Transcript: How To Set Up Your Executive Sponsorship Program For Success with Kalina Bryant

On this episode, I was joined by Kalina Bryant,  Head of Global Customer Advocacy, Customer Experience, and Executive Programs at Asana, as well as the Founder of Unapologetech and KMB Consulting. She is a seasoned customer marketing and advocacy leader with extensive experience at SaaS companies like Signifyd, Talkdesk, and Anaplan. She has a passion for crafting executive engagement programs and that’s where we really focused the conversation. We talked about what’s required for customers to see you as a long-term partner and not just a vendor, what executive programs in your toolkit make the most sense based on your goals, and the nuts and bolts of executive sponsorship. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Kalina. 

Margot Leong:  Hey Kalina, really excited to have you on the podcast. Thank you for joining us today. 

Kalina Bryant: Thank you so much for having me, Margot. Delighted to be here. 

Margot Leong: I’d love if you could talk a little bit about your background and just how you kind of ended up in customer marketing and advocacy.

Kalina Bryant: Yeah, definitely. I’ve been in advocacy and customer marketing for quite a few years. I actually started my tech career in sales. Loved meeting prospects and really getting them through the journey and actually onboarding them. I realized that we were missing a niche on how to actually develop key relationships with our customers.

So I started thinking about what route did I want to go in? I still had this creative hat, so marketing was very attractive to me. But I also liked that moment of sales and I liked building relationships with our customers.  I figured how can I actually design a world where I’m satisfied, where I’m talking with prospects and customers on a regular basis, but also being creative in developing experiences that they couldn’t find anywhere else.

And so at that time, customer marketing was still quite new. I started sketching out what a perfect customer journey would look like in my eyes. And so  did customer marketing for a startup by the name of Anaplan, and it was really nice because it was a blank slate. They had never had customer marketing before. They understood the value, but they gave me the opportunity to sketch it and have a blank canvas. 

And then I started building out my skillset. I started off with customer newsletters and user groups and user conferences and then developing customer advisory boards. And by that time, developing different certifications for our customers and building out a community , but I started to outline, okay, what do you truly want to focus on? And at that time, I started to realize, I love having the executive relationship and developing that relationship to a point where our customers didn’t just see us as a product, but they saw us as long-term partners. And so that’s when I started diving into the executive sector. 

Margot Leong: You talked about seeing us as long-term partners. I’d love if you could expound a little bit more on what that means. 

 Kalina Bryant: I actually started off having to own reference programs at one point in my career. And with the reference program, I realized I was starting to overuse some of my customers, and I realized the larger my customers were, if I developed certain programs for them and certain engagements, they were more than happy to assist with these references. But I realized in order for them to constantly get an email randomly on a Wednesday or a Friday, and all of a sudden get on a call with a potential prospect and really sell why they love our product. I needed to make sure that they never felt used. And so I needed to make sure I understood their needs and understood that I was satisfying and meeting their goals long-term, so when I was reaching out to them for those references, it was a partnership and they’d never felt, Oh, another reference, Kalina. This is my third one this month. 

But instead that’s how the customer advisory board came hand in hand and some of the other programs that I’ve developed, I started looking at, okay. I need to touch VP and above customers. And in order to do that, I need to make it worth their while, and in order to do that, I started figuring out what’s going to great in their branding eyes. And also what can I assist them with? 

And most executives want to be involved with product and being able to make suggestions as to what would be beneficial longterm. Also they would love the opportunity to speak with some of the large decision makers. I realized when they do get that opportunity to give input on the product and when they do have the opportunity to build relationship with some of our key stakeholders, they are more willing to engage with us. And so that’s how it really started off.

 Instead of looking at our customers as paying customers, I started saying, Hey, what are you going to get out of my brand? And also the company that I was working at, to be more engaged with us. And so that really helps me sketch out any of my programs from scratch. That’s actually how I start off. I look at my ideal customer and I look at my ideal target and I ask myself, what are they currently getting from us now? And what can we give them that they don’t have already? And I build my programs from there to make sure that when they do get invited to any type of executive program, they are number one, excited. Number two, they see the value and number three, it makes them want to do more, which is how we get to that partnership relationship. 

 Margot Leong: This is a perfect segue into the conversation that we really wanted to focus on, which is the executive experience and something that I know you are deeply passionate about. First off, what are some of those types of programs that come to mind when we’re designing experiences for executives? 

 Kalina Bryant: So I think of it as the executive toolkit. When you think about customers and you think about your programs, of course you have your very nice customer advisory board, but when you think about that customer advisory board, you’re looking at no more than 10 to 12 individuals as part of that CAB.

But then I think about a few other things.  I usually have executive one-to-one programs and executive sponsorship programs tied into that journey. Depending on the size of my companies, we have executive briefing centers and that’s a full on program all by itself. And so when thinking about all of that layout, and also customer meetups, a lot of the times in my past I’ve outlined fireside chats to bring in senior executives to learn from each other, take notes, cheers over a nice glass of wine and also have three course meals with us. These are all elite, invite only experiences. 

