Reference Point: GETTING A SEAT AT THE TABLE 
May 2014                                                                                    Gray
 Hi Bill: 
 
This is the first in an occasional series on "Getting a Seat at the Table." In my observation, customer advocacy and engagement professionals need to be much more proactive--even aggressive--about establishing the value of their programs to the strategic initiatives your company is betting on. "Getting a seat at the table" means actively participating in key deliberations, decisions and implementation efforts that senior leaders regard as critical to business growth.

That's the focus of this occasional series. We'll see how you can get a seat at the marketing table, at the sales table, at the customer experience table and even the overall business strategy table. In this month's issue, we'll start with:

Becoming Essential to Product Development

What are the most important products or services your firm currently has in development? Which ones are senior management buzzing about, and placing the biggest bets on? Here are six tips to make your program essential to such important new offerings. Notice that these are all based on unique perspectives that you have as a result of the work you do and the customers you engage with--the customers who are becoming more and more critical to the success of businesses today. 

* Bring critical sales and marketing information to the development process. For example, develop realistic projections of how many references and referrals your firm will need to meet sales goals, based on the history of previous product launches. By the way, it's a good idea to keep such information in your customer database, at your fingertips. Also, be sure to include this in your budget requests. The fact that the budget you request for developing such information supports a strategic new product or line of business will help ensure you get it.

* Provide input and guidance on selecting beta testers. You'll want product testers who aren't just adept at testing and providing feedback, but who also will provide powerful advocacy once the product proves itself in the field. Help your product team find and select beta testers who are widely known in their professional communities or in relevant social media forums, who have a wide network of their own, and perhaps a platform--like a popular blog of Facebook page, or a visible position in a professional association--that they use to reach their network.

* Consider suggesting that the product team forgo market research and collaborate directly with customers.
Citrix, for example, relied heavily on input from its customers community to rapidly develop a highly successful smart phone app, Citrix Receiver. Developers knew that business users needed easy access to Microsoft business applications on their smart phones, but instead of commissioning a market research project, they simply asked the question to their customer community. The result was hundreds of thousands of views and hundreds of comments, many of which gave Citrix developers great insight into why customers needed an app and how they would use it. Note that the most valuable comments came not from IT people, but from end users such as doctors, lawyers and small business owners, which gave the team confidence that it knew how to develop a truly useful app. (A traditional market analysis would likely have resulted in a much different app that merely supported the smart phone of choice at that time, the Blackberry, and that was completely managed by IT.) In its first month of release, the new app generated 20,000 downloads and become a top selling business app in the Apple App Store.

* Debunk misconceptions about early adopters. Many product teams think the road to riches lies in winning early adopters to your new product. After that, it's all downhill. Actually, no. As many of you have learned the hard way, more conservative later adopters--who represent the real growth potential for your new offering-- regard early adopters as overly reckless "cowboys" whose experience and use of your offering isn't relevant to them. Successfully winning the later adopter market means getting advocates who are also later adopters themselves--their peers--into beta tests and early advocacy. And of course, you can help your firm engage these customers. 

* Help your product team build marketing into your new offering. You can help them do this by asking provocative questions, based on your own experience in working with customer references and advocates and understanding what they really value. Ask the team, "Why would customers talk about this new offering to their peers?" "What does this new offering mean to them in terms of their own success?" "What emotions will they associate with our new offering?" Product features--often the area of greatest focus by product developers--are generally of little interest to customers. They're interested in how the new offering can make their lives easier, their work more productive, their jobs less stressful, and how it will make them feel. You're uniquely positioned to bring the voice of the customer into product development deliberations.

* Change your language about what you do. When asked what they do, many customer advocacy and engagement professionals stumble. "I run the customer reference program." "I'm the community guy." These get little attention from more senior product development and marketing people. Instead, reframe what you do in terms of the strategic outcomes that your senior management are pushing for. "I make sure that we get the right customers talking to prospects and buyers about our new products." "My team speeds our sales cycle by having the right references and most powerful referrals when and where we need them." "We create larger audiences for our best customer advocates to tell our story to."
 
 
Most product marketing teams understand the immense difficulty of trying to reach buyers with traditional push marketing campaigns created by internal teams and agencies. You're in an excellent position to help them reframe product marketing around creating offerings that people want to talk about, and making sure you get the best possible customers into those conversations. That approach--and the above tips--will get you a seat at the product development table. 
 
All the best,
 
Bill  
 
Bill Lee, President  
Summit on Customer Engagement
Author of 
The Hidden Wealth of Customers (June 2012, Harvard Business Review Press)
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