A customer reference program (CRP) is nothing without a list of bonafide, satisfied customers. It’s the first building block among many blocks in assembling a legitimate program. You know there are plenty of candidates out there, but what’s the best way to get to that treasure trove?

You have a number of options and which ones work best for your company will depend on culture, affection for your brand, and leadership support. Here are how the options break down:

Work through Sales

Typically the first avenue pursued. It’s a natural assumption that salespeople know the happy customers and will be willing to identify them. Not so fast. Salespeople can be pretty protective of their secret weapons for closing deals. If they don’t know you, the program manager, or they don’t understand what customers are being asked to commit to, or simply had a bad experience with your predecessor or at another company, they’ll keep them close to the vest.

Securing Trust

Getting sales support typically requires getting the sales executive(s) on board. To get them on board you have to produce a well-defined plan that’s realistic and attainable. And don’t forget the WIIFM. Sales execs hate to consider anything that could cause a loss of quota focus and produce little or no results. They have too much to lose.

Align to Company Objectives

Know what you’re looking for and why. In what segments (i.e., industry, product, use case)  are advocates most needed? How many do you need in total? What kind of help do you need from Sales (just a name, an intro, etc.)? Document your needs and basis for those needs and prepare to sell the sales executive(s).

Add Competition and Reward

Add an incentive (a.k.a. “spiff”) to the effort. Competition, recognition, fun, and rewards all light up the Sales team’s brain pleasure centers. Reward them for submitting qualified CRP leads based on your criteria. “Junk” leads (not really referenceable or not in an area of need) should not be rewarded.

Keep the incentive leaderboard highly visible. Salespeople love to be in top positions. Make it easy for them to check their ranking.

Incentive plans need not be expensive. For example, there can be one prize won through a sweepstakes drawing. More nominations of qualified candidates equal more entries in the drawing. What’s the prize? Gather a quorum of salespeople together and brainstorm. Don’t offer incentives no one cares about.

Don’t create an extended contest period. Two to three weeks is best. That keeps the energy concentrated and gives the contest focus.

⇒ Read about ReferenceEdge recruiting features: Build & Grow Your Reference Database:

Work Through the Post-Sales Team

If your organization has a stratified sales model (“hunters” and “farmers”) then the best customer relationships may be owned by your customer success or account management team—the post-sales team responsible for retention, and possibly up-selling.

Data-Driven Candidate Identification

These teams increasingly use a matrix of factors to determine the health score of a client. A high health score may well be an indicator of referenceability. This could be the low hanging fruit in compiling your target list of program member candidates.

Incentives Apply

These teams are often more receptive (i.e., not yet desensitized) to incentives that are less, shall we say, elaborate. Whereas salespeople are highly compensated by commission, with the post-sales teams are not. Your incentives will have more weight and get more attention.

Build Trust

The same concerns may exist around sharing their contacts or the risk of overuse. That means it’s still important to show them a well-defined program plan that they can get behind. Ensure they remain part of any reference use approval process (i.e., access management) and you’ll get the kind of partnership you need.

Work directly with Customers

In some situations working through Sales, and even the Post-Sales Team can be slower than you can afford. The CRP, once established, needs to show results and blaming the slow (or non-existent) responses on other teams doesn’t change the facts. If this is a scenario you think is likely, then reach out directly to customers.

Customer Events

User conferences are an excellent opportunity to not only sign up advocates, but meet them in person and form a relationship. Have the program well-defined including, most importantly, WIIFM, and have an enrollment form ready to complete (iPads always make it easier). Side note: this is a chance to capture some short customer videos (e.g., Question: What part of our solution makes your day better?). These videos have lots of uses, including recruiting more advocates into the program. Post them to the CRP page on your corporate website.

Self-Identified Advocates

If your company runs Net Promoter (NPS) surveys then you can quickly filter the responses to the  9 and 10 scores and reach out to those customers, referring to (and thanking them for) their NPS ratings and inquiring about their willingness to act as advocates in various ways. Your company may have other customer satisfaction surveys that also help identify the promoters in your customer base. No difference in the recruiting process.

Many companies have online customer communities and customer advisory boards. These are another great source of candidates.

Casting a Wide Net

If you don’t have the luxury of survey feedback, all is not lost. Compile the best list of candidates you can targeting the segments you need to support your company’s growth objectives. Partner with your colleague who manages your marketing automation tool (Pardot, Marketo, Eloqua) and design an email campaign. The email can link to a brief survey that’s intended to determine if the customer is happy enough to be an advocate, and if so, what activities they’d be willing to take part in (e.g., webinars, reference calls, social media, etc.). Ideally you have a page on your corporate website where more details are available, perhaps FAQs answered, so that the customer feels comfortable committing.

While this email recruiting approach may seem a little impersonal, we’ve seen it work well. We always recommend a follow call with those customers who opt-in so that they have a personality and voice to go along with a name representing the CRP.

In Conclusion

Building the CRP database can seem daunting, but it really isn’t. The techniques described have been around for a long time and there’s an option for every situation (cultural, political, etc.). You want to achieve critical mass before opening the flood gates for Sales and Marketing to search the database. But don’t wait for the perfect time. There isn’t such a thing. Get to good enough and use the data you do have to gain support from the stakeholders with customer relationships to add to the pool. As the wise saying goes: success begets success. Happy hunting!