Customer Reference Program Manager Traps

What customer reference program manager traps are about to snare you? Over the 18 years that we’ve been in this space, we’ve seen all kinds of reference program plans, company cultures, leadership styles, and outcomes. It’s amazing how many different ways there are to get to what is a reasonably straightforward end-goal. The goal? Make it easier to find and secure specific reference customers and maximize their use to generate more leads and close more deals.

Why wouldn’t this be a highly attainable objective?

The difference between a reference program thriving and barely surviving isn’t just the plan but plan execution. The best practices are well-documented. However, we know that simply throwing technology at end-users doesn’t guarantee solution success. That’s where program leadership and execution makes or breaks program success. Over time we’ve identified the often-unanticipated traps that program managers can, without realizing, easily fall into.

Undefined “Executive Support”

Don’t underestimate the importance of executive support. We have seen massive changes for both benefit and detriment when a program’s executive leader changes. Some level of executive support is required to launch a customer reference program initiative. (“You had me at customer reference program!”). Unfortunately, most executives are not familiar with the many pieces that must come together for a successful program. And it’s even less likely that executive understands their own role in its success.

They can provide budget, words of support and express passion for solving the reference chaos. But this is not enough. Remember, your customer reference program is competing against many other responsibilities and priorities for attention. We advise our clients to spell out what genuine executive support looks like, such as:

  • When and what needs to be communicated in announcing the program to the company
  • What the executive needs to ask their direct reports to communicate and reinforce
  • What forums to include (live calls, Slack, newsletters, staff video messages, etc.)
  • After go-live, the cadence of follow up messaging and content of that messaging
  • What you’ll need to get through obstacles (sales enablement, IT, communications, etc.)
  • What you need for incentives to accelerate adoption or disincentives for adoption reluctance
  • When and where you need an audience with various stakeholder groups (weekly All Sales calls)
  • Collaboration on determining program measurement, and optimal reporting
  • Commitment to monthly or quarterly program progress meetings

If you think this is too much to ask of an executive, remember that you’re tasked with being a good steward of finite company resources. The company is “betting” on your program. If they want it to see a pay-off, then they must play their part(s).

Underestimating the Time Commitment

Depending on several factors (number of stakeholders, velocity/volume of opportunities, etc.), you may or may not be able to juggle customer reference management with other responsibilities like writing content, supporting events, running customer communications, or managing PR.

In our view, being on top of recruitment and fulfillment is just the start. There’s always more to do in terms of program promotion, end-user education, metrics tracking relative to goals (assuming those are set), and perhaps most importantly, stakeholder consultations. Knowing the needs of your internal constituents over the next 2-6 months puts you in a proactive, not reactive role. What a difference that makes!

Using the analogy of homeownership, think about what happens when you ignore the roof’s condition, the sprinkler system that isn’t doing its job, that leak in the bathroom plumbing, or that air conditioner that keeps making a funny noise. Sooner or later, you will be paying a lot more to fix or replace something than to maintain it properly. Reference programs are not “set it and forget it” propositions either. And when it comes to your vacation time, sick time, maternity/paternity time, reference programs are like pets. Someone qualified has to look after them until you return.

Tenuous Connection | Program & Company Imperatives

It seems too easy for some senior and even middle managers to assume a functioning reference program can be “put on the back burner” or “put on hold” to channel resources to other projects. If you’re a salesperson and suddenly you’ve lost an essential resource in closing deals, is “putting the program on hold” reasonable―or even rational? Can Sales put their quota on hold? Will their prospects be okay being told that getting them references has been put on hold? That’s madness!

People rationalize by thinking, “Well, people found references before we had a program; they’ll be all right.” Sure, and accounting can do without computers and go back to using the abacus. The program that was supposed to turbocharge customer reference practices and optimize the revenue stream just returned to the dark ages.