But what I realized within each of these programs in this toolkit, it’s an opportunity. Number one, to network and number two, to find out more information and figure out the needs of these executives. And then three, it’s an opportunity for us to constantly engage with them. And so within all of that, I don’t think that there’s a program that’s better than the other. I think that depending on the size of your company and the type of customers that you’re trying to attract, you may choose one from that toolkit in the very beginning. And as you increase and as you expand, you will eventually do maybe everything from that toolkit.

So I would say when I think about executive relationships and executive programs, it’s always customer advisory board, executive briefings, executive sponsorship program,  and also executive round tables and meetups. And I think that that’s something that you can understand is truly valuable when, regardless of what’s going on in the world, even a pandemic like this, when you can bring your executive customers together by any means necessary and they choose to take time out of their day. That’s how you know you’re giving them  a great program and you’re allowing them to want more from you as an organization.

 Margot Leong: Thank you so much for outlining the executive toolkit. You said like maybe it’s something where you expand out and you kind of choose one or a few of these programs and you expand out over time. Let’s go through each of these quickly and get an understanding of what you think are the best ones to have for the outcomes that you would like to achieve.

  Kalina Bryant: So let’s just take our customer advisory board. Stage of your company makes a big difference. Building out your customer advisory board early on is very impressive. And I think it’s going to be worthwhile for you in the long run as you’re thinking about expanding. Usually when you think about your customer advisory board, you have a few high end customers. I like to rank my customers in tiers when thinking about the accounts of that CAB. And when you’re thinking about that customer advisory board, you want to actually outline, number one, how much revenue is a certain account bringing in. 

And what is the long wall-to-wall deployment that you can receive from that account, but then, two, if there’s a certain relationship that you want to develop within that account, if you are to invite them to this customer advisory board, you’re starting off in the right direction to where, if you foresee yourself one year within that engagement, you potentially can have a very long and lucrative relationship. I think. So with that customer advisory board, I think it’s key, especially if you are a startup and if you are looking to grow and you have some very aggressive numbers and you need the assistance of key executives, I would look into that. 

And then also, when we think about our experiences for our customers, and this can be roundtables, this can be customer meetups in a space where we are back in to normal times. When you think about those customer meetups, you can actually do that at every level of your company. And I would say the bigger you are, the better they are and the bigger your team is, the more you can actually have a rhythm and start to leverage this as an ongoing program. So when I think about our round tables, I look at in a sense of: what’s our audience, what do we want to tackle? Do we want to segment the round tables based on industry? Or do we want to segment it based on titles? So you can have CMO round tables, you can have COO round tables, or you can specifically do a round table just for the e-commerce sector and bring in e-commerce thought leaders. So I would really challenge this individual when you’re sketching out that round table to ask yourself, what is your audience? What do you want to accomplish if you bring in these key leaders to the round table and how can you make sure that everyone in that room finds value? 

Now, when we think about the customer meetups, I would ask myself, number one, metropolitan cities is a big key thing to think about. And also where’s the market, is your market going to be in San Francisco? Do you have a big market in New York? When I think about one of my past companies, we were really big on the e-commerce sector and the biggest areas for e-commerce industry was New York and Los Angeles.

And so my first big event was actually in Los Angeles. And the last humongous event was actually in New York because that’s where our brands were. That’s where our customers were, but also that’s where our prospects were. And so when thinking about getting those customer experiences together, you want to ask yourself, what is the percentage of customers that you’re looking to bring to these dinners, but also what’s the percentage of late stage prospects that you would like to also come to these dinners, to not just mingle with you and be sold to, but also to mingle with your customers that are satisfied and happy. So I would really look into that. And also, not really looking at the stage of your company, but looking at the stage of your customers and where you want to go with them.

 Now, if we think about executive briefing centers, this is when you need to start thinking about the size of your company. Because your executive briefing center, if you’re going to have a full on in person executive briefing center, you’re going to have to have a lucrative business, I would say, cause you have to have a very nice building and also a very nice executive briefing center to attract your customers. But also your executive briefing center can be used for more than just attracting customers. You can bring in prospects, you can bring in partners. That executive briefing center is really to showcase your product, to really interact with some of the individuals that want to know more about your company.

And also of course, with customers, you want to make sure that if a customer is coming in, let’s say you’re in San Francisco, you have a client coming in from Paris and they’re bringing their entire team, you want to make sure that they are treated to your expectations. And I would say with that executive briefing, if you lay it out with your team, your customer should feel extremely happy that they were invited and they should feel as though they received so much knowledge from you all, and they also are able to showcase what they are looking to accomplish within their organization. So I would say that executive briefing center is amazing, but you have to understand where your company is, where the business is, and also the bandwidth that you have to make sure that it’s going to be extremely successful.

