Customer reference programs, come in so many flavors. The main differences are in terms of strategic importance and scope. For a long time a company that had one or more people cranking out case studies would claim to have a customer reference program. At some point maybe that was enough. That era precedes my time at Point of Reference (12+ years).

What’s so different today? As consumers and business buyers we rely more heavily on peer opinions than any other source of influence. Case studies, written effectively, do convey peer opinions. But they are just the tip of the ice berg.

The customer reference ecosystem spans the entire enterprise. Advocate stories should be easily accessed by buyers and customers alike through marketing, sales, PR, AR, IR, social media, executive and client success activities. For this to happen the first requirement is customer advocate data.

  • Who is an advocate?
  • What aspect(s) of our solution can they speak to knowledgeably?
  • In what ways are they able to participate?
  • How often are they willing to participate?

Everyone in the organization—all advocate stakeholders—need access to this data and must record their customer activities in the same repository or system. This ensure integrity and prevents overuse and uncoordinated requests from both you and your colleagues, unaware of each other’s initiatives.

An advocate’s potential reach goes far beyond case studies, but their participation and commitment is influenced by a number of factors, and each represent unique relationships. What makes a good customer reference and motivates them is worth exploring within your customer base. In fact, the number of ways to tell your story through your customers is extensive, which led us to write this post on the coming age  of the Customer Reference Consultant.

What then defines a customer advocate program in 2016?

Quality Data Commitment

A program is predicated on knowledge about your customers. How well that data is collected and updated determines the success of the program—it’s that simple. Without automation this is a time-consuming, and challenging task. This information must be searchable by any consumer and customer use history must be recorded for program measurement, avoidance of overuse, and potentially, for reward in one form or another.

Reference Request Automation

Email blasts seeking references aren’t efficient or effective a majority of the time. They are a drag on employee productivity, and slow down deal progress and marketing projects. A program simply cannot cost-effectively scale without automation.

Prolific Content Creation

Web videos, case studies, press releases, trade publication articles, speaking opportunities, analyst reports, tweets, guest blogs, executive briefings, trade show videos… This is a non-exhaustive list of ways customer advocates improve the quality of your messaging to the market. Existing customers looking for best practices—perhaps reasons to renew—also benefit from customer content. For sales it’s important to map content to stages of the sales cycle, and that requires an understanding of what they need and when.

Sales Enablement (not just Marketing)

While Sales engagement by prospects is occurring later in the sales cycle it doesn’t lessen the importance of equipping Sales with customer advocate stories and content. Their role is morphing into more of a consultant. They need real-world stories more than marketing collateral to support this new mission. Early in the sales cycle they need to curate compelling content and have an easy way to share it. Later they need to be able to find advocates and request their use for calls, site visits, etc. This team cannot be ignored and told to simply share case studies. They need to be able to match prospects and customers with minimal effort and time.

Measurement DNA

We know that when customer advocates are effectively used in the sales process win rate probability increases, along with revenue. Your management team and non-believer stakeholders need proof. The only way to consistently associate advocate activity with revenue is through technology. It’s nice to be able to show how your program’s advocate list is growing, your content library is expanding, but financial impact is the end-goal. A program should have targets each quarter for revenue influenced by the program, and have the means to track it’s success.

Dynamic Program Leadership

The difference between a customer advocate fanatic running the program and a resource given ownership of the program because they had bandwidth is massive. In addition to the passion, they need superior relationship skills for both customers and internal stakeholders. They need a “data head” as well since quality data is the foundation of the program. The ideal leader is continuously soliciting the needs of sales, PR, social media, etc., and then adapting the program’s membership and processes to meet those needs. Learn more

Functional Integration

A reference program that operates in a vacuum is doomed to be viewed as tactical and nice-to-have. The integration is cultural, operational and technical. First, all stakeholders show own client success and referenceability. It should be the end goal, clearly stated and often discussed. Teams that can improve their output with customer advocates should be reminded and measured on their ability to do so. Web content, marketing messaging, PR: all should embed customer stories into their work. They should recognize the customer reference program as THE source of this knowledge, contribute to it and use the tools/systems available to track usage. Sales playbooks should include when to use customer content and customer advocates. Customer success team technology should interact with customer reference technology. Surveys, such as net promoter, should be used to identify potential advocates who self-identify as promoters. With a native application for Salesforce like ours the integration effort becomes easier, but even if your options don’t include Salesforce, if there is a will, there is a way.

Customer Value Prop-Centric

Customers choose to be our advocates for many reasons. While there are the purely altruistic advocates, many are motivated by value derived personally and/or professionally. A reference program needs to have those benefits clearly defined and articulated to appeal to the interests of a variety of advocate personas. Some are interested in publicity, some want greater input into product development, and some seek strategic relationships at the executive level. We aren’t proponents of any form of payment in exchange for advocacy, but that doesn’t mean thank-you’s aren’t in order or that fun can’t be part of the mutually beneficial relationship.

Looking Forward

We are very bullish on the future of customer reference programs—as you may have surmised. The disruption of the B2B buying process, the evolution of customer reference technology, and the changes in perception of customer reference program value all point to a renaissance period in our field. It’s a great time to be a change agent in your company and have a real impact on the core goal of any enterprise: growth.

Useful Resources

If you’d like to take a deeper dive and evaluate your current customer reference environment, and learn how to level up across 11 different areas that comprise a program, get our Maturity Model assessment tool. If you’re in the process of building support for a customer reference initiative get our checklist for building a business case. Third party expertise can accelerate your initiative. We offer a one-day onsite workshop that yields a highly prioritized set of next steps—custom to your environment—on the road to establishing a stellar program.