Boardroom Buy-In: How to Earn It, How to Keep It

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We’ve all heard it said a zillion times: “You can’t successfully drive customer-centricity without c-suite buy-in.” But what about boardroom buy-in? It’s an area of support often overlooked (or considered off limits) in fighting the internal corporate tugs of war that typically accompany a firm’s struggle for customer-centricity.



Since 2003, I have served as corporate board director for a New York Stock Exchange company. Take it from me: A lot more can happen for the customer with boardroom support than without it. Here’re four suggestions for getting your customer strategies on the boardroom radar screen—and winning boardroom advocates for your hard-fought initiatives:

  1. Push to get customer strategies on the board room agenda. Are your firm’s customer strategies and programs getting face time with board members? If not, why not?



    The Enron-era of “hands off” boardroom oversight is dead. Personal liability, outside regulators and aggressive investment funds have forced board members to amp up strategic oversight like never before. Listen in on “best practices” seminars for board directors, and you’re likely to hear this philosophy: The most important part of a board’s role is to set corporate strategy in cooperation with management, define the risk parameters inherent in the strategy and ensure the corporation has the talent to realize the strategy. Moreover, the board is also tasked with periodically testing the strategy’s competitive resilience.



    Do you and your customer management teams have meaningful input to assist the board in its strategy oversight? Yes! The key is in how you deliver that input. Push your program awareness through the c-suite and into the boardroom by “packaging” it through the lens of corporate governance and directorship.
  2. Speak the language of the boardroom. Now’s the time to pull your corporate finance and accounting texts off the bookshelf. “Earnings per share,” “EBITDA,” “net income,” “cash flow,” “same-store-sales,” “market capitalization,” “margin”—this is some of the language of corporate governance. As a dyed-in-the-wool customer advocate, I would love to tell you that board director education programs and board meetings consistently overflow with discussion concerning customer engagement, customer experience, customer relationship management, customer centricity and the like. Instead, my board experience has taught me that public company boards are often seated with financially-oriented directors tightly focused on four key elements:


    1. Financial performance
    2. Operations performance
    3. Risk management
    4. Strategy




    Your best bet for getting and keeping customer advocacy issues on the boardroom radar screen is to report on your strategies through the context of one or more of these board agenda items.

  3. Make your data matter. How about your customer survey insights? Employee engagement insights? Here’s one way to harness board interest in your findings:

    You are part of a handful of managers invited by the CEO to have dinner with the board. How do you prepare?



    Overlay this information on same-store-sales data or other financial performance data that the board regularly reviews. Can you demonstrate the predictive abilities of your customer/employee data? For example, did the softening in Quarter 1’s customer satisfaction ratings foretell the dip in Quarter 2’s same-store-sales? Your ability to “connect the dots” and identify trends is an important step to earning and keeping boardroom attention focused on customer management issues.



    Most public boards are accustomed to evaluating corporate performance using what I refer to in my board work as “lagging” indicators. Think about it: Same-store-sales, earnings per share, EBITDA and the like are measures of what has occurred, rather than what is coming. Therein lies your customer management team’s huge opportunity! Measured “correctly,” such gauges as customer loyalty metrics, customer value metrics and employee engagement metrics should help predict what’s coming. But it’s important that the data’s predictability is reliable. That’s why the constant historical analyses I suggest earlier is so critical.

  4. Lobby strategically. When you are given the opportunity to spend time with board members, invest the time wisely. Consider this scenario: You are part of a handful of managers invited by the CEO to have dinner with the board. How do you prepare? Read the board director bios (and any other information available) well ahead of the dinner and consider which board members are most likely to be your easiest-to-win allies. If possible, target those directors first. For example, if the director has a deep banking background, over dinner conversation compare some of your current customer challenges and initiatives to high-profile banking case studies.



    Always remember, this seemingly informal conversation time is an incredibly fertile bridge-building opportunity. But guard against the oversell. Let the director get to know you as a person, too. In the end, though, your ability to demonstrate how customer initiatives are driving corporate performance and success is how you build boardroom advocacy.


There has never been a better time to nurture boardroom awareness and support for your customer centricity strategies. The backlash from sleep-at-the-switch board directors (think WorldCom and Tyco) has fed an unprecedented culture of boardroom accountability. And that’s just the opening you need! Start now to think about how to get your firm’s directors on your customer advocacy team. It’s time well spent.



1 COMMENT

  1. Jill, The title of Gwynne’s lead-in comment “Customers or Shareholders” of the Advisor newletter your article appeared in caught my eye. I liked your approach that each depends on the other.

    In my work with some clients, I have listened to such discussions. However, there is another aspect that is often left off in any of these discussions that I have brought into discussions with my clients.

    The aspect is one I picked up from “Keeping the Edge” written by Dick Schaff’some years ago. It was his premise that all businesses have 3 categories of customers – Profit Customers
    (shareholders), Product Customers, and People Customers (employees) – and for any business to not just survive but grow, each category deserves a fair share of the pie. More, it is a requirement.

    For my seminars and consulting, I turned it into a pie chart to get the idea across

    [img_assist|nid=3370|title= |desc= |link=none|align=center|width=300|height=300]

    It is his premise, and mine, of course, that if any one gets a disproportional share of the pie, the
    business will be in trouble . . . big trouble . . . and all three customers will suffer. In today’s business news there are many, many case studies that show the negative effects of this.

    The positive aspect for this approach to which “customer” is more important, it is the constant movement of the size of each’s share that makes for a dynamic company.

    Alan

    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    [email protected] http://www.sellingselling.com
    Winner of the Murray Award for Marketing Excellence
    Member, PNW Sales & Marketing GroupMember, Institute of Management Consultants

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