What’s the real problem here? It’s that essential people view the program as a nice-to-have. If you cannot clearly illustrate how every decision you make as a program manager is in step with the CEO’s marching orders, maybe it is.

Let’s assume you have that alignment, but that middle manager doesn’t see the reference program as an intrinsic part of meeting company growth goals. If a program is doing its job and suddenly loses momentum, then company growth is jeopardized―the CEO, by the way, is on the hook for that growth. Additionally, you have a responsibility to stakeholders who are your customers. If you go MIA, do you think they’ll trust you again? Do you think the middle manager would see the program and your role differently if you explained the situation in these terms? We would hope so, or you have a bigger problem.

Process & Structure is a “Burden”

Sometimes “consumers” of customer references complain that the processes are burdensome. This applies to many different stakeholders, but let’s use salespeople as the main exhibit. Without a formal reference program, salespeople spend an inordinate amount of time hunting for references. They don’t have an easy way to find suitable matches with complex criteria. Then, they have to find out who grants permission to use a reference. The process might include 2, 3, or more back and forth rounds of messages after identifying a candidate. The opportunity clock is ticking.

When salespeople are diverted from prospecting, following up on qualified leads, or bird-dogging other prospects in the funnel, can anyone really argue that this isn’t grossly inefficient?

If reference program processes ask for customer reference nominations or for a salesperson to use a system to self-serve the search process, is this extra work? What if I’m the owner of a desirable reference account. Is it disruptive to get constant requests to use my account? Yes! Do I want to prevent the overuse of my customer? Yes! Would I appreciate it if a person or, better, a system limited the number of requests that reach me? Yes! Ultimately, responding to a monthly request is far less of a burden than being hit up a couple of times a day; via email, Chatter, and Slack.

What middle and senior managers fail to acknowledge is that customer reference activity must happen. The choice is only between operating like a goat rodeo without a formal program or like a Formula One pit crew with one.

Unsupported Program Expectations

We’re big on setting goals, then setting higher goals over time. You know the expression: If you’re not growing, you’re dying. This maxim certainly applies to reference programs. But, how do you know if a goal is too high or too low?

Using Sales as an example once more, you’ve got to understand how your company’s sales process works. For example, how many opportunities are closed each month? What percentage of those deals require references? How many references are needed per opportunity? What’s the average sales cycle? What is the win rate? If you are setting a goal related to the percentage of opportunities leveraging customer advocates or the amount of revenue influenced, you have to set goals based on data. If you have a team of 500 salespeople and ten opportunities per month use references, can you, with certainty, say that is insanely low or about right? It’s impossible to say unless you take the time to understand the nuts and bolts of your Sales process. If you don’t know how to get to this information on your own, go to your in-house Sales operations subject matter expert.


“Do we have a customer reference program?” should be the most alarming question you could hear from a co-worker whose job depends on an ample supply of customer references. That type of query could signal several things:

  • Your program promotion activities didn’t rise above the noise
  • It’s not obvious or easy to find signs of an actual program
  • You don’t have relationships with the field, your stakeholders
  • You’re not visible/attending meetings with stakeholders
  • You’re not involved in program training at onboarding
  • You don’t have a program advisory board

The end result is, your program doesn’t matter because, for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t exist. So the best advice we have is, get out there! Put a literal face on the program for your internal and external customers. There are many benefits to doing this. For example, co-workers feel more beholding to people with whom they have an actual relationship. Ignoring an “ask” is harder and knowing someone to go to when there’s a reference challenge is much easier.

It pains us to see programs struggle due to these traps in particular. They’re as clear as day to us as outside observers. The good news is that each program trap outlined can be evaded. Being a program leader requires persistence, self-confidence, a conviction in the mission, and fearlessness, and it’s all worth it because a customer reference program can be a true game-changer for your company. Keep that in mind as you face various headwinds on the road to success, and watch out for these hazards.


For more best practices, check out our Customer Experience Interviews or download our ebook, Getting Your Customer Reference Program UnStuck.