There was a recent post by Bill Lee on the Reference Point (no relation to Point of Reference) blog. He described a few customer engagement scenarios related to referencing. The highest level of engagement, the one we all strive for, was “You’re helping customers build their social capital – that is, helping them to build and expand valuable support groups and communities. ”
That got us thinking about our own experiences related to helping clients put a strategy in place to level up their reference pool. Senior executives, particularly in brand-conscious organizations, have to have a pretty compelling reason to want to associate their names with a vendor, and shepherd videos, case studies, speaking opportunities, etc., through the usual internal roadblocks for approvals.
So what does it take? First, everything written in the last post, Why Customers Choose to be Customer References, about why customers act as references still apply. But this segment of customer contacts requires something extra. Consider what motivates executives in general:
- Job performance – They need to demonstrate results typically economic in nature. Savings. Growth. Margin.
- Knowledge – Anything that makes an executive smarter, to anticipate trends and to be proactive is valuable.
- Prestige – To get to the top of an organization one has to have some ego.
Here’s what a reference program can do to appeal to these specific WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) criterion:
- Encourage the people closest to the account to quantify the results your solution is providing. This might require a free analysis/assessment. The goal is to catch the customer executive’s attention, and demonstrate how you, as a vendor/partner, contribute to his/her company objectives. If you can connect those dots you’ll have a better chance of grabbing mind share and securing a reference activity or deliverable.
- Provide educational opportunities with experts and/or peers. Imagine a briefing from a respected analyst just for your executive references on a quarterly basis. This could coincide with a user or trade show event. Executives will come to depend on this knowledge from your company. Similarly, if you have a way to connect members of this segment together for a guided, productive discussion around industry issues (regulatory, trends, etc.) they will see your value in a different light and be more likely to champion your solution.
- Executives are accustomed to being in exclusive groups and receiving exclusive benefits. Create that environment within your reference program. Perhaps it’s a top tier within the program as a whole, or it could be a program with a different identity entirely. This group may also comprise your customer advisory board, which already has greater access to your company executives and input into your road map. Add to that other special events that are delivered in a first-rate manner. Consider how your company executives are leveraged to engage these customer executives in special access events, and even recruiting for reference activities.
If you’ve not had a lot of success leveling up your customer reference program membership, it’s most likely because you’re using the same tactics (branded schwag, X% discounts, charitable donations, etc.) that you use when recruiting manager and director-level contacts. Once you recognize the differences in what motivates this segment you’ll have better luck and take your program to a new level.
Yes, targeting VP and C-Level executives definitely requires more effort and cost. The good news is that once you’ve cultivated a group of executive advocates word-of-mouth is worth 10x. These are THE decision makers and a peer recommendation, at that level, is golden.