The good news is that this will one day be a reality. The bad news? This program won’t be available until 2050 at best.

The reality about customer reference programs is that natural intelligence is still a really big part of what we do. There is a lot of art, in addition to the growing amount of science, involved. Artificial intelligence and machine learning have a long way to go.

Just consider these everyday variables—happening concurrently—and the re-calculations needed to adapt to them:

  • Customer advocates turnover
  • Salespeople turnover
  • Company priorities change
  • Data becomes outdated
  • Advocate sentiment changes
  • Advocate availability changes
  • Executive champions turnover
  • Reference program staff turnover

Running a program is a bit like being a flight traffic controller. You can’t take your eye off the ball for long, because the ball is always moving and changing course. On the plus side, lives aren’t at stake, just your company’s net new business and renewals—both reliant on customer advocates in one form or another.

F/T dedicated reference program managers are becoming the norm, and for good reason. Any time not spent on fielding complex reference requests, getting new users trained, onboarding advocates, uploading and setting up new customer content, etc., should be spent meeting with stakeholders and stakeholder department heads to better anticipate needs, analyzing program performance, and cultivating additional exec champions:  in effect, being strategic.

To do this job effectively, it’s not possible to be traveling extensively, spending hours of uninterrupted time writing case studies or also being the sole online community manager. That leads to burn-out, and each program component underperforming.

Let’s take these core program motions and consider what happens when they are neglected.

Executive support/managing upward

Employees take their cue from leadership. If your program isn’t seen as important to leadership, your co-workers will simply continue doing what they’re used to doing.

Sales relationships

Salespeople have a short memory. What have you done for me lately applies to you, just as it does to them (how their managers assess them). They need to trust you to “have their back.” If they don’t, they’ll get what they need another way, your program doesn’t exist.

Data hygiene

If users of your reference data find the data to be inaccurate or outdated, they’ll stop using it. They’ll assume the only way to get the most up-to-date data is by, for example, Slacking their co-workers for each and every need.

Advocate recruiting

Over time you will lose advocates due to employer or role changes. If you’re not always recruiting to backfill gaps, then you’ll risk not being able to satisfy reference needs, or overusing advocates. Neither is a good result.

Advocate onboarding

Once your stakeholders raise their hands and bring referenceable contact to you, that nomination cannot sit, uncontacted for long. The nominator won’t suggest new advocates in response to your inaction. If the contact knows of the nomination, your inaction won’t sit well with them either.

User training

We like the term “everboarding” versus onboarding. In the context of training, it means new users need training, but users will never stop needed training and coaching. No matter how simple it is to follow a new process you’ve defined, users won’t adopt it if they don’t feel educated. They’ll return to old ways rather than poke around figuring out something new on their own, which will probably just be frustrating.

Program promotion

Out of site, out of mind. This truism applies to your program as it does to so many things in life. Stop keeping your program in front of Sales, and it may as well have never existed.

Soliciting feedback / stakeholders

The reference environment changes all the time. There are new competitors with new messaging. There are new Sales priorities. Changing conditions translate to a need for new stories, new types of reference customers. How will you know if you’re keeping up with demand today, and tomorrow, if you don’t regularly hear from your stakeholders?

Request assistance

Not being on top of reference requests that require your assistance is the ultimate sin in reference management. You’ll lose trust, and the seller may lose the deal.

Performance measurement

If you aren’t watching trends in your program, then you won’t be able to intervene when a trend is going in the wrong direction.

Rather than wait for the self-driving reference program, focus on automating all that can be practically automated today. More and more will be possible over time. The program manager, however, will be the leader of strategic program alignment forever. Don’t allow your manager(s) to presume that you have a self-driving program today, and don’t make the mistake of thinking this yourself. Reference programs can be messy, but also gloriously fulfilling. Afterall, you provide a service that Sales and Marketing functions depend on; like air. Be a doting program manager, not a neglectful one, and enjoy the many ways you make your organization better.