do not have sales experience – that is actually the last thing you want them to do – it’s what the AE does. A second trap would be TMs getting into detailed operational problems and solutions for day-to-day challenges.
TMs should be viewed as Ambassadors. Dynamics of the business and economic environment of the last several years has resulted in shifting senior level executives expectations. Although specifics differ by the executive’s position (e.g., CIO vs. CFO), there are some common considerations – for example:
- The TM should be viewed by the customer as a management level contact to the senior leadership of your organization. The customer should feel that the TM’s involvement reflects the thought that you care enough about them to form a relationship of a different kind – “they want to do more than just sell us more; they want to help us go where we need to go.” TM actions must convey this perspective.
- How the TM is introduced into the account is critical. The more senior the person at who does the introduction the better, since it is an opportunity to reinforce the importance of the account and to convey the importance of the program.
Knowledge and skill expectations. Customers expect as a baseline that the TM brings a high level of understanding and knowledge about what is going on in their world. It is good to remember that the C-level executive is more concerned about what is going to happen over the horizon than today’s problems – they have others who are addressing the details of those concerns.
While selling skills aren’t required, TMs do need to understand the sales process, and the AE’s account strategy.
The TMs should have a high-level view of total capabilities and familiarity with relevant success stories in other companies and industries.
This level of knowledge is required because the customer will expect the TM to help them think about their future challenges from a different perspective and to have at a strategic level a point of view about how to help the customer go where they want to go.
Internal communication. Just as the cost of missteps with the customer is high, so is the case with internal relationships – specifically in this case between the TM and the AE. There are numerous opportunities to “step on toes” and to portray to the customer that the “left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.” The communication process between these two key players is often not determined with sufficient clarity.
One particularly important specific: Once the expectations, roles, and responsibilities are determined, the TM and the AE need to meet to super-check what and how account actions will be carried out. Equally important the TM must get up to speed on the customer industry and company challenges and what the AE has accomplished and promised to accomplish.
Measuring Success. The metric for measuring success is not how much additional work is sold – if for no other reason than it would difficult to prove causality. Two possible alternatives:
- The ability to gain access earlier in the customers thinking process regarding a new scope of work because the senior management you’re now meeting with thinks you “care” and are “smart” and wants you in from the beginning.
- Additional business in areas that were unexpected – not identified in the original account strategy. Most Fortune 500 companies have a substantial range of capabilities. On the other hand, because of the wide range of capabilities, all customers may not be aware that a particular problem can be addressed. They often think only in terms of the support they presently receive. In the end the potential value you can bring can only be seen when the customer makes the link between your total capabilities and their mission, priorities, and challenges. These types of programs help develop those links.
Executive sponsorship programs take a lot of feed and caring but they can produce extraordinary results when that is accomplished.
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