The Challenge in Creating an Executive Sponsor Program

In a previous post I have written about the value of an Executive Sponsor Program.  The benefits are clear; but it is not always straightforward to embed it in an organization.

For an Executive Sponsor Program to work, it must first of all be a program: a series of strategically crafted objectives, activities and measures, understood by your internal team – the executives in your organization, the account manager who is responsible for the account, and all of the other customer facing employees in the business who interact with the customer – and the customer team, their executives and operational employees. Executives who participate in the program must also be held accountable, to the account team and to a broader group of executives.

An executive swooping in to help close a deal, save a customer, or just thank them for their business is not an Executive Sponsor Program. Fundamentally an Executive Sponsor Program is about elevating trusted relationships between your company and the customer. Like any interaction that is based on trust, it takes time to nurture and develop. A trusted relationship cannot be created if the primary focus is just to close a deal. That is not the time to initiate the relationship. An Executive Sponsor Program is a long game initiative, not reactive but proactive, and it requires a strategic plan and committed resources. For it to be successful it also requires commitment and accountability from the customer’s executives.

But here’s the reality. Executives are busy. They have a day job. Unless they are directly involved in the sales function of their business, they don‘t wake up every day wondering how to progress a relationship with your key customers. If you are a software company, for example, your CTO is fully consumed with product quality, the pressure of shipping deadlines, the constant battle to hire and retain engineering talent, and when he or she has time to stop and think strategically, the CTO is developing strategies to refine or redesign the technical architecture of the product to accommodate future development plans.

Unless the executive – CTO, CFO or CEO – is a fervent customer evangelist type of leader by their personal nature, they will not naturally gravitate to the behaviors that proactively build long term customer relationship before they are needed. You may need to enable executives who normally are not customer facing with further skills to optimize their contribution to the Executive Sponsor Program. (see Enabling the Executive below)

Executives in the customer organization have a similar profile. They too are busy, and will not necessarily be prepared to engage with you in an Executive Sponsor Program. It is likely that you are not the only vendor making the same ask of the same customer executive, so how do you get them to choose you? The challenge is to create a program that is truly valuable to the customer executive and articulate it in a manner that gets them excited. The bar is high.

Unfortunately sellers generally have not created an expectation of value creation in the mind of the buyer. According to Altify’s research study Inside the Buyer’s Mind most buyers don‘t believe that sellers add value. Executives, more than any others, dislike being sold to – they are looking for valuable business conversations. The Forrester report Are Salespeople Prepared for Executive Conversations? states that only 36 percent of executives believe that their meetings with a salesperson are valuable. So why will the engagement with the executive from your company, as opposed to the salesperson, be any different?

Many companies assume that customers appreciate increased attention, especially attention from senior executives. But that is possibly a somewhat arrogant view, assuming that, because your executives are willing to spend time with the customer’s executives, the customer executives will prioritize that engagement over other priorities. You can’t possibly know what else the customer executive has on his or her plate, so unless your company has earned that priority position, you are better off to expect that you have an uphill climb ahead to gain that slice of time. An executive’s most valuable currency is their time, and unless you can clearly explain the value in their participation in your Executive Sponsor Program – justified in terms of return for effort and leading to a net positive impact on their project, their personal advancement, their team’s goals and the benefit to their company, they will likely spend the time elsewhere.

At the start of this section I said that, for an Executive Sponsor Program to work, it must first of all be a program: a series of strategically crafted objectives, activities and measures. Measurement is critical but not always easy. Activity measurement can be useful, and in some cases companies who run an Executive Sponsor Program will set a goal for the number of meetings between the executives. I’d suggest however that it is better to focus on the meetings that count rather than focus on the count of the meetings. The goal of your Executive Sponsor Program should be to elevate trusted relationships, improve customer satisfaction and loyalty, increase strategic alignment and drive incremental pipeline and revenue.

Revenue is easy to measure but is a lagging indicator and one that is hard to attribute to the Executive Sponsor Program. Incremental revenue happens when you have better executive relationships, strategic alignment and improved customer satisfaction. Designing your program with evidential measures of these metrics will serve you well. I will show you later how to do this using a very simple model.

Beginning with the end in mind – incremental pipeline revenue through trusted relationships, strategic alignment and customer satisfaction – will help to define the leading indicators that will guide you to monitor progress and course correct as necessary. It requires some disciplined thought and honest introspection to arrive at the right metrics, but it is definitely worth the effort. Without this framework you are likely to stray off the path.

In the next post I will provide a detailed design to set up an Executive Sponsor Program for success.

This is an extract from my latest book: Digital Sales Transformation in a Customer First World.

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