Every company that decides to take customer marketing more seriously, thereby harnessing its full potential, will have the reference shadow market to contend with as part of the change management process. Allowing this to continue will absolutely zap your customer reference program of its necessary momentum. It seems counterintuitive that people wouldn’t be happy to give up a process that’s never been great, producing uneven results at best. And yet, sadly, it’s all too common. Let’s dive into the particulars.

Why Does the Shadow Market Continue?

Even if you’ve built a stellar customer reference program and implemented awesome reference management software, shadow marketers are going to keep shadow marketing. It’s that simple, and here’s why.

  1. Change Averse
    We are all creatures of habit. The longer the habit has been practiced, the harder it is to break. Think of those salespeople who have been hunting down references the same way for 10, 15, or 20 years from one company to the next. There’s muscle memory in that, making it almost easier to keep doing things the inefficient, yet familiar way.
  2. Distrust
    Needing references, and quickly, is a vulnerable position to be in. It’s hard to trust others to help with that need. And what if you did trust at some point and were let down? Now, it’s even harder to trust again.
  3. Bad System Experience
    What if there was a single place to find references, but you rarely, if ever, could find what you needed? It may be a quantity problem or a quality problem, but the bottom line is this: if you’re unable to find exactly what you need, a true match, then casting a request to the Slack winds may be considered the better route to take.

Ending the Shadow Market

Breaking Old Habits

This is an 80/20 proposition. Eighty percent of the effort must be top down. The executives heading stakeholder departments, including sales, marketing, and revenue operations in particular, must communicate a) why the change is necessary for the organization, b) the upside to getting onboard, and c) the downside of non-compliance. For more on how to team up with a chief revenue officer (CRO) for program success, read this blog.


  • Improve probability of winning deals
    – Elevate under performers to average performers and average performers to above average performers
  • Reduce inefficiency / Boost productivity
    – More time selling, less time spent sourcing references
  • Protect advocate relationships
    – Prevent advocate fatigue, avoid embarrassment (simultaneous requests to the same advocate from PR, sales, events, etc.)


Salespeople respond to cash, competition, and recognition. If your program doesn’t have at least one of these factors as incentives for salespeople, then you’re pushing a rock uphill. Accumulating user reward points for “playing” is one approach (i.e., ReferenceEdge User Rewards), but so are leader boards and shout-outs at sales or all-hands meetings. Don’t assume you know what will motivate your salespeople, ask. It’s one of the many benefits of having a program advisory board. An alternative is to survey your stakeholders. Bottomline, don’t waste first impressions of the program; dial in your rewards approach as early as possible. It’s never too late, but it will take more effort if you’re further into the program’s life.


There are consequences for not hitting a sales quota. This is not a new concept. The reference program should be no different, but the quotas themselves will be: X quality nominations per month/quarter, X% of deals leveraging customer advocates, response rate related to program maintenance requests (e.g., updating reference account information when requested), etc. If these quotas aren’t met, perhaps certain incentives are held back, or performance ratings take a hit. At the very least, they appear at the bottom of the leaderboard and get zero recognition from management. Be creative, don’t underestimate social pressure.

What’s the 20%? That’s you promoting the program by sharing best practices, program success stories, keeping leaderboard standings and incentives front and center, offering reference training, leading sessions at onboarding, attending team meetings, and otherwise staying on stakeholders’ radars, thus personifying partnership.

Building Trust

Trust comes from setting expectations and living up to those expectations. Realizing that the thing you’re being entrusted with translates to a person’s livelihood and job security, it’s not to be taken lightly. Any salesperson will be skeptical of a new program proposing to do such magic. Solid communications are essential. Again, rely on your program advisory board to validate your messaging, clear up any ambiguities, and hit the key points. Establish your processes, then live up to the promise—consistently. It doesn’t matter if you travel as part of your role. It doesn’t matter if you take vacations. Salespeople don’t care. The service promised, the processes, must go on. Plan for it. It is very difficult to regain trust once a seller has been burned.

Data and Search

We’ve written a lot about these aspects of a program. At the end of all of your efforts, if a stakeholder can’t find what they need your program is of no use to them. Back to Slack or Teams. This problem may be one of two things: 1) you don’t have the right references in the database, and/or 2) users can’t search/filter the way they need to. You need both of these “pistons” to be firing. Imagine a shopping experience. The store, digital or analog, might look terrific and have a lot of merchandise, but if the merchandise is of no interest or the store is so badly laid out that you can’t find anything that may be of interest, you leave.

Yes! It is Possible!

If any or all of these recommendations seem impossible, know that they are fully attainable. Many companies have dynamic programs with engaged stakeholders and phenomenal results to show for it. There are many factors such as culture, relationships with leadership and stakeholders, supportive training and sales operations teams, and competent execution capabilities overall. If that last sentence doesn’t make the point clear enough: customer reference management is a team sport. A customer marketer cannot do this alone, and shouldn’t try or set expectations that they can. Just the opposite. Follow our prescription and watch your program thrive.