You also have executive sponsorship. Executive sponsorship can be looked at in so many different ways. And I think that regardless of what size of your company, executive sponsorship is always worthwhile. And the reason why I say that is because your CMO can have a great amount of coffee dates, for example, with some of your key customers and really understanding their pain and not selling to them, but just getting to know the number one as a person and understand what they need from an organization perspective.

And I would say with that executive sponsorship piece, it’s really important to think back and actually look at. what are the key customers that you need to develop better relationships with, but also internally within your organization,  who are the key stakeholders that you think will be great to be associated with your executive sponsorship program? And I would tier this up as well. Tier one, your C-level executives, but also you have to look at tier twos. If you’re talking to a certain executive or client that’s really focused on marketing, but really has a spark for demand gen. Instead of going straight to the CMO, it may be worthwhile to go to your vice president of demand gen. They may be a great candidate for that executive sponsorship, and really trying to develop that relationship because they can talk the language of your customer. They can understand their needs and they can develop a deep relationship that will last longterm. 

So I would say with that executive sponsorship program, you can start at any time. I would say it’s just really crucial for you to understand who’s going to run that program and how are they going to think long-term and how are they going to pair internal executives with your external stakeholders? 

 Margot Leong: I wanted to spend a good amount of time really digging into the executive sponsorship piece and it’s a great learning experience for me personally as well, because I’ve actually never set up an executive sponsorship program. Let’s back up a little bit and talk about, okay, like what is an executive sponsorship program, right. What does that actually mean? 

 Kalina Bryant: An executive sponsorship program is bringing your internal executives, internal stakeholders within your company together and aligning them on a program to work directly with some of your top customers that you’re looking to develop deeper relationships with. And within that program I would say that you’re outlining your engagements with sponsorship. And so you can’t just automatically say, Hey, you’re the CMO so you go talk to this CMO at this account. I would say you have to strategically look at the opportunities that will benefit your internal executives and external customers.

But two, I would really outline this program is meant to develop relationships. That’s key. And I think that everyone should really crisply understand that, to make sure that it doesn’t turn into a sales program or a marketing program. You have to understand that executive sponsorship is meant to deepen relationships for the long-term.

And so when you actually understand that, I would actually look at the thought leadership from your C-level stakeholders internally. What are their thought leadership tracks and what are their sweet spots to really engage with your customers. I would actually have that outlined in one side of the program, and then I would look at your customers that you are looking to develop deeper relationships with, and I would actually outline what are their needs, what are their titles and what would benefit them if they were invited to this executive sponsorship program? 

And so that way, when you’re asking a person to partner with you or to engage with your executive sponsorship, they feel as though it’s not another program that they’re tasked to do something with, but it’s actually value. And then also from your internal C-level executives, they’re required to do so many different things a day. And so if you’re going to ask them to be a part of your executive sponsorship program, I would make sure you have it really structured as to what are they going to actually do within this program. And I also outline the goals and what does good look like for them, and also outline how often they’re going to have to be engaged before you invite them to be a part of that program. Most executives, if you outline, you’re going to be given five accounts to work on or 10 accounts to work on, and you must meet with them at least once a month or twice a month. At least they know what they’re getting themselves into and they can understand expectations to be successful in. And then also when you do introduce those customers to that key executive sponsor, they understand what that relationship is going to look like long-term to where you can guarantee value.

Margot Leong: Got it. I would love to dig into this point a little bit more even, which is internally, right? Our C-level executives, super busy.  And so how do you even get that alignment and buy-in in the first place. 

Kalina Bryant: Well, I would take a step back actually. And before you actually introduce or say, Hey, we need an executive sponsorship program. I’m a big believer in understanding what are the business goals of the company first? If your business goals align with expanding or developing better relationships or bringing in better brands or bigger brands or how to scale, then if that is your business case, and that’s the business metrics for the year, then you can actually feel confident that that executive sponsorship program is needed.  

If you have to pitch why you want an executive sponsorship program, outline what that executive sponsorship program will do for the company and how it will help the company meet those goals. And then two, outline if you are to roll this program out, what are the stakeholders that need to be involved? And so before that program is actually approved, everyone should know the expectations and also the involvement.

 Also, if you have pushback where they’re saying, Hey, you want the CEO to be engaged in this program, they might not have the bandwidth. I would outline some of the key customers and what that long-term size of prize looks like if that customer is to receive the right engagement.

Margot Leong: Yeah,  really good point to like go back and be like, look, you guys, are we all in agreement that these are the goals that are basically in place for the year, Then you reverse back into that and say, well, like, this is one of the best ways to do it. I’m curious, like you really want to structure what they’re actually going to do. What does good look like and what are the goals?  

