Compromises that Kill Customer Reference Programs

Compromise is generally accepted as an important element in getting things done, but it can kill an otherwise great customer reference program.

We’ve been in the customer reference world for going on 14 years. In that time we’ve worked with many reference programs of all flavors. When they struggle to reach their full potential the usual suspects can be found in the line up. Here are a handful of common, fundamental mistakes the result of ill advised compromise.

Not Enough Leader in Program Leadership

It used to be okay to give the job of managing a “reference program” to someone a few years out of college with 3-4 other responsibilities, or even an intern. That was when a program was comprised of producing case studies—period. That doesn’t describe today’s reference programs. Companies have recognized that a program can and should encompass supporting requests from all parts of the business, producing content, managing advisory boards, facilitating customer communities and liaising with a host of functions including customer success, PR, social media, and more. Additionally, the so called Marketing Tech Stack is something program managers must have the aptitude to understand and the vision to fully leverage because the reference program must not be on an island. Along with technical savvy a program manager must have data chops and that means being comfortable working with IT or Sales Enablement.

This is no longer a junior-level job. But while senior management continues to raise it’s expectations it doesn’t update the job description and candidate requirements for a program manager. Shame on leadership. It’s time for a dose of reality: this is a profession. Call it Customer Marketing, Reference Marketing, or Reference Management. It is a thing and deserves stature in the organization.

Mollycoddling Sales

I may have never used that word before writing this post, but it fits perfectly!

Question: Are customer references an intrinsic part of selling in this decade? If the answer is yes, then why do so many Sales leaders and Salespeople consider being an active participant in building and maintaining a reference program ancillary to selling?

There is something missing in this logic. And too often program managers tip toe around the need to identify and recruit reference candidates with Sales assistance. “We can’t bother them.” “They’re focused on closing business.” “They have so many other asks, we can’t add another.”

The irony is that a fully actualized reference program saves Sales time, increases it’s odds of closing business, and makes the company, overall, more successful. But let’s not ask Sales to play an active part in any of that. Crazy talk!

Mismanagement of Leadership

In a perfect world a CxO needs only share his/her vision and the execution of initiatives necessary to realize that vision simply happen. But change is never that easy—at least the kind worth effecting. We often hear customer reference program managers describing a one-way conversation with senior leadership. The need for an reference program is green lighted. A date is set for launch of the program and related systems. The marching orders come down from on high. But what’s missing is the “here’s what we’ll need from you Ms. executive” part of the equation. And, “without this support and contribution your vision will not come to fruition.” Fact.

The launch is arguably the easy part of establishing a program. The chain of command from the visionary CxO down must all be aligned in the goals and requirements for success. Salespeople, marketers and CSMs must understand the requested change and what’s at stake. Then management must get the train back on the tracks when actions don’t align. This must be a point of emphasis at least until the new processes are burned into the company culture. And then vigilance is required over the long haul.

The optimal program leader will understand the conditions necessary to establish and sustain a high impact program. If s/he compromises and fails to set proper expectations they’ll find themselves at the helm of a row boat vs. a speed boat. Not fun, rewarding or contributing to company success.

Unreliable Data

Have you ever used a database, for any reason, and been disappointed with the quality of search results? Maybe the data is outdated, incomplete, inaccurate, or all of the above. What’s your next step? Revert to something from your past experience, which, while far from perfect, is better than that database that promised something magical.

There’s no difference when it comes to customer reference databases. In the case of Sales, and Marketing to a lesser degree, that alternative is email blasts, Chatter or Slack posts. It’s horribly inefficient with spotty (at best) results. It’s stressful for the seeker, it’s burdensome for everyone else trying to manage all the other correspondence.

So what’s the solution? There is really only one source of customer reference information and that’s the person (or team) closest to the account and contacts at that account. These people must play a part in data entry and maintenance—they are essential.

If you have technology that automates the updating process (as we offer in our application) then use it. If you don’t then find alternate ways to make the process as painless as possible and most importantly, systematic. This is not a task that can be done now and then. When the data is crap the “castle” around it crumbles. It doesn’t matter how much leadership support you have, or how much content you’re producing, or that you have a clever brand for the program. Your database is your Fort Knox. If there’s no gold there’s not reason for the Fort.

The Compromise Dilemma (but not really)

I realize these opinions may illicit an “easy for you to say” response. It is easy. It comes with seeing the mistakes made routinely and having 3rd party clarity. So consider the alternatives. Your company spends money staffing the function, deploying technology, training users, creating content, etc., etc., and 6-12 months later when you can’t prove the program’s worth it was all for naught. We in the customer reference community have a responsibility to educate executives and other stakeholders about what it takes to be successful. That’s the beginning of establishing respect for your professional and your role. Don’t allow compromises that undermine the integrity of your program.