Over nearly two decades in the customer reference arena, we’ve come to recognize the signs a customer reference program is in trouble. We see customer reference programs of all stripes; in different stages of maturity and producing different levels of results for stakeholders. While each company is unique in terms of executive support, sales culture, and goal setting, common patterns have emerged. These patterns and warning signs are hard to spot if you’re “in the action,” but it’s crucial to step back periodically, take stock, and correct what is correctable. Paraphrasing Einstein, Doing the same thing repeatedly, and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Here are six signs your customer reference program is in trouble. Take note and then take action.

Lack of Executive Engagement

The executive at the top of your reporting chain has little idea what you do. You have little interaction with that executive, especially related to company growth goals. They’ve never really demonstrated support for the program in company meetings.

We’ve seen a reference program go from life-support to triathlete when a change of leadership occurs—same program manager, same technology, same stakeholders, and so on. The new leader can clear away obstacles, establish the program as essential to their own goals, and earmark budget dollars to add resources, systems, or rewards. The arrival of that sort of executive happens about 10% of the time, so you can’t bank on it.

More likely, there are executive skeptics. They may view the program as a nice-to-have. Nice-to-have programs are not secure when budget cuts happen — and they eventually do. How does a program manager re-position the program as essential? By providing evidence that it is in total alignment with company growth goals. For example, suppose your company targets 10% growth in a particular product or market segment. In that case, you, as a savvy program manager, will add corresponding reference customers and sales-requested content to support this growth segment. The reference program will also show how advocates and their stories influenced how much of that 10% growth in easy-to-absorb charts. This proactive and aligned effort converts executive skeptics to executive evangelists.

Numbers Don’t Matter Mindset

If asked for quantitative evidence of your program’s achievements, you’d have to scramble to put something together. You assume you have enough instinctual support from leadership and that it’ll always be that way. You figure that if management/leadership isn’t asking for program reports, they aren’t (won’t ever be) important.

The hard truth is that when numbers are needed—the legitimate kind that reflect positively on the program—they cannot be invented. Existing data generates reports. Turning back the clock for a re-do isn’t an option. Numbers will matter, maybe not today or tomorrow or next month, but at some point, there will be change, and numbers are your insurance. Here are scenarios we’ve seen surprise even seasons program managers. A new CMO arrives and starts assessing how well each of the marketing programs supports her goals. She’ll start with numbers. Your company is preparing for an IPO or acquisition and trimming costs. What goes on the chopping block? Any function that can’t prove its worth. The same goes for lean times when revenue is flat or takes a dip.

‘If We Build it, They Will Come’ Assumption

You, or the sales management, assume that the act of offering a superior way for finding and leveraging customer references requires little or no change management effort. As a result, little effort goes into reinforcing the clear benefits of adopting new reference management processes or relaying customer reference best practices to stakeholders.

In reality, we are all creatures of habit. I’m sure you can think of a few things you still do the “old-fashioned” way knowing full well it is not as efficient and perhaps more costly, yet you persist. Change is psychologically difficult. We are hard-wired with status quo bias. If we’re going to help others through a change, the benefits must outweigh the costs. For a salesperson, they must “see” how the new way of doing things is paying off for their peers, how they convert reference management time-savings into additional sales, and how sales goal achievement brings recognition and reward.

Part-Time Captain of the Ship

Someone assumes it’s possible to allocate a fraction of time to the program while juggling other major, unrelated responsibilities. A reference program pretty much runs itself after launch (confusing a project, which has a beginning and an end, with an on-going program). Another error is believing new technology or software will solve everything. 

A ship at sea, where the conditions are constantly changing, will eventually founder if left on autopilot for too long. The same is true of a customer reference program. If there’s any question about what makes a program manager’s role more than a part-time gig, see my blog, ‘What a Strategic Customer Reference Program Manager Does’ interactive graphic. These are not nice-to-have responsibilities if you’re shooting for a high-impact reference program. Having the time to understand what each stakeholder group needs from the program today and in the future separates the proactive manager from the reactive one. Guess which one is positioned better to fuel growth. Launching a program; that’s a project. After that, the program sustainability plan is executed, including promotion, education, relationship building, goal setting, feedback mechanisms, recruiting, data maintenance, and process refinement.

A Thriving Reference Shadow Market

You avoid Sales audiences because they’re an unknown quantity. They can be hard to corral, demanding, and difficult to please. As a result, they don’t really know you as a program manager or the program as a valuable resource; and you don’t know them.

No doubt, salespeople can be intimidating and egotistical. They often wield a lot of power in an organization since they bring in the revenue that pays the bills. Impeding sales efforts isn’t tolerated, but anyone that enables their sales efforts is a hero. Sales is usually the reference program’s largest stakeholder group, and they must be engaged. A sure sign of disengagement is that most reference activity happens underground, in the shadow market rather than through the reference program. You can’t see, let alone manage, a shadow market. It isn’t measurable, and it’s inefficient. Engagement requires putting yourself out there as a program manager: attending sales meetings, establishing one-on-one relationships, soliciting feedback on what’s working/not working, being attuned to current and future needs– all of which are driven by company growth goals. Having a customer reference program advisory board is an essential ingredient for success.

Not Part of the Company DNA

The customer reference program operates on an island with no connection to key company processes and initiatives. As an afterthought, you find yourself learning about changes that will require more or different advocates in the 11th hour. You’re in a reactive mode most of the time, and management doesn’t see that as a problem.

Think of the processes that go along with hiring a new employee. HR has its checklist to set up payroll and benefits and distribute important documents like handbooks and NDAs. IT needs to issue computer equipment, network credentials, access cards, and so on. New hires don’t just happen. They are forecast and budgeted.

As a program manager, your goal is to get your reference program embedded in company planning. Reference program actives are integral to selling into new segments and through partner channels, new product launches, analyst and investor initiatives; anywhere that advocates telling their stories contributes to company goals. The program should also be part of employee onboarding (where applicable), internal marketing/promotion, and KPI reporting. Thinking about advocates as an element in all these areas isn’t natural if a professionally run program hasn’t existed previously. A program manager must educate peers and provide examples (i.e., connect the dots) of how incorporating advocates and the program benefits the company. Ensuring the program is on planners’ minds (execs, managers) makes the difference between chronically playing catch up versus being proactive and making progress on your game-changing objectives.

Wrap Up

We believe so strongly in a customer reference programs’ power; in the advocates who tell our stories better than anyone, we’re surprised customer marketing isn’t part of every university’s marketing curriculum. It’s a big part of customer centricity, a concept that’s been around for decades. Being a DIY program manager is a bit like being a pioneer. We offer these red flag examples to help you avoid the pitfalls we’ve seen many other pioneers make in the course of our 18 years supporting reference programs. If you do, the professional upside is limitless.