Kalina Bryant: Yeah. So I would start off with, I always have a tailored list of customers that I’m working off of. And I also have a tailored wishlist of who we would like to be engaged with. And so when we start from there, I started to look at okay, if we have 25 accounts that we’re working with for the year, what does good look like if all 25 of these accounts engaged in our executive sponsorship program? And so then I start to write down if we achieve X, Y, and Z by the end of the year with engagement, then we should be able to feel confident that number one, we’ll get an expansion opportunity out of this, or the retention number will go up. So it depends on also what organization is your executive sponsorship program sitting in.

So if it’s sitting in customer success, right, you may be really focused on retention. And so how do you tie your executive sponsorship program with retention? But if your executive sponsorship program is in the sales organization or the marketing organization, your goal is to bring in new pipeline and new deals. So how do you tie in executive relationship with that? So if you can answer that question first, what part of the organization that you’re sitting in and what’s your main goal there? I would work backwards from there and outline those three goals for your executive sponsorship program. And then secondly, look at the tailored list and make sure that all of your stakeholders are in agreeance of the list that you’re going to go after within that program. 

 Margot Leong: So let’s say that we put in the legwork, right? We got the the buy-in right. What do we do from there? What does that look like? 

 Kalina Bryant: Yeah, I think you have to get your account executive, number one, involved because they know the account very well and they know the point of contact that they have. So if your account executive has the highest contact, great, but most of the time, I’m assuming that they aren’t in great relationship maybe with that C level, but maybe they have a great relationship with the VP or the director. I would have them outline their connections first, and then also ask the AE with their account planning, where do you need to go to see full wall-to-wall deployment?

And if they say, Hey, I have a director relationship, but where I’m lacking is that VP. And I need the VP to want to be in this executive sponsorship program. And I want them to talk with my CMO for example, from there, they should feel confident that if that does happen, then they can move forward with their account planning.

I would also have a meeting with the customer success individual. So if there’s a dedicated customer success manager within that account, I would like to understand, how has the health of the account been going, how is engagement, how is utilization and really get a feel? And once you actually have that information, you do a kickoff meeting between that C-level that’s going to be a part of the executive sponsorship program internally. You would have the AE and you would have that CSM to really outline the goals and how that ties into account planning. And then from there, once you have agreeance, then I think that’s where the marketing side comes in. You have your tailored invitation, you have your welcome notes to talk more about that program. And you’re actually ready to formalize the program and invite that key customer with expectations outlined.

Margot Leong: Tell me more about this tailored invitation. It sounds fancy.

Kalina Bryant: Well, I would say anything in customer advocacy and customer marketing is quite fancy. Yeah. I would say that the bigger budget the more creative you can be, that’s close to, let’s say welcome boxes, for example, you know, the bigger your company. For some reason, you might get a water bottle at a certain company, and then the bigger you go, and you get these cakes and then the bigger you go, you get electronics and sky’s the limit. You get branded boxes. 

So I would say with your executive sponsorship program, it’s the same, right? The bigger your budget and the bigger hands on deck you have for this program to be successful, the more surprise and delight you can offer to the program. 

And so with my invitation, I’ll give you two scenarios with unlimited budget and very small budgets. Let’s start off with a small budget, I would say that you can tailor a wonderful note. Get in your content person to make sure that it’s a warm note that reflects the company’s values, but also gets the customer to want to engage. And then I would say, make sure the note comes from that C level person that’s going to be the executive sponsor and have them tailor the message to where they’re going to get a response. They’re going to say, wow, this CMO took the time out of their day to  message me,  this may be worthwhile, and they want to talk with me and they want to make sure I’m successful. Make sure you’re potentially cc’ed so you can work on logistics. So that’s the very small then. 

Now I would say if you have unlimited budget, you would look at that in two different ways in parallel.  If you can collect the address in advance, I would also send that invitation box of the sponsorship program and actually outline why that individual has been hand-picked to be in the executive sponsorship program and how it’s invite only. And I would actually have a gift in potential full box sent to them along with a note on the day that the delivery should happen. Have that tailored note sent from your executive sponsor that’s going to be working with that account, so at least there’s a nice touching point.

And at least when that executive sponsor reaches out saying, Hey, did you receive your gifts? Let me tell you a little bit more as to why you received that gift. There’s a whole package entailed with that. I would say that that is a really nice way to go because nine times out of 10, you’re at least going to get a response.

And let’s just say worst case scenario, the person that you do invite to be engaged with, if they just generally don’t have the bandwidth, they potentially will say, Hey, I am not the right person, but I have someone else on my team that would be perfect for this. So you’re still able to achieve your goal by nurturing that account that you’ve selected.

Margot Leong: Got it. Got it. I mean, this sounds fantastic. I would like to be the executive in which like, I am receiving an amazing box like this, or like a nice note, but okay. So like that’s kind of the wrapper, what’s the treasure inside, like what’s the pitch, right. To get them excited about being a part of this. 

