“It’s the Search, Stupid” is a twist on an old campaign slogan that applies to customer reference program success. If you’re old enough, you may recall a famous quip from a political advisor in 1992 concerning what he thought should be a presidential campaign messaging priority.

“It’s the economy, stupid.”

There were plenty of concerns and priorities back then, as there always have been, but at the end of the day, if voters didn’t feel the economy was working for them, they wouldn’t care about anything else—a sort of voter Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Sometimes the priority is that straightforward and simplistic.

Search is Our “Economy”

Similarly, many factors make a customer reference program tick or not. Our customer success team has a checklist full of best practices related to program promotion, user training, executive support, cross-functional coordination, member recruiting, and more. Yet even when all these “pistons” are firing, the stakeholder’s experience comes down to one simple thing: Can they find the reference(s) they need? It doesn’t matter whether you’re a salesperson, a PR manager, event coordinator, or executive; if the search doesn’t result in what you need, the rest doesn’t matter much.

Any Data is Not Better than No Data

Reading this observation, it seems pretty obvious, right? But how does that translate into how a reference database is built and maintained? It is not unusual for program managers to put out a request for customer reference candidates then gratefully accept whatever comes back in the “net.” Unfortunately, this thinking does not result in a well-built database. Imagine 100 new customers come into the database. If the primary demand is for director-level, IT references in banking and insurance using products A and B together, and only four of those 100 additions match the need, what was the value of the recruiting effort? If these 100 new customer references are touted as a major success, then, with great expectations, users go to do their first search and can’t find what they need, the program gets a black eye. Users return to their old, inefficient way of finding references: Slack, Chatter, Teams, email, etc.

This is no small misfire. Consider the consequences:

  • Salespeople, CSMs, and other stakeholders wasted time.
  • If spiffs were involved, money was wasted.
  • Expectations were high. Trust was squandered.
  • A second attempt at stakeholder engagement will be harder.
Be Intentional

So how do you avoid such a setback?

  • Analyze Opportunity History

    The recent past is a good predictor of near-future demand. Begin by running opportunity reports, segmenting results by industry, product(s), use case(s), geography, etc., and/or some logical combination of criteria. Be careful to exclude any segments that don’t traditionally have high reference needs. For example, a solution may have so much market share that references just aren’t necessary to make the sale or  your company is de-emphasizing or soon retiring a product. There is no need to prioritize the support of those segments. Instead, determine  the top 5-7 segments.

  • Establish an Advisory Board

    With your  top 5-7 segments identified, your next questions are:

    • What personas are needed? and
    • For what types of advocate activities do you need them?

To answer these questions, we recommend having a formal or informal advisory board for your program. Members will tell you what they need. For instance, marketing stakeholders will have calendars for press releases, events, and analyst calls. It’s good to know of any deadlines involving advocates and as far in advance as necessary. Your advisors will also ensure you understand how they need to search. If they don’t have the means to filter as needed, the data may as well not exist. For more on advisory boards, see this post.

  • Get Intimately Acquainted with Company Growth Goals

    Opportunity history reports alone won’t help you with future needs, which are often driven by strategic direction changes. These might include new industry targets, new geographies, or the launch of a new product. You’ve got to dig deep into your executive team’s goals for the year and figure out how those initiatives will require changes in the customer reference database: more of one thing, less of another. Aligning with these goals is so important that we have an eBook on the topic.

  • Consult with Stakeholder Department Heads

    Any marketing group that leverages advocates will have plans that probably extend at least six months into the future. Partner with them so that your goals dovetail with theirs. For example, the events team may need six customers representing both business and technical viewpoints, with specific titles and subject matter expertise in four months. They will be delighted to know you’re a resource focused on maximizing the value of advocates, with the expertise to identify and cultivate the relationships needed.

Once you have this information, you’re ready to start recruiting, which is an art and science unto itself. The exact methods and channels used will vary based on the needs you’ve uncovered. For instance, if you found that VP and CxOs are a priority, then you’ll likely find that your company’s executives, not salespeople or CSMs, are in the best position to act as recruiters to at least initiate the conversations. For more on recruiting best practices, check out this post. Completing the described exercise helps ensure that your colleagues’ time is well-spent and produces many, many successful reference searches building confidence in the program and stakeholder support that keeps on giving in a virtuous cycle.