Are you mining your customer base to find your most precious asset: Customer Advocates? Satisfied customers who are willing to share their success stories as your client are the lifeblood of a customer reference program. Yet, most of the companies we start conversations with have not fully identified those clients, don’t know how many they need, and aren’t exactly sure where to begin looking. This post will describe what your options are for handling those issue and the pros and cons of each approach.

Let’s start with the most crucial question: What types of advocates are needed? I’ll break “type” into the following categories:

  • Segment
    A segment could be a single dimension such as industry or product, or a combination (e.g., financial services, product Y, Asia).
  • Level
    Depending on the roles involved in selecting your solution, you may need technical, line-of-business, or executive advocates who can speak to their peers from the buying organization.

How do you decide exactly who to target to find customer advocates? Your company’s top growth goals should drive the response. Targeting and how to do it is a big enough issue that we have an eBook dedicated to the topic. You may be surprised how many ways your company’s goals translate (or should translate) to your customer reference program goals.

How many advocates do you need? The answer to this is determined, in part, by the current pipeline, and partly by anticipated needs (see company goals). Here’s what we advise companies to do:

  • Run opportunity reports to learn what types of deals are accounting for the bulk of the pipeline. You may group by industry, geo or product to start, then look for recurring patterns. Add filters and translate your learnings to the types of advocate companies need to satisfy the anticipated demand in the near term.
  • To get a sense of reference request volume, consider sending out a web survey to Sales based on this template. It will help you ultimately learn how many unique reference accounts are needed in your database today.
  • With your company’s top growth goals in-hand, meet with the department heads who comprise your stakeholders. They typically include Sales, field marketing, PR, events, social media, analyst relations, demand gen, content (if separate from your team), and investor relations. Each of these departments has goals that support the CEO’s goals, and many of those goals will have advocate needs and deadlines.

Now that you have your basic advocate criteria and required quantities, it’s time to report on possible candidates from the Accounts and Contacts in your CRM system. You have many channels to consider. Which ones you use will depend on organizational, political, and even intangible considerations. Consider the pros and cons of each of the following:

  • Work through Sales
    Working with the Sales organization is the avenue that comes to mind first, particularly if account execs have ongoing communications with clients as opposed to only reconnecting at contract renewal time. Account executives should have a current pulse on the account and know the people within the account who would be good references and have desirable stories to tell. If they don’t have the motivation to have the full reference conversation with their customers, ask if they would at least provide a warm email introduction. You can take it from there.

Salespeople can have skills of persuasion, and those skills can be applied to recruiting customers to be advocates. They are relationship oriented, and that’s always at the heart of acting as a reference. The willingness to “help” a vendor stems from a sense of being well served and realizing business benefits.
All salespeople are different. Some will see how helping you will ultimately benefit them (and the company), while others see a request to identify their happy customers as a bother and in competition with their quota pressures. They may not be as responsive as you need.

  • Work through Customer Success
    If you have a post-sales team, more frequently with the title of customer success, and their responsibility is to own the long-term client relationship, then these are your “gold mines.” They know which accounts are ready to be customer advocates. Success teams are more often than not to be measured on the referenceability of their accounts in addition to renewals. Their incentive to help you build the database is articulated as part of their job.

Responsiveness. Knowledgeability about their clients’ health.
Customer success managers are busy people. Solving issues is often time sensitive and may comprise the bulk of their working hours. If they are not in some way measured on client referenceability, they too may find your quest to build your database of advocates a distraction.

  • Direct to Customers
    There may be a lot of legitimate reasons to not work through Sales or Customer Success. Sometimes these are political (i.e., management has not bought into your goals), but there could be many other circumstances that would lead to delays in getting your job done. In that case, it’s important to do your best to leverage these resources with as little impact as possible, keep them informed of your efforts, but ultimately take the “bull by the horns.”

Satisfaction Surveys
Most companies have a way to gauge customer satisfaction whether via Net Promoter or a more traditional survey. The results include customers who self-identify as happy customers (“Promoters” in Net Promoter terminology). The segment of most satisfied customers makes up your lead list. Reach out to them on an individual basis for that personal touch, or use your campaign automation tool (Marketo, Pardot, Eloqua) for scale.

User Conferences
If you have an annual user conference be sure that your program has a presence there. That could be a table/booth or a few minutes of presentation time. Not only are these a great recruiting opportunity they are also relationship-building opportunities. Established programs build customer video capture into their plan and reserve a hospitality/conference room and schedule advocates for short-form video recording. It’s a super efficient use of a video crew.

Reaching out directly is more expedient—plain and simple. Be sure to keep your peers, who own the customer relationships, informed of your activities so there are no surprises. Equally important, don’t delegate this outreach to an inexperienced or ill-suited team member. These are your most valuable customer relationships and they should be managed accordingly.
You don’t have direct working relationships at first, so customers may not feel as obligated to respond to your outreach. Make it clear in your first contact exactly what your purpose is and what the time commitment will be for whatever you’re asking. A call and an email used together will yield the best results.

  • Work through Executives
    Your executives generally know the largest and most “bought-in” of customers. Their relationship with their CxO peers can clear the way for high-level reference activities such as video testimonials and ROI studies. Having access to a CxO to match up with a buyer’s CxO is so valuable even though you may not make use of them frequently. So leverage these relationships. Your CxOs will ask the same questions as customers: What will you be asking them to do? How much of a time commitment is anticipated? Have those answers ready and inspire confidence in your executives.

Executive contacts are high-level and typically strategic. These are the people you tap for the most important reference activities. Don’t squander them on low-level needs. Things can happen quickly due to the direct, high-level connection, and their authority to approve activities is the highest.
Your executives may be hesitant to make requests on your behalf. They generally save these reference customers for their top priorities (co-speaking opportunities at conferences, earnings reports, investor meetings, etc.).

  • Work through Reference Consuming Peers
    By reference consumers, I mean people in PR, the content team, events, and RFP team, to name a few examples. These are peer departments that depend on references, and before you came along, they scrounged for reference any way they could. Now they each have a list of customers who have already acted as references in one form other another. They also have some form of a relationship with customers as a result of their interactions to get that press release, case study, or event speaker. Piggyback off of that.

These are pre-qualified reference customers. They have a track record and have already gone through internal approval processes. They know what’s necessary. That means it should be quicker to gain their participation in new reference activities.
The number of reference customers from this source may not be high, but the quality will be there.

There are many creative ways to identify and recruit references for your program. These are the most tried and true. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Decide which methods are most appropriate for your organization and use every method you can. It’s essential to build critical mass quickly to gain the confidence of your internal customers (Sales, PR, etc.), so don’t drag this process out. Each day you don’t have a sufficient quantity of compelling references your company is disadvantaged and progress toward those all-important revenue goals is delayed.