Kalina Bryant: Yeah. So I would ask myself, and this goes to anyone that’s running any type of executive program, what does your executive want? What is going to separate you? What is going to separate your executive sponsorship program from the other million programs out there? And that goes for any type of program that you’re doing, regardless if it’s a customer advisory board or round table, a meet and greet a conference, you name it. How do you separate yourself? 

And I would ask, well, are you going to provide some type of private networking that they can’t get anywhere else. Are you going to provide some type of information that this executive cannot get anywhere else? Are you going to assist them somehow with achieving their goals that they cannot get from anyone else? Now, if you can answer those three questions, you’re going in the right direction. And so the first gift that you send out to these executives, that’s just one gift, but the moral of this program and the value of the program is giving the executives something that they can’t get anywhere else.

And so that networking opportunity, depending on how you outline your executive sponsorship program, of course there is one-to-one engagement, but is that one-to-one engagement over a dinner and also over additional meet and greets? In that executive sponsorship program, are you going to do a big survey and bring in all the accounts that you’ve been working with at the end of the year so they can network? 

And if that’s the case, that’s really worth that executive’s time, because not only do they get a hands on opportunity from the executive sponsoring them, but they long-term get to also meet very big brands and other peers long-term. And then I would say really outlining if it’s specifically driven around product, can you bring in other resources that will help that executive achieve the needs that they’re looking for in relations to product development, in relations to if you need an integration that they can’t get anywhere else? Are you going to provide them one-on-one hands-on opportunities for them to achieve that product awareness that they’re looking for, or just product engagement that they’re looking for, that they currently can’t get? So I would say that those are the three components. 

 Margot Leong: And we’re still talking specifically about the executive sponsorship, right? Inviting X key accounts to do that. Of course there’s the conversations that happen between the internal exec and the external exec, but then it sounds like there’s also other opportunities that you could loop these people into as well.  There’s also like a suite of other resources at your  disposal as being a part of this program too.

Kalina Bryant: Yeah. And I would say, when we think about customer advocacy or customer marketing, and also executive programs, you have to think about the programs in a suite or in a toolkit.  So there’s going to be networking at some point because your executive sponsorship program, at some point, it’s going to intersect with another executive program. I would really make sure you outlined some of the key programs that you’re looking to develop as a whole, but then ask yourself which one do I want to tackle, but have a solid vision as to what does executive sponsorship look like from beginning to end. 

That might be two years, that might be three years of five-year plan, you name it, but make sure you keep that in mind because you’re going to have to sell a vision to your executives and just having one program, it might be okay for now, but they’re going to want something more long-term so make sure you’re prepared to share that vision or share your toolkit or share your suite that’s going to be very unique to your executives. 

Margot Leong: What have you seen work well when it comes to specifically getting someone to say yes to specifically executive sponsorship? 

Kalina Bryant: At another company, at one point I realized, we had some really great engagements with products and executives were very sold on learning more about our product,  so being able to have a deep dive conversation with chief product officer, that’s major. Being able to sit in a room over coffee and sketch out things that will tailor not just the product that they have right now, but tailor that specific company long-term. That’s the big thing that I’ve seen work, being able to get access to someone and being able to pick their brain to ultimately help you along the way, but also achieve a mutual goal has worked. If you think about it, everyone doesn’t have all the time in the world, but you can always make time for something that you find value in. And I would say having value with deepening your network system and also finding value in learning more about a potential product has always been beneficial and I’ve seen that work very well. 

 Margot Leong: I’ve seen the same thing as well. I mean, all of the fanciness and all of the wine and dine is amazing and great, but at the end of the day, right. I think something that we always have to remember about working with the executives is that they are paying for a product and they want to extract as much value out of that product as possible. And they also want to know like, are there trends or things that I should be aware of that I don’t know about? So like I’m looking to this product, not only to be like, okay, how can I like better integrate this product in so that I can see more success and better outcomes for myself, but is there like secret information that you guys have access to that I don’t know about, right. So it’s not one size fits all and you always have to think about truly putting yourself in the executives shoes and also keeping in mind that they probably get a million invitations for like all sorts of stuff.

Kalina Bryant: Exactly. And I think that’s really spot on, Margot. You have to understand like number one, they’re getting a million emails and then they’re getting a million invites, which one do they actually open is a big question, but then which one do they actually respond to? And you want to make sure that you’re the customer or the account or the product that they’re like, Oh, I definitely want to be a part of that.

Margot Leong: Yeah, exactly. Something that I bang on a lot about is like intentionality, even when you think about how to manage expectations within an organization. Some people will be like, just start the CAB, just do the executive sponsorship program, like get the list of accounts and just spray and pray emails out to them. Like, no, I love that you’re talking about let’s do the leg work, let’s do the real work. So that once the email or the invitation hits their inbox, that you can actually get the responses that you want if you put in the time, especially when you’re working with these types of accounts at this level. And also like at this title and role, everything here has to be very thoughtful, very tailored, very careful, actually.

