User Adoption of Customer Reference Programs

Customer reference program adoption by a company’s sales, marketing and customer success users may mean different things to different audiences in the company. We think of it in simple terms.

The adoption goals of customer reference programs are no different than what marketing strives for in general: market penetration and mind share.

For customer reference programs these are the equivalent metrics:

  • % of users accessing the program/technology to find and leverage customer advocates
  • % of users able to find and share relevant customer content
  • % of opportunities that are influenced by customer reference activity and/or customer content
  • % of all reference activity occurring with the program’s knowledge or assistance

Maximizing Adoption

Even with differences in company size, reference program staffing, program score, and industry segments, patterns emerge. We offer these best practices for companies just starting a program, and those with long standing programs looking to increase adoption.

Personify the Program

The customer reference program is a relationship-centric function. Customer relationships are essential of course, but a close second are stakeholder relationships. Ensure your program has a “face.” The people who power the program should be visible and familiar to stakeholders/users. Why does it matter? When you know the program team personally you’re more willing to:

  • Participate – feel like part of a team effort where everyone’s effort counts
  • Cooperate – make an effort to change process/behavior
  • Respond – versus ignore a request from some anonymous requester

The importance of having the right people leading the customer reference program from a personality, experience and skill set perspective cannot be underestimated. At the end of the day the right resource match makes all the difference in the quest for user adoption.

Leverage Leadership Support

Customer reference programs usually corral disparate, chaotic, sometimes dysfunctional processes. They provide structure in an effort to improve the positive use of customer advocates to drive revenue and prevent overuse. You’d think the benefits would make change easy. That isn’t the case. Vocal, visible support from leadership makes all the difference in accomplishing the change management that’s necessary. Support may be in the form of funding incentive plans (carrots) or simple enforcement (sticks). More on this topic

Define & Communicate Your Services

There’s no room for ambiguity. Users must know what they can expect from your program before they use it.

  • Which stakeholder groups are supported? Sales, marketing, social media, A/R, etc.?
  • What is the program’s scope? Request help desk, customer content, advisory boards, customer awards, etc.?
  • What is your service level agreement with stakeholders?

Create a Program Advisory Board

The largest stakeholder team is Sales so it’s important to have a channel for regular Sales feedback. Have sales managers nominate 10-12 board members and have recurring meetings to solicit their input aimed at ensuring that the program supports their needs. We have plenty of advice concerning the attributes of a good board member. More on this topic

Awareness & Promotion

Short attention spans, competing interests, and turnover make continuous program promotion a necessity.

  • Keep the customer reference program’s activities and team members visible: Sales calls, kick-off meetings, Chatter, Slack, Teams, email newsletters, lunch-and-learn events, regional office visits, ride-alongs, program dashboards, etc.
  • Maintain a promotion plan/calendar like any other marketing function.
  • Promote user success stories. Who best to explain the value of the program? Promote those user stories to educate and enlighten the un-acculturated users.

Be an Internal Consultant

There are a lot of tactic parts to running a customer reference program and it’s easy to become a reactive, production line, which is low impact. The program leaders that proactively meet with consumers of customer references & content, and use feedback to define goals are strategic and have much bigger potential. When your program’s services become a dependency for other departments’ business goal achievement the support grows. It’s a virtuous cycle. More on this topic

A true consultant looks to support the current demand and future demand. Future demand is driven by a company’s growth goals, which could be in one or more of these categories.





Your mission is to make sure that whatever sales activities are planned to support the goals, the reference program, and database specifically, are in position to support those activities.

Align with Sales

Customer reference programs typically reside in the marketing department, but are inherently cross-functional. Program leaders should be tightly integrated with Sales. Here are some successful ways to ensure alignment:

  • Consider the fun factor for Sales. Driven by competition and recognition, incentives designed to drive desired behaviors can be a game changer.
  • Physically locate some or all of the reference team in the sales department or in sales field offices. It’s amazing how many
    small, but important things can be gleaned by overhearing conversations or being in impromptu sales meetings.
  • Adopt sales terminology to describe program activities: pipeline, quota, account plans, etc. Refer to your reference recruiting
    efforts as your pipeline and salespeople will instantly get what you do, and how they might help.
  • Organize references and content in ways familiar to and frequently searched by Sales. Product and/or service hierarchy
    seems be one of the most common disconnects. Marketing follows the collateral lexicon, Sales typically think in terms of how
    clients’ needs translate to products. Avoid making them work to find what they need.
  • Make an appearance at new-hire training. New salespeople need advocate program resources more than veterans. Ensure the newbies are familiar with your program and enabling technology in week one of their employment.
  • Become a fixture in sales events and use the time to better understand strategic initiatives, challenges, and to promote new
    program elements.

As you may have surmised, while not rocket science, a certain amount of focus and bandwidth is required to reach a high level of adoption. In that respect executive support should be at the top of your priority list to gain the necessary resources and budget allocation. This is an exciting time to be leading a customer reference program. Peers have become the #1 outside influence of B2B purchase decisions; above analysts and traditional vendor marketing materials (where the customer isn’t the story). Our community can really move the needle if we’re methodical and passionate about our discipline.

User adoption of customer reference technology is a natural extension of program extension, and we have a post on that topic as well. Enjoy!

If you’re building a case for your program checkout our business case checklist. We also have an infographic featuring report findings and stats from analysts that will reinforce your case with expert perspectives. Visit our Resources page for other useful information and tools.

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