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Executing a successful ‘Executive Sponsor’ program

By Jeff Breunsbach
 / Published May 19, 2020

How many times…

Have you lost an account because the contacts you interact with changed and you were left blindsided? Only to find out (too late) the client’s Executive Sponsor had a different long term strategic direction to fulfill their business objectives...And you tried to save it by shooting “Hi” and only got crickets? 

Or see if this scenario sounds familiar…

You are trying to have a broader understanding of the account and be more strategic in your interactions, but your normal contacts don't have that visibility into the business...When you try to go higher in the totem pole to the Executive Sponsor, you just hit barriers and are left in the dark?

These are very common situations and unfortunately, not having those Executive ties established, can hurt the relationship pretty bad. And as you may have noticed from experience, they can't be built overnight. This is where a well thought executive sponsor program can pay huge dividends.

We invited Alejandro Sanchez to share his experience on successfully rolling out ‘Executive Sponsor’ programs that drove tangible value.

Here’s what he had to say:

From experience rolling this out a couple of times in the past, these are the things I would consider critical to a successful Executive Sponsor program within B2B SaaS organizations...

Let’s start with Two Alignment Factors that will need to be in place before you start:

First and foremost, have executive level, ideally CEO (and maybe board) buy-in - you will demand executive time for this and commitment so they need to be convinced this adds value. So top-down buy-in.

If your company is anything other than customer-centric at their core (product, sales, engineering-focused or other) and therefore customer success is not a strategy and part of the vision but rather a department that handles customers post-sales, your first battle is to bring leaders from other departments to the table. Understand the customer journey, and permeate the philosophy that customer success needs to be tied to every moment of truth at pre-purchase, purchase, launch, adoption, renewal, referral. As others buy into this, executives will then see the value of spending time with customers versus spending it elsewhere. So bottom-up buy-in. 

Now let’s move on to the Design & Execution Phase:

Step 1: Define the goals of this program really well. And hopefully, you have very concrete, specific, and measurable goals. That way you can clearly communicate and track the impact of this program on the health of your customers within the program. 

  • Poor example: Develop higher-level relationships (I mean yeah we want this, but what does that mean? That our CTO and their VP of X talk once a year? What are they discussing? How are we keeping track?). 
  • Good example: Help the client realize their desired outcome at a business level and get Executive-level referrals from our customer by having their executive communicate quarterly with our CXO. The conversations should revolve around their overall relationship regarding our product and service and strategic challenges and opportunities that we do and could bring to them. 

Step 2: To keep track of the progress towards this goal, consider these 5 concrete actions so that your Executive Sponsor can be set up for success with the client’s Executive:  

  • We need to set expectations with the Executive about becoming a reference when we reach specific outputs and/or outcomes 
  • In the meantime, we need for our internal Executive sponsor to be able to quantify the relationship (into a score) from qualitative feelings
  • Release an Executive Relationship Survey (eNPS) to measure the health of that key relationship
  • Be on the lookout for referral or connection opportunities in the market that aren’t only advantageous to our business but advantageous to the customer
  •  Look ahead to market trends to potentially design a report on what we're seeing from our vantage point - must drive value

Step 3: The CSM has to do much of the heavy lifting to make sure your Executive comes prepared, ready, and actionable. That means you have to coordinate on the Preparation and the Follow Up: 

PREPARATION: 

  • Preparing an executive profile of the client (who they are, how they use us, contract size/key terms, highlight issues/risks, highlight points from the latest conversation with them) that your executive can read and be up to speed. Save it on a shared doc, your CRM or somewhere where your executive can access it on demand.
  • Debrief your executive on what your goals are. This should be an overarching goal as we discussed in the previous point, but always good to remind him/her before the call. 
  • Up to you and your executive, but in my experience, they also want someone to handle the admin stuff - scheduling, conference details, etc. So be sure to handle those appropriately. 

FOLLOW UP:

  • Make it easy for them to outline the info from the call back to the CSM so nothing is lost in translation. This can be scheduling a 15-minute internal call with the CSM and any other relevant team members who work on that account, or an automated email to him/her right after the call, with a link to whatever tool/CRM you use to track customer interaction, so he/she can brain dump. 
  • Define who follows up with the customer (your Executive or you) and take the right action.
    • If your executive wants to own the follow-up, help ghostwrite a high-level summary email that they can personalize to help close the loop on their conversation, and open up the loop on several other, more tactical, conversations. Make sure the CSM in the account is CCed so they can then take action and own those more focused conversations.
    • If it’s decided that the CSM leads the follow-up, take those same notes, make them a bit more actionable and detailed, and email them to your clients’ day to day team responsible for the areas that need follow up. Don’t forget to CC your executive and the executive from your client to close the loop on that conversation. Following up with action items, some idea of a timeline (when available) and in a timely manner, is essential to build trust. Nothing kills a relationship faster than not following up and not being on top of action items. This tells the customer you pretended to hear them but you really didn't listen to them.* 

*Important note: Following up doesn't mean saying yes (and this also needs to be something you and your team are aligned on). Not following up kills a relationship, but breaking promises, can do the same (sometimes more) damage. 

  • Set a cadence that balances not burdening your executive or theirs a ton, but enough that you are not blindsided in-between calls. Usually for more talkative accounts once a quarter and for other strategic accounts once every six months.
  • Finally, this needs to feel like a club. So not everyone has access to it, just key customers. And as any club, it needs to feel exclusive. So maybe launch it with some noise with participants or do some marketing fanfare to make people feel special. Also, as mentioned before, once in a while, it would be good to give participants exclusive access to things that your executive communicates to them in their engagement. Give and take!

Why 'Executive Sponsorship' matters:

Executive sponsor programs are often overlooked as a ‘strategic’ engagement along the customer journey. And many times, they are implemented reactively once a strategic account is at risk. Then it’s too late for that account.

So think about this proactively and across the journey and not as single-threaded. Those executive-level relationships are very important to the health, depth, and breadth of your relationship so work hard to embed their importance in your organization’s client outreach plans.

Your executive team members have the gravitas to connect with key executives and entertain the right conversations that are forward-thinking - don’t get lost in missing the point. 


Alejandro Sanchez is the Chief Experience Officer and founder of Jounyfy, a coaching service that helps individuals, early-stage tech startups, and small social enterprises, clearly define their journey towards sustained success. Alejandro has more than 16 years of experience working in social enterprises and tech and has a passion both helping individuals find their ideal professional path and making organizations become much more customer-centric. He has lived in North Carolina since 2017 when he started and later graduated from an MBA from Duke University.

You can reach him at: asanchez@journyfy.com

About the Author

Jeff serves as the Director of Accounts, overseeing business operations and ensuring the delivery and quality of all client engagements with numerous B2B SaaS clients to drive revenue growth through customer success strategy and execution. See full bio ›

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