Kalina Bryant:  Exactly. So I would say that’s the sweet spot of customer marketing and customer advocacy. Usually the individual leading sectors like this, they’re very detail oriented. They’re very thoughtful and they’re also very creative. And so with those special aspects thrown into place, you can ensure that you’re giving top tier experience to your executives. 

And I think that the one cool thing about that is when executives see how much time you’ve put in, it’s noticed, I would say just like food for thought. One of my past events, I remember  getting a bottle of alcohol, engraved with the person’s last name on the bottle. But also when they came to the event, they were the guest speaker, so we named one of the cocktails after them. And so to show up to an event that you’re just invited to, but then realize they named a cocktail after you, and then they tailored the invitations to fit your needs and also tailored the menu to showcase you as one of the key people. It was thoughtfully prepared just with you in mind and that’s what executives want, and I think that that’s what brings me back to this is why your executives need to become your partners. 

When they engage in your executive sponsorship or just any type of executive program that you put your name on, you have to think of it in that way. Don’t look at your executives as revenue,  but associate them as partners that are going to help you along the way and influence your product and influence your actual company, and really stand by what you are aiming to accomplish. 

Margot Leong: I’m always joking because customer marketers are always outdoing themselves when it comes to like how tailored things are. Even like what you talked about. I was like naming a cocktail after someone I’m like, where’s the bar? Like how high can we set this? Can we like fly a plane overhead that has their name written in the sky or something?  

Kalina Bryant: I would say first off the creativity and also the size of your budget will determine what you can do. But also regardless if your budget isn’t that small. Sometimes I realized when my budget was very small, that’s when I was the most creative. I’ve launched a customer advisory board with a budget of $5,000 and it was still very, very good. And now I’m doing customer advisory boards with quadruple that, you know, you name it.

But it’s more about the creativity, but also it goes back to product and it goes back to network. Your executives will engage with you if you give them something worth thinking about and worth taking notes on. And so I would make sure that if you’re designing anything, executive or customer related, make sure you understand the product and the value that it can bring to your customer and understand the networking that you’re also giving to this individual.

Margot Leong: I think in some ways having a massive budget can almost disguise the forest for the trees because we’ll have a budget. Like Michelin star restaurant, wine and dine, golf, done. They’re expecting that the flashiness, basically the amount you spend correlates to the value. And it couldn’t be further from the truth.  I love what you’re saying about the intentionality around what you’re doing is the number one thing. And the executives can see, can smell pass all that bullshit, and I think another thing to point out, right, is as you mentioned that for an executive sponsorship program, to make sure that the stakeholders internally are aligned that like, yes, there are goals that we can set around expansion or revenue or whatever, but the main goal is relationship building. 

And everything comes from that, but it may not come the first month. It may not come in six months. It may not come in a year, but also like doing the right thing, I guess, which is my frustration sometimes.    Good things happen when you invest in people in the right way, they just do. But it’s hard to explain that, right? 

Kalina Bryant: Yeah. I’m glad you actually bring that up, Margot, because it can be quite frustrating. For the individuals out there that are experiencing frustration, always go back to your goals and go back to your mission because if you are consistent and you have a true goal and you stick to your mission, all it takes is that one big moment, even if it’s your biggest executive briefing meeting that you do, what if that executive briefing turns into your first multi-million dollar deal or first multimillion dollar customer, they will always respect what you designed and also respect your foundation in your methodology.

And same goes with customer advisory board. It may take you a year to design that CAB, but the pushback there is you want to make sure that you select the right individuals to be on that CAB. And so, yeah, if someone says, Hey, design this in a month, will you have the right people in the room is what you should always ask yourself.

Because number one, it’s very expensive. When we think about time to put the wrong people in the room. And number two, if you do not have a attractive enough product or roadmap to show them, that is a waste of time and it will hurt you by moving so fast. You won’t be satisfied compared to if you align with your company and your business goals, and really outline who you are trying to go after from a customer perspective, even though it might take some time, it’s worth it. You’ve set the foundation to be extremely creative going forward. 

And most of the time, when you think about customer marketing and customer advocacy, we run on a very lean team. Sometimes it’s a person of one, and for some reason, that person of one does so many big things, and then finally it’s like, Hey, you deserve one extra person. And then you guys are doing so much. 

But when you have the methodology and the foundation right, then that’s when you can actually start to build a large team and not just a team of people, but a team of creative individuals that are developing multiple relationships for you that will last a lifetime and long-term, assists with the company’s business goals. And they will understand that impact that no one can actually take away from you. Advocacy and customer marketing, when it’s done right, you need it and your executives start to see that. And I think that’s what you should focus on developing the methodology and then execute. And once execution comes, then you expand. 

