salesperson customer advocate

Engage Sales in Customer Reference Programs

How to engage Sales in customer reference programs?  Getting salespeople to adopt customer reference programs is often surprisingly difficult. Sometimes salespeople act like Greta Garbo―they just want to be left alone to do their thing in peace. While this is understandable, it isn’t okay when salespeople are ignoring or circumventing your customer reference management processes and tools. One of the many responsibilities of a customer reference program manager is promoting, persuading, and rewarding reticent salespeople to embrace the customer reference program and the applications and processes that support it. Apparently, I struck a chord with a lot of people when I weighed in on Peter Ostrow’s (SiriusDecision) piece, I’ve Been Selling a Long Time – Just Leave Me Alone and Let Me Make My Number.

One of the biggest hurdles to implementing new software or processes for Sales is change. Salespeople are creatures of habit (Aren’t we all to some degree?). Their priority is to sell. They don’t choose to learn new software, do data entry, or any other “administrative” tasks that take them away from closing deals.  The Harvard Business Review article concurred with what we’ve been advising our clients. The HBR article referenced research by Didier Bonnet, coauthor of Leading Digital and Global Practice Leader at Capgemini Consulting and Michael C. Mankins of Bain & Company. Bonnet’s perspective matched ours, “The job of a manager is to help people cross the bridge—to get them comfortable with the technology, to get them using it, and to help them understand how it makes their lives better.”

Over the last decade or so, we’ve worked with hundreds of organizations launching customer reference programs, and we’ve arrived at these best practices when it comes to getting Sales onboard.

Sales should design their program

The biggest beneficiaries of customer reference programs in most companies is Sales. Doesn’t it make sense that the program is built around their needs? One of the smartest things you can do is to form an advisory board for your program early on — don’t wait until everything is in place. Once the program is launched, seek and respond to their feedback on processes, tools, rewards, and anything else to stay on target. For example, when we hear that a rewards program fell flat, the first question we ask is, Did Sales tell you what would motivate them? Typically, the program manager never asked directly. Some previous rewards system was used as a template, and it wasn’t a fit this time around. That sounds like a big miss in 20/20 hindsight, but happens all the time.

Appeal to their self-interest

Appealing to the self-interest of your sales teams seems obvious but bears repeating as it gets lost among all the activities that have to happen to launch and run a program. As Bonnet says, “Help employees understand what’s in it for them.” The end goal has to be clearly and repeatedly communicated:  Improving the quality of reference information and speed of access to that information is a game changer. Invest a little now, reap the benefits all year long.

Assume training won’t stick

We believe in providing clear and concise training about how the program in general, and technology specifically, work. But too often there is a lapse in time between training and use, or people simply miss training altogether. That means that information missed in training needs to be easy and quick to find, consume, and understand. In the case of a customer reference management app, help should be available in line with the task being performed. Many of our clients offer monthly “office hours” or recurring training sessions open to anyone with questions. This is a more high-touch option that some users prefer. Offering options for any learning scenario or style demonstrates a commitment to your internal customers.

Rewards and Recognition

Conventional thinking is that salespeople should automatically support a reference program (e.g., nominating new customers as references) because it’s part of their job. But pragmatic leaders acknowledge that if you want to get a salesperson’s attention, then there needs to be a fun, competitive, and rewarding element. Creative approaches work, and need not be expensive. Sometimes the prize is less important than winning the contest or being recognized by leadership. Contests and contest standings need to be visible to stay top of mind. Contest leaderboards inject fuel into those competitive engines. Bonnet even recommends trying gamification to “make it fun and create a bit of buzz around the technology and motivate and engage people.”

Leverage champions and amplify early wins

Reference selling works for both prospects and your program stakeholders. Peers are a top influencer, that’s a fact. Mankins points out that, “It’s most important not that early adopters adopt, but that influencers adopt.” Sharing individual successes as well as overall program impact builds a case for adoption by others and demonstrate the benefits you touted. Long after program launch, there will always be new salespeople, and even existing salespeople forget how critical references are when there isn’t a pending deal. A customer reference program is a year-round venture and its mission of decreasing reference round-up time and increasing the odds of closing deals must be communicated like a steady drum beat.

Flex executive muscle

There are going to be salespeople that just aren’t going to fall in line―expect it. It’s normal to encounter lone wolves who instinctively do things differently. As long as they’re selling, they tend to be left alone. Then there is a group of sellers who could do much better at reference selling, but who need more than incentives to work smarter. To engage these types of salespeople in customer reference programs may require consequences in the form of withheld commissions, bonuses, etc. That’s where Sales leadership comes in, wielding the “stick.” Just like with salespeople, leadership needs to be reminded of why the program exists. It helps their teams meet their quotas, which in turn help the VP of Sales or CRO hit her goals. If they aren’t willing to help with customer reference change management, they are only working against themselves.

Leverage technology

Any technology designed to preform a reference search, manage reference requests, or capture reference nominations should  make things easier for salespeople, not harder. Provide access to these capabilities where salespeople already spend time (CRM, sales portal, mobile apps). That requires less “re-programming.” Minimize data entry when it comes to forms. Only collect what you absolutely must have, and not a field more. Ensure the user interface is easily understood the first time it’s experienced, and make help resources easily accessible―right on the pages if possible. We offer a purpose-built application, which is the holy grail, but much can be done to improve the efficiency of your program if buy-in or budget for a specialized solution is not there.

We hope these recommendations pave the way to a customer reference program success. To find out more about program and application adoption best practices, please check out our other resources.

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