Is Your "Champion" Your Worst Enemy?


You've worked hard to build strong relationships and trust within your most important accounts. The payoff for all this hard work? A stable of powerful "Champions" who fast track your sales of new products and services.

Yet as you work to gain traction with other departments and decision makers at the same company, you get stuck. Your Champions may appear to be working hard on your behalf but are they really?

Whether wittingly or unwittingly, it is common for Champions to hinder your progress in further penetrating your key accounts.

There are three common reasons why this occurs:

Reason #1: Your supporter may not be aware of other opportunities within his/her company.

Especially in large organizations, visibility into what other departments and businesses are doing can be limited or even nonexistent. Your champion may have no idea that there are projects going on in other parts of the company that you could support. In companies with thousands of employees, he may not even know the players involved

Also, your Champion may not be aware of the full suite of products and services that your company provides, beyond those used by his department. It is pretty safe to say that if he doesn't need it, he doesn't know you have it. So why would it occur to him to recommend you for a solution he does not use or even know you have?

If you find yourself in this situation, follow this three step plan:

Do your homework. Don't rely on your Champion for insight into the company's strategy and initiatives. People who work within large organizations tend to default to the myopic and tactical, focusing on their own tiny slice of the enterprise. To understand the big picture and uncover new opportunities, do some secondary research on your own. Read interviews with the company's leaders (including your Champion's ultimate boss) to understand their strategies and careabouts. Read the company's latest quarterly conference call transcript for the most up-to-date information on the company's priorities, initiatives and challenges.

Connect the dots. From your research, pull out a few very specific nuggets of information you have learned about the company that connect back to the solutions you provide. Create a crisp and compelling pitch about how you can help drive specific initiatives forward, or solve a problem that company executives have been talking about publicly.

Talk with your Champion. Share with your Champion what you have learned and ask questions in a non-threatening way. Keep in mind that your Champion may not even have this information and may feel foolish about being in the dark about something going on in his own company (surprisingly, this is very common). Start the conversation with a casual email that says, "Hey Joe, I came across an interview with your CIO where he said X, Y and Z. I think we might be able to help. Can we set up a time to chat about this--would love to pick your brain." Always include the link to the source for your information so that Joe can quickly get up to speed--this way he never has to admit that he did not know about something going on in his own company. He will appreciate the information and from his response, you will know pretty quickly whether he is willing to help or if you need to come up with a different strategy.

Reason #2: Your supporter may be worried that he or she will lose the edge now enjoyed either with your company or with other managers/executives.

Look at it from your Champion's point of view: she is the one who "found" you and your terrific products and services that have helped the company improve its sales, its deliverables, its bottom line -- or a combination of all three.

Operating under this mindset, she could be hurting your prospects of further penetrating the account, albeit unintentionally. Until now, she has been able to take all the credit for bringing you onboard. She believes that she is one of your most important and valued customers and greatly enjoys this status. Introducing you to other decision makers--particularly higher-ranking ones--could mean that she loses some of her status.

This is a more difficult situation to handle than our previous scenario because it means your Champion may be operating from a position of fear, of which she might not even be aware. In this case, the plan should be the same, but you should focus intently on defining and communicating the WIFM ("what's in it for me") for your Champion. Create a vision of how helping you will make her life better.

Understanding and addressing your Champion's mindset can be critical in winning her endorsement and support in exploring new sales opportunities with her colleagues. It's also the best way to retain this important relationship as you try to build new ones within the company.

Reason #3: Your champion actually wants to have power over you.

Hopefully this scenario is rare within your accounts, though it does happen and we've all been there. Sometimes your relationship with your Champion is one-sided with little give and take. If your gut starts to rumble at the thought of asking your Champion for a small favor, you are probably dealing with a Champion motivated more by power and ego than anything else. You are their secret weapon. You are making them look smart and successful and they don't want anyone else in the company to find out about you!

This is the most dangerous scenario in which you can find yourself. Because if your Champion gets even an inkling that you're trying to to make an end-run around him, he could shut you down completely.

As in scenario 2 above, the best thing you can do is to play to what motivates this person. How can you make them look even better and smarter while still getting what you want?

But tread very carefully, my friend.

Building Champions is hard work and can take years. It is tempting to think that because we have a few Champions in an account, we've got it covered and can relax. This type of complacency is dangerous. While you operate with a false sense of security, your competitors might be making inroads with other decision makers who outrank your Champions or who are driving higher-visibility, more strategic initiatives.

Don't let this happen to you.

Our advice? Keep your Champions close, but keep cultivating new ones, always giving your existing Champions the right of first refusal to help along the way. Always be transparent--sharing your intent shows respect for the relationship and gives them the opportunity to be the one to bring you to the table. And don't engineer an end-run unless the stakes are high--and you are ready and willing to lose your Champion.
Sharon Gillenwater
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sharon Gillenwater> all articles
Sharon is an expert in account-based marketing and CXO engagement programs. She has spent the last 15 years consulting with Fortune 500 technology companies, including EMC, IBM, VMware, RSA, Symantec, Cisco, Microsoft, NetApp, VMware, Adobe, Oracle, Salesforce.com and Google. Sharon has also been a trusted partner to agencies such as Carlson Marketing, George P. Johnson Company, Freeman and Wilsonwest--and their many clients. In the words of one of her longtime clients, "Sharon is the type of secret weapon that everyone wished they had in their arsenal."

In response to an increased focus on CXO engagement and strategic account marketing, Sharon in 2008 founded Boardroom Insiders, a content company that provides the most in-depth executive profiles on the market today. Boardroom Insiders customers include Microsoft, HP, CA, EMC, Cisco, Tableau, Citrix, Salesforce.com and VMware.

Born and raised in San Diego, California, Sharon worked as a freelance writer before earning a master's degree combining international relations and business from the University of California, San Diego.