 Margot Leong: Something that I would add to that too, is it’s an interesting role to be in sometimes because a lot of our job is about uplifting other people, but I feel because we’re used to being a bit more behind the scenes, we like to celebrate others, but we don’t necessarily celebrate ourselves and our wins enough.

When you do get that win, like, shout it from the rooftops. I remember like, one of our CABs, you know, customer signed a $9 million deal in the room, and I did not celebrate that enough, I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it because I was like, Oh, there’s so many other factors and we’re just one factor. And it’s so important to really be your best cheerleader. Because that’s when it’s going to get you more of the team, right. That’s when it’s getting more visibility and that’s so huge. I regret not being more celebratory of that for the whole team to know really.

 Kalina Bryant: Yeah, I’m glad you bring that up too, Margot because you have to celebrate. When you’re doing customer advocacy and customer marketing work, you are working nonstop. Even if you’re on your off days, you’re still being creative. You’re still sketching out ideas and you’re right. You think about someone else 24-7, you don’t really think about yourself. You’re thinking about how to move the company forward, but also how to make sure your executives have a great experience with you. And then you’re thinking about strategy on how to actually execute. 

So I would say when you do get those big wins, even if it’s launching your first user conference or launching your first user group or your first CAB, make sure you just sit down and at least take it in because there’s going to be a moment where that $9 million deal that you just talked about, it’s gone. No matter how you think about it, it’s gone. That moment is gone. So make sure you take it in and take notes, but also give yourself some credit because many people aren’t doing the work that you’re doing. 

 Margot Leong: Absolutely. So we talked about how to do the pitch, deliver it in a way that gets them excited that they’re like, all right. Yes. I will press a button on yes  on being part of this executive sponsor program. So from an execution standpoint, what does it then look like for the executives to connect with one another, what do those conversations look like? 

Kalina Bryant: Well, I would say each one is different. It depends on what you and your executives have agreed on and the original plan with the goals and the mission and the layout. The most important part is actually execution and making sure that it is accurate and it’s done, but then I think the second best piece is follow-up, right? When you do your first ever meet and greet, it could be over coffee. The most important part is, do you have a second meeting on the books to continue that dialogue and continue developing the relationship?

I think that’s what good looks like, because you can put so much work into one thing, but let’s just say your CMO talke to another VP of marketing. They talked for 30 minutes and then they hang up the phone and radio silence. That’s it. That means your program didn’t get off the ground, but if they have an engaging enough conversation over coffee, and then they conclude saying, Hey, how about you come into the office and we sketch out more ideas and I took down some notes. Let me follow up with whoever’s leading the executive sponsorship program.

They’re going to follow up with you with next steps and consolidate what we’ve just talked about. If you can have next steps outlined, that’s a great executive sponsorship program because it’s engaging ongoing for  long-term results. And then I would say your key executive sponsor internally is getting something out of it too. 

Every call that your executive sponsor sponsor takes with the customer, they should be learning too. They should be taking down notes and realizing that if this customer has this pain, then there’s probably 50 other customers that have this same pain and really sharpening up their skills, but also taking that information and giving it back to the right departments. They may be sending information to the product department. They may be sending information over to the sales department, our operations department, but making sure that you get something out of the call to better the customer experience. 

Margot Leong: When it comes to the follow-up piece, do you find that your internal executives are pretty good at making sure the next meeting is on the books?

Kalina Bryant: Yeah. In my past, what I’ve realized is executives are really good at following what you tell them to do. So if you outline a very templatized step-by-step of the program and they have a task or something to check off  when they get off the phone call, they understand that that’s not it. They understand the full logistics that you gave them. And they’re like, okay, hang up the phone or finish but open laptop, send followup notes, and then send calendar invite. You have to structure that. 

I think that that’s the one important thing with customer advocacy. If you’re leading the charge, you not only have to think about the program, but you have to think about step-by-step of who needs to do what, because you do have the right executives from a customer perspective, but also you have to look at your internal executives at the company as your customers as well. Do you want to make sure that they’re set up for success and in order to do that, you have to templatize things for them. You have to have them understand the whole vision and you have to outline each action item for them so it becomes a rhythm. And so long-term when they start seeing the results, they also understand why you ping them 50 million times or why they have several emails from you or why they have five different templates.

But long-term when they see the success in the program, they’re going to number one, respect you. And number two, trust you because you’re setting them up and you’re making them feel comfortable. And after they engage with customer advocacy or you as an individual, they understand what to expect. They’re never worried when your name is on the email. They’re never worried when you’re in the room because they know how you outline things. 

