For those running or supporting customer advocacy and related customer engagement programs, following are some perspectives on: what your core competence is, in my view; why it's important to your firm (actually, it's critical); how to communicate this to your stakeholders and senior management; and how to use it to position yourself for the future.
What Your Core Competence Is
The core competence that top practitioners in this field brings is two-fold:
1) You develop powerful personal relationships with the most important customers of your firm.
That is, with those customers who have great stories that buyers want to hear. The foundation of these relationships is based on trust and caring. Top practitioners care about their customers' success, demonstrate it, and encourage other stakeholders in their firm to do the same.
Who else is doing this? Salespeople pay real attention to customers only when they're selling. Account mangers often fall into the same trap. On the other hand, I've seen many cases of customer advocates who will confide remarkable things--including problems with your products and services that they won't reveal to sales, delivery people or even account managers. Top customer advocacy practitioners also act on that information. They make sure the problem gets fixed, even if it means going outside of channels. Such relationships create strong ties to these customers and immense value for your firm in ways no one else does.
2) You tell their stories.
You and your peers focus relentlessly--like few others in the firm--on demonstrating the business impact, including ROI, on the solutions your customers use. You're becoming increasingly adept at showing the emotional drivers, particularly through the use of videos, that move your customers' to work with your firm, and which in turn move prospects to buy. In the last couple of years, "customer success" has become a major buzzword. But you and your peers are the ones who've cared most and done the most to uncover and communicate customer success to your market.
Why Your Core Competence Is Critical to Your Business
In today's buyer-empowered world, I would challenge anyone to name any skill that is more important to your business than these two. I don't think one exists, not when it comes to growing your business. Buyers are bypassing your marketing and sales groups. They want to hear directly from customers.
You're the ones developing the relationships with the most important customers in your firm--the ones buyers want to engage with. You're the ones helping such customers tell the stories buyers most want to hear.
How to Communicate Your Core Competence to Your Business
Many of you stumble here. In meetings with important stakeholders or senior management, you introduce yourself as someone from the reference program, or as someone who runs customer advisory boards, or you're the "community guy." If you're talking to a hardened salesperson, or a senior executive, they're likely to tune you out right there and then.
Here's a suggestion. Next time you have an important stakeholder meeting, prepare by finding out what two or three issues are top of their mind. And ALWAYS know what two or three issues are top of mind for your senior management. Then introduce yourself by saying, "I'm in the business of X" where "X" is a solution to one of those key issues.
For example, if sales is emphasizing growth in a new market or region, introduce yourself by saying, "We're in the business of cultivating relationships with high-potential customer advocates in the region who are well connected to buyers, who speak their language, and who tell them stories of what our products can do, far better than we can."
Positioning Your Career
A final thought on your future. How do you build on this two-fold core competency of building the key relationships and telling the stories of your most important customers?
Do this by continually broadening the scope of what customers can do for your firm--particularly if you aspire to someday reach the C-suite. Don't limit yourself to pre-set roles for your advocates, dictated by the immediate needs of marketing and sales. Think more broadly about how customers can grow your business in new ways.
For example, when Sean O'Driscoll was building Microsoft's MVP (Most Valuable Professional) customer program, he brought himself up to speed on what was top-of-mind with senior management. One concern was the poor quality of new product releases, an issue that Steve Ballmer himself was obsessing over. Another was the soaring cost of customer service--a single call to Microsoft's call center could cost hundreds of dollars.
So O'Driscoll (who had started out by introducing himself as the "community guy") started introducing himself to GMs and product people by saying his job was to drive product feedback that was actionable to the business units and that would improve product quality. And he'd tell customer service and delivery people his job was to make answers available online to customers at little to no cost to the firm, so that they wouldn't have to call a Microsoft call center. Such a new job description got immediate respect. Only later would O'Driscoll explain how he did this--by tapping previously hidden capabilities of his MVP customers to provide superb product feedback and to provide incredible levels of service to Microsoft's other customers.