Top 4 Reasons That Customer Reference Programs Fail

The dark side of our business is that not every customer reference program that gets launched has a story book ending. We were recently asked the question posed in the title of this post by a company that was considering making a commitment to a reference program for the 3rd time in 8 years. The two previous iterations began with a minimalist effort, then simply withered away.

The answer to this question will vary based on a number of factors, but we distilled our answer to the following primary areas.

  • Executive Support
    This is critical for so many reasons, but here are perhaps the top 3:  1) exec vision permeates the entire organization, as should the program, 2) unwavering budget support, 3) obstacles to program success are more easily overcome
  • Sales Leadership Support
    If there is executive support, then it should translate to sales leadership support, but not always. When sales leaders get behind a program then behavioral change happens. The desired changes include leveraging a central team and database for references vs. the “black market,” cultivation of references as a part of the sales job, and partnering with the reference team to lead customers to program membership.
  • Program Leadership
    The individual chosen to lead the reference program will either inspire confidence from leadership and build trust within the sales force, or the program will be relegated to a reactive, tactical, transactional, low-impact function. The program manager needs not only sufficient bandwidth, but key personality traits. S/he must be:  nearly evangelical, persistent, relationship-centric, and know how to make things happen—how to execute on a vision.
  • Enabling Technology
    You can have all of the above, but if there isn’t an adequate supply of customer references or customer reference content for sales cycle needs, or sophisticated automation, then the program will be useless to the sales force. Further, it must be easy to find these “assets” or they may just as well not exist. A database with a lot of unreliable information won’t do the trick. Quality and quantity of data cannot be stressed enough.

In the next post we’ll cover the antidote for each of these potential pitfalls. What’s your experience been? Any primary causes you’d add to the list?

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