 I know personally for me, I do have a Type-A personality, but I know what good looks like when I do put that hat on. And I know how people trust me when they see my name on something, because they know how stressed out I get about something or they know the programs. You know, when you’re thinking about just the fact that you put an executive in front of a program, everyone wants the sexy. Everybody wants to have executive programs, be a part of a CAB or run a CAB but you have to understand if you think about those individuals in the room, you’re looking at a big chunk of the business.

And so if you don’t do things correctly, you potentially can ruin that business. But if you do things right and perfectly. then you can double that business. I think that if you’re going to do executives programs or regardless of what toolkit of the program you choose, make sure you’re thoughtful and make sure you have a full vision, but make sure that you understand step-by-step what you need to do. So you can feel confident when you have billions of dollars in a room for two hours.

Margot Leong: I think one point is like, all the kudos goes to people on my team that have helped to like put that together because I am the most, all over the place person. I’m not process oriented, but I would say CAB is not for faint of heart. Executive program, not for faint of heart. It’s super sexy sounding, but it’s a lot of like staying up until midnight, like making sure that all of the details and also like all the larger aspects of the program and then also managing some personalities occasionally within your own team. All of that stuff brought together is kind of insane. 

I definitely would say if you are not super process-oriented or overly detail oriented, if you have a budget to hire someone to own executive sponsorship or engagement, they gotta be really, really detailed oriented and process oriented and good at project management.

Kalina Bryant: Yeah. I would definitely say it’s a team effort. When I think about how I built my teams, I definitely always have the strategy, but I make sure that I hire individuals that  number one, are detail oriented, but they also are creative. You need to have both, I’ve experienced a lot of people that are very detail oriented, but they don’t think outside of the box. And I don’t think that you’ll be successful in customer advocacy if you don’t think outside of the box. So I think that there’s a special ingredient of being detail oriented and understanding the opportunities you have when a blank canvas is presented to you. 

Margot Leong: Exactly. And highly adaptable. Any events manager will tell you, everything’s going to go wrong or like something important is going to go wrong. You know, you need to have people on your team that are able to roll with those punches very easily and also keep their employees when in the company of executives, right. What are some of the things that you want to share in terms of success you’ve seen from executive sponsorship programs to get them excited, right? So anything to share there? 

Kalina Bryant: In some of my past engagements, I would definitely say that we went from no engagement with individuals thinking that our messages were spam of saying, Hey, we have this nice program for you. But after being engaged with us and having the opportunity to join our executive sponsor program, they were willing to do more. You know, once they understood the thoughtfulness behind it, and also that they were in good hands, they were willing to do more references for us. They were willing to do more speaking engagements. They were willing to give advice and were looking to engage with us in more of our meetups. That’s definitely something that I’ve seen as a positive. 

And then also with executive sponsor programs, I’ve noticed that once you put it and build a foundation, then you have larger budgets given to you, you have bigger teams given to you. You just have a little bit more opportunity to plead your case, not just for your programs, but the business. And I think that that’s the best spot to be in when you can actually provide input on how the business should be, what direction the business should go in, and you’re really talking at it from the customer voice angle, so everything that you may bring up as a concern or opportunity, the individuals in the room, especially your leaders, they understand that if this person brings up this is because they’ve gotten it from a customer, so we should listen.

Margot Leong: That’s a perfect place to wrap up is around this customer voice piece. So, anyway, last question of course, is where can our listeners connect with you if they’d like to learn more. 

Kalina Bryant: Definitely. So you could find me on unapologetech.com and also kalinamari.com. If you do have additional questions or want to explore different toolkits or one-pagers feel free to go there. I’ve launched my own consulting business and it’s outlining how to be successful in customer advocacy. So I do ongoing ask me anything webinars on how to launch your customer advisory board, how to launch your templates, how to do your executive sponsorship program, how to get buy-in, how to ask for support and build out your team.

Based on the successes that I’ve had at other companies with launching their CABs, launching their user conferences, executive briefings, you name it, I’ve taken all of that information and scoped out how to kits for the next person to be able to be just as successful,. But also confident. I would say when I was building my programs, everything was trial and error. And so now I understand what works and what doesn’t work or what you should do first and maybe what you should do last. And so now my main goal is how to teach that individual to be successful in their own programs and how to scale. 

Margot Leong: Fantastic. And I will put all of that info into the show notes so people can access that easily. Thank you so much, Kalina. This was so much fun. Really had a blast chatting with you about executive programs. 

Kalina Bryant: Yes, thank you for having me. Thank you for doing this. I think that what you’re doing is amazing and connecting the advocates and the marketers of the world, it’s really great. I think it’s going to be great for the longterm for all of us. 

Thanks for tuning into this episode of Beating The Drum. For more interviews with advocacy leaders and tips on creating customers that will sing your praises, head on over to our website, beatingthedrum.com. If you enjoyed today’s show, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts and don’t forget to rate and review us. If you know someone that would be a great fit for the show, I would love to hear about it. You can reach out at beatingthedrum.com. Take care, everybody. 

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