We’ve accrued many customer reference program best practices over the years. Our clients are innovative and driven people so there’s been plenty of material. We share those best practices every chance we get, but, I don’t think we’ve ever shared the other side of the best practices “coin.” That is, the bad practices, the common pitfalls we identify when making our client health assessments. These are not statistically weighted, but some areas deserve more urgent attention than others. We’ve organized our thoughts according to the 11 elements of our maturity model, which always provides a good framework for reference program conversations and assessment.

Program Vision
  • No documented customer reference program vision. This might seem academic, but without a foundation it’s easy to be batted around like a ping pong ball, continually changing your focus and goals. Your vision for the customer reference program is your north star. It drives your program’s values, and dictates focus areas, objectives, and KPIs.
  • Your vision is your secret. The only thing worse than not having a program vision is having one but not sharing it with execs and stakeholders. Sharing your customer reference program vision sets expectations and communicates to others why your priorities are what they are. That prevents a lot of friction down the road.
Staff Composition, Organization & Perspective
  • Your program leader doesn’t love customer marketing. Yep, it happens. No passion equates to a program in name only, and everyone smells it.
  • The program manager is spread too thin. Juggling too many competing responsibilities, or having too many people to support leads to the customer reference program’s internal clients cutting corners and a return to bad habits. These stakeholders (Sales, PR, etc.) will circumvent a program or process that isn’t responsive. Irrational as it may be, at least stakeholders feel more in-control that way than relying on a program that consistently disappoints.
  • An introvert is leading the program. This is a people-person position if ever there was one. Relationship building is essential (stakeholders, execs, customers).
Managing Upward
  • The program’s goals don’t relate to the CEO’s goals. Symptom: The executive with the customer reference program budget does not see and cannot articulate how the program supports her own goals. The result: She shifts budget and resources, previously dedicated to the program, to areas she believes will help her make her goals because it appears there’s nothing to lose.
Field Relationships
  • The customer reference program has no regular stakeholder feedback loop. Clients’ programs are more successful when there is a program advisory board. These board members are a reality check for the program leader (i.e., Am I on the right track?). Cultivating commitment to the program’s success generates momentum and synergy beyond what a program manager can do alone.
Customer Reference Relationships
  • There are limited or no direct relationships with customers. Customer reference programs provide another personal connection with your company. Program members are inclined to spend more, participate in activities (e.g., beta programs), and provide more CX feedback–all of which make your organization better. In an ideal world, a customer knows and trusts the program manager to provide mutually beneficial opportunities. The customer expects the program manager will advocate for them if they’re having an issue and, as a result, the customer is more likely to act as an advocate when asked. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
Horizontal Integration
  • There’s no single view into advocate activities. Operating in a silo, unaware of how other departments are using customer advocates, is not helpful for a variety of reasons. Consolidated advocate data and proactive communication creates so many opportunities to efficiently capitalize on customer goodwill (“We’re interviewing X client next week. PR, do you want to join?”), and avoid overuse or under-use of specific customers.

In the second part of this post, we’ll cover program promotion, program metrics, content strategy, information systems and outside expertise. In the meantime, do a gut check of your program and add “change bad practices to good practices” to your New Year’s resolutions.