Customer reference management is a team sport, yet how many customer reference programs out there are remote islands in their respective corporate sea? Too many! Customer reference programs are one of the most cross-functional programs in an enterprise. Yet, they’re often set up for failure when leadership isn’t involved in establishing the right conditions for success. In defense of corporate leadership, most executives have many competing, high-priority demands. Traditionally, a customer advocate program and the customer reference portion of it are delegated downstream. Leadership doesn’t see how reference programs directly contribute to their personal goal achievement, so the don’t give it much mind share. However, you can change the perception of your program from nice-to-have to essential.

In the absence of an “enlightened” executive team that fully appreciates a customer reference program’s strategic value, a program manager must consider organizational education necessary groundwork to everything else they want to accomplish. Gaining C-suite backing and understanding establishes the foundation of the cross-functional team needed for a vibrant, impactful reference program.

Once you have that executive endorsement you have the “juice” needed for two specific purposes:

  1. Corralling the stakeholder groups who play a role in the customer reference ecosystem.
  2. Securing the support from IT, sales enablement, training, corporate communications, and other groups that directly or indirectly impact the program.

Stakeholder Cooperation

Effective customer reference management requires synergy with stakeholders in PR, digital, demand gen, and events, to name a few. They have reference contacts you don’t have and vice versa. These teams own specific objectives that contribute to your company’s key growth goals. The database of customer reference contacts you build must support their needs. You’re success is tied directly to getting these stakeholder groups to play by your customer reference protocols and practices to maximize reference value while being committed to preventing overuse. If their leadership team tacitly or explicitly approves of a “wild west” reference management approach, you will fail. When each stakeholder group manager clearly understands they are part of a reference management team with common goals, then the whole thing works.

What does this collaboration look like? It isn’t the same for every company. We’ve seen both formal and informal approaches to customer reference management work. Organization size and degree of a teamwork culture are deciding factors in each case. More formal processes involve recurring reference planning meetings where stakeholder representatives present a list of upcoming reference needs and activities under consideration. Attendees strategize together to optimally coordinate activities for their respective benefit and that of the customer. For example, PR may attend a phone interview for a case study to obtain quotes for a future release. Digital marketing may leverage portions of a virtual event for website content. And so on. The possibilities are endless.

There are even a few ways to build cooperation into the system with rewards and performance measurement. Rewards and performance metrics will apply primarily to Sales and Customer Success. Think of salespeople being rewarded for not using the customer reference shadow market and for helping to identify reference candidates. Renewals are common Customer Success goals, but what if client referenceability or how many reference candidates they cultivate becomes a metric? Talk about alignment! Using these “levers” removes contradictory motives that create unproductive friction in the customer reference management ecosystem.

Program Supporting Cast

For a customer reference program to work, there must be a strong supporting cast. Depending on how you’re maintaining reference contact and content information, you likely need IT involvement, including the CRM system and content management system administrators. You’ll need sales enablement or sales operations to help with training at the point of onboarding, as well as continuing education about the program and its technology/tools. A customer reference program needs to be woven into current Sales practices as well.

Don’t forget your colleagues in other marketing teams. Your program may leverage tools like Marketo, Eloqua, or Pardot for customer reference-related campaigns, which means periodic coordination with the campaign management team. If you’re in charge of customer content production, there is the creative team (in-house or outsourced). Want a page for the program on your website? You’ll need digital marketing’s help. Since promoting and sharing the customer reference program’s capabilities and successes via Slack, company newsletters, or executive videos is essential, you can add corporate communications to your supporting cast list.

I hope you can now begin to see how many parts of the organization contribute to a program’s success and why you need leadership support. Your biggest champion may come in the form of a Chief Revenue Officer. By describing your program in these holistic, team-oriented terms and explaining why it’s worth their backing, you position yourself and your vision in a very different light. That will set you apart from many other program leaders and garner respect and engagement.

It’s easy to quickly become mired in the day-to-day of running a program, which is the opposite of evangelizing the team sport nature of a customer reference program. And it will work counter to establishing and cultivating something that drives company revenue and growth. That’s ultimately what our job as customer reference professionals is all about.


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