Way back in 2016 I attended the Gainsight PULSE conference. It was a real epiphany for me. I hadn’t realized just how far the customer success function had evolved. My takeaway was that Customer Success, when it exists, should be Customer Marketing’s new best friend. In fact, I began anticipating that customer reference programs would migrate from Marketing to Customer Success departments. That didn’t happen as quickly or in numbers I imagined, but a growing percentage of the programs we support today call Customer Success home.

In The Absence of a Customer Success Team

In an organization with no customer success team, customer reference program managers are primarily dependent on salespeople to assist in building the customer reference database. Company cultural differences aside, that just isn’t typically a top priority for quota-carrying salespeople. Asking for perceived “favors” is not fun, and if there’s any level of account executive turnover, they may not even have the relationship (or insights) yet required to ask a customer to be a reference. This situation forces the program manager to resort to other means for building, then sustaining a reference database with the optimal membership to support company growth goals, which aren’t all bad. But with customer success, there is potential for a bona fide symbiotic partnership. Here’s how we see the puzzle pieces fitting together.

What, specifically, does Customer Success bring to the customer reference program party?

  • Commitment to satisfaction. A customer will never be an advocate if they aren’t satisfied with their service or solution results. Customer Success is solely focused on satisfaction, retention, and increasingly, developing advocates.
  • Relationship insight. The only way to contribute to customer satisfaction is to stay in touch with, and apprised of, the customer’s use of the product/service, including identifying risks, and providing advice and resources. No one group has its finger on the pulse of a customer relationship like Customer Success.
  • Incentive motivation. Salespeople are on sales incentive plans and engaged in various contests/competitions. Quotas and incentives related to opportunities will always be the most significant part of their compensation. Everything else is secondary. Customer Success, however, is typically not as “coin-operated,” which means incentives related to identifying new customer advocates or assisting with securing customer references will carry more weight, and garner more attention.

So how should you “interlock” with Customer Success?

  1. Identify Customer Reference Candidates
    Customer Success teams generally measure customer success with a health score or status. That health score is comprised of a variety of factors, including spending trends (Are they buying more?), outstanding support cases, and feature/capability utilization. No surprise, these are factors that would help tease out customer reference candidates from the general customer base.
  2. Gauge Program Interest
    Who best to broach the topic of acting as a reference in one form or another than the CSMs? With a little education, a CSM can discuss possible advocate activities, share program information (possibly including incentives), and cue up a conversation with the customer reference program.
  3. Maintain Reference Data
    Customer relationships can be fluid; there’s sentiment ebb and flow. Individuals come and go. Customer Success knows all of this first, so it is in the best position to update the reference status of their referenceable accounts in a timely fashion. The goal is to ensure that people searching the reference database are getting reliable and accurate information. If it becomes suspect, then reference hunting chaos ensues.
  4. Expedite Problem Resolution
    Imagine one of your best customer advocates is dealing with a support issue that is dragging on, wearing their patience. When customer success and customer marketing escalate to department leaders with the greatest influence on resolution (e.g., product management), and explain the value of the reference account, problems get attention. A customer may have an annual contract value of $80,000, but in the past 12 months, contacts at the account may have helped influence $250,000 in new revenue.

Here’s another way for a customer reference program manager to think about department collaboration, organized by three primary program needs.


Sales focuses on closing opportunities and making quota, and rightfully so. Every other responsibility added to their plate is secondary. When they are also playing the part of success manager, they do manage access (i.e., act as the gatekeeper) to their accounts very effectively.


Customer Marketing aside, Marketing is generally focused on lead gen campaigns, PR, digital marketing, social, content development, and account-based marketing. The goal is to capture stories and share them broadly via social media, press, events, webinars, etc. Ultimately, it’s mostly top of funnel activities related to producing leads.

Customer Success

Customer Success is tasked with monitoring and tending to customer satisfaction. They are measured on outcomes such as NPS scores, renewals, and customer advocacy (a.k.a., referenceability).

red = low participation potential
yellow = moderate participation potential
green = high participation potential


Whether the customer reference program lives in Marketing or Customer Success, it’s clear that the program manager position is truly a cross-functional role if ever there was one. If your company has a strategic post-sales team, looping them into your customer reference. program ecosystem is a game-changer. They are your ally on the road to deploying your most authentic and compelling storytellers in as many opportunities as possible and gaining an unfair advantage over your competition.