When we’re working with companies establishing their first customer reference program, this is an inevitable question. And it’s a good question to ask rather than to assume all customers are equally good candidates for your program.
Strategic Growth Goals
Before getting to this answer, a gap analysis should be conducted to make sure that you know a) the segments that need coverage today, and b) those that are anticipated a quarter or more out. The current demand is most easily identified by pulling a sales pipeline report from your CRM system. You can slice and dice that information by, for instance, industry, product/solution, and geography; or better, by criteria combinations (e.g., product A + healthcare + AP). Look for the largest segments that comprise the current pipeline and rank them. These are your high demand reference needs today.
Part two of this analysis is getting ahead on future demand. This will be driven based on company growth strategy. Is your company targeting new industries, geos, or perhaps a new segment such as enterprise or SMB? Is there a new partnership you want to promote, or an acquisition for which you need clients that can tell the combined solution story? While every executive should be focused on these strategic goals, sales management will be able to educate you on their marching orders, which translate to your marching orders. Add their priorities to your “future” list for references as you begin building your database.
Once your target segments are identified, then it’s time to think about your ideal customer advocate profile, because it’s the people, not the accounts, that will be involved in acts of advocacy. Things to consider about your advocate candidates include:
A customer reference should have some depth of experience with your products/solution to share with prospective customers. Results, especially measurable, are the bottom line. A customer who can say how your solution is changing their business and their professional life is super compelling. This might lead to a discussion of specific solution aspects (e.g., software features) or service experience (e.g., how their relationship manager goes above and beyond).
Generally you want to provide references of equivalent level, or seniority, to the contacts at the prospective customer organization. That might include c-level, director-level, manager-level, and even front line people who are influencers. Having a good mix of reference resources allows for peer matching and higher relevancy.
At what point do you call a customer an advocate? Is it when they agree to a press release about selecting you as a partner? Is it when they agree to their first phone reference (a.k.a., peer-to-peer call)? Is it when you have a program conversation with them and gain participation in a variety of activities such as speaking opportunities, guest blogging, or giving a video interview, etc.? Will their availability and responsiveness be adequate or will getting ahold of the Queen of England be easier? You need to decide what level of commitment equates to program membership, or at the very least, program membership tier.
- Personality & Passion
We’ve always said that an energetic and passionate manager-level reference is more compelling than a less-than-enthusiastic c-level reference. That’s not meant to be a blanket statement, however. It depends a lot on how you intend to use a customer reference. For live events and for video, the more personality and passion, the better. For written case studies and customer reviews (e.g., G2), on the other hand, it’s not as important.
Some customers are wired for social media and speaking opportunities. They will view opportunities to act as your advocate as furthering their own personal promotion goals: win/win. These contacts are the gifts that keep on giving! They are likely a smaller percentage of your advocate base, but can often have an outsized impact and thus deserve outsized recognition.
This is an entire blog topic of it’s own. Spoiler alert, some math is involved. Check out our How Many Customer References Should You Have? blog post for all the details. The short answer is that you need enough advocates in each of your major segments (and beyond if possible) based on anticipated demand to avoid finding yourself with a shortage when you can’t afford it.
It’s common to fall into a “beggars can’t be choosers” mindset when embarking on your recruiting project. However, if you take a moment to develop a more deliberate approach, the end result will be a higher quality pool and a more efficient program. In your recruiting efforts, be sure to clearly articulate the segments you’re trying to cover so that no time or effort is wasted on the part of salespeople, CSMs, and other sources of candidates. If you’re rewarding “nominators,” make rewards contingent upon quality and not simply quantity. For best practices related to nomination campaigns, see our post on this topic.