Building Your Customer Reference Army

A customer reference program (CRP) is nothing without a list of bona fide, 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 the intensity of your service model, culture, affection for your brand, and leadership support. Here are how the options break down:

Work through Sales

Typically the first avenue pursued is contacting the sales team. It’s a natural assumption that salespeople know who the happy customers are and are willing to identify them for the CRP. 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 encourage cooperation. To get them on board you have to produce a well-defined customer reference program plan that’s clear and compelling. And don’t forget the WIIFM. Sales execs hate to consider anything that could take time away from reaching quota and produce little or no benefit. It’s just not worth their time.

Align with Company Objectives

You need to 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, a warm 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 pleasure centers of the Sales team’s brains. 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. Maintain an incentive leaderboard and make it highly visible, making it easy for them to check their ranking. Salespeople love to compete.

Incentive plans need not be lavish or 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. Additional campaigns can be run throughout the year to build specific parts, or fill in gaps in your database.

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

Work Through the Post-Sales Team

If your organization has a segmented sales model (“hunters” and “farmers”) then the best customer relationships may be owned by your customer success or account management teams—the post-sales team responsible for customer retention, renewals 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. High-scoring customers could be the low hanging fruit in compiling your target list of customer reference program member candidates.

Incentives Apply

Post-sales teams are often more excited by (i.e., not yet desensitized) incentives that are less lavish. Whereas salespeople are highly compensated by commissions, the post-sales teams aren’t, or at least not as much. As a result, your incentives will carry 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 also important to show post-sales organizations a well-defined program plan that they see value in. 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 encounter, then reach out directly to customers. You’re justified.

Customer Events

User conferences are an excellent opportunity to not only sign up new customer advocates but also meet them in person and establish a relationship. Have the customer-facing aspect of your program clearly outlined 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 plenty of purposes, including recruiting more advocates into the program. Post them to the CRP page on your corporate website (yes, you should have one of these so it’s easy to point an interested customer to all the program’s details).

Self-Identified Customer 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 feedback and inquiring about their willingness to act as an advocate one way or another. Your company may have other customer satisfaction surveys that also help identify the equivalent of promoters within your customer base. Many companies also have online customer communities and customer advisory boards. These are other great sources of candidates.

Casting a Wide Net

If you don’t have the luxury of customer sat survey feedback, all is not lost. Compile the best list of candidates you can by targeting the segments you need to support your company’s growth imperatives. Partner with your colleagues who manage 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 act as 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 also have that page on your corporate website where more CRP details are available and, perhaps, answers to FAQs, so that customers feel 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 personal connection 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 here have been around for a long time, and there’s an option for every situation (cultural, political, etc.). You want to achieve critical mass of customer advocates enrolled before opening the floodgates for Sales and Marketing to search a database. Still, don’t wait for everything to be perfect. That state will never come because this is a fluid database. Get to good enough and use the data you do have to gain support from the stakeholders with customer relationships that strengthen the reference pool. As the wise saying goes: success begets success. Happy hunting!