Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

-Albert Einstein


This Einstein quote could apply to many things in life. This post however is about how we in the customer reference community work (or don’t work) with salespeople. I admit, I’ve been somewhat complicit in perpetuating the insanity by not challenging the paradigm.

I’m talking about the commonly held belief that the recruiting, care and maintenance of  customer references falls mostly on the shoulders of the marketing department, PR, sales enablement—anywhere but Sales. Salespeople need references—more than ever—but are too busy with important sales activities to be part of the customer reference ecosystem.

At what point was it determined that customer references were not an important sales activity. The prevailing relationship between Sales and the reference program (formal or informal) is quirky, but easy to describe. Try finding an analogy though. I did and failed. But these are the facts:

  • Sales must have an abundant supply of qualified references
  • Qualification and onboarding of references requires skills, focus & bandwidth
  • The reference program has the skills, focus & bandwidth
  • Sales knows who is happy and referenceable
  • The organization doesn’t view reference identification or profile maintenance as one of  Sales’ responsibilities

Well-executed, this has to be one of the most mutually beneficial, symbiotic partnerships in B2B. The enterprise wins big if it recognizes the potential benefits and leadership supports it.

Back to recognizing insanity in our midst and my ahha! moment…

I recently had a conversation with a company planning to build a legitimate reference program, replacing a figurehead program that hadn’t shown any real results in 5+ years.

While showing them how our technology automates an array of inefficient tactical activities I demonstrated how our app systematically involves the people closest (sales, client success, etc.) to the account in keeping reference information up-to-date with a few clicks. The task is put right in front of the account owner on a silver platter. A few clicks…done.

Skepticism was expressed about getting that type of engagement from salespeople: “We haven’t had much success in the past getting sales to do these kinds of things.”

It turned out that the leadership team in general, sales leadership specifically, had not been asked or been willing—it wasn’t clear which was the case—to support the symbiotic partnership described above. At that moment it became crystal clear why their program had languished, and why it has a good chance of continuing to languish even with a reboot.

Many leadership teams expect that after approving budget, staff and technology for a reference program the hard work is done. That alone will yield a nonintegrated-in-name-only-feckless program that produces case studies once in a while. Wee! That’s a case study program versus a customer reference program.

Here’s how you get an impactful program

  • Secure leadership buy-in and vocal support
  • Understand your stakeholders and relentlessly solve their needs
  • Change the existing model of customer reference ownership
  • Create value for participating customer references
  • Adapt to stakeholder needs
  • Integrate customer stories and contacts into the Sales playbook
  • Never ever stop promoting program assets and accomplishments (metrics)

If you find yourself saying things like this..

  • “Management has too many other pressing issues on their plates to help with supporting this change”
  • “We can’t distract salespeople from hitting quota”
  • “Salespeople need to sell and not do anything unrelated”
  • “Salespeople have so many other things they have to do they can’t handle one more thing” may very well be doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

We acknowledge that there are disruptive forces at play in the B2B sales world. Buyers do more research before engaging salespeople. So we adapt—content is king!, and salespeople now focus on being trusted advisors. Buyers want to hear from peers (your customers) in one form or another and satisfying that demand involves salespeople! It is by definition part of selling.

Since salespeople are engaged later in the buying cycle that frees up some time for other important selling activities, like identifying references and keeping their profiles current.

You might be thinking that bypassing salespeople and forming direct relationships with customer references is the true solution. We encourage our clients to build relationships directly with customers, however, it is the sales, customer success or account management team members that interact on a regular basis with customers. That relationship isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Until that day comes think about stopping the insanity in your organization.