Why Sales Isn’t 110% Into Your Customer Reference Program

Ever wonder why Sales isn’t 110% into your customer reference program? After all, “If you build it, they will come.”

That’s how you’d expect a customer reference program to be received, right? Confetti parade, fireworks! People were seriously complaining about not being able to find reference customers for sales calls, events, PR, customer videos, and on and on. Of all the departments in need of references, Sales is most likely at the top of the list.

So you’ve centralized a list of qualified references, promoted it to Sales, and, hopefully, done some training around effective reference use. Yet, several months later, salespeople continue to source their own reference customers through Slack or email blasts: black market referencing. You tell sales leadership about the problem, and maybe they bring it up on an All Sales call — once. Nothing really changes. All the reasons your company chose to invest in a customer reference manager position, technology, and mindshare:

  • Save those hunting for references tons of time
  • Improve the quality of reference matches
  • Use references consistently, even proactively, for competitive advantage
  • Prevent customer reference overuse
  • Identify the most active advocates, and show gratitude
  • Quantify advocate impact on company sales

..are now in jeopardy of not being addressed, not getting fixed as planned.

On the surface, this makes no sense. What’s going on? Here are the most likely culprits.

Lack of Sales Leadership Support

Let’s start with what is usually most perplexing. Sales leadership does the bare minimum to support your program, and it quickly falls off their radar. Aren’t they interested in improving sales effectiveness, boosting win rates, elevating average sellers to exceptional sellers, maintaining high job satisfaction, and hitting team quota? Yes and:

  • They have a lot of other worries, and the squeakiest wheels will get the grease. You need to “squeak” be clearly articulating the consequences of poorly executed customer reference practices. Deals lost. Reference customers ticked off for being bugged too frequently. Productivity squandered hunting for references. Frustration within the team about a messy part of the job.
  • Too far from removed from the day-to-day. Since they aren’t the ones worrying about finding references to close deals, they don’t really feel the pain to the same degree. Sure, when the quota isn’t met, the s–t will hit the fan.
  • “When I was an account executive, I didn’t have [fill in the blank]” We’re all guilty of thinking when we were young or in that position, we simply made do, so suck it up. This is a short-sighted position to take. Ultimately, helping salespeople do their jobs more efficiently and with more competence results in higher sales and company growth. So why handicap them just because a leader’s previous experience didn’t include customer reference resources?
  • They don’t see how finely tuned reference programs directly support Sales goals. If they’ve never been at a company with a professional customer reference program, they don’t know what’s possible. It’s a worthwhile effort to meet with them, review Sales goals (growth by segment, required advocate stories, product launches, etc.), and explain how, simply put, your goals are derived from their goals. Connect those dots!
  • As busy, distracted people, Sales leaders need your “ask” handed to them on a silver platter. Provide them with talking points or even the complete content for emails, Slack, or meetings. Discuss frequency of communications, what you need (both the “stick” and “carrot”) to “encourage” those salespeople continuing to work outside the system, and how often you’d like to meet with them to discuss progress/challenges/goals and results that back up your reason for being.
Salespeople have a lot of other “tools”

Your program and tools are competing with many others. You can win this competition by:

  • Giving salespeople an opportunity to feel invested in this program, designed just for them. There is no better way to do this than by including them in your program advisory board. They can’t ignore or reject what they gave birth to.
  • Providing effective training to both existing and new users (onboarding). Those other tools? Salespeople didn’t get great training on all of them. You can be different. Don’t assume salespeople know how best to incorporate customer references into their practices. They most likely learned from a more senior seller in their first job. More senior doesn’t equate to correct or effective training. You’re the expert; teach them.
Salespeople can’t find what they need

This is a classic cause of program failure, as written about in an earlier post. You get Sales all pumped up about being able to easily find just the right customer references, and when they start to search, they don’t find what THEY need or enough of what they need. And back to the status quo, they will go. Reeling them back is a harder job. They’ve been disappointed, as salespeople so often are with new tools. Be the exception. Know their needs. Set expectations. Hold their hands on their first searches. Communicate how your program will address gaps.

Change is hard

When any organic business practice is “operationalized,” behavior change is required. Could be a lot, could be a little. People generally don’t like change; until they can see how it benefits them. That’s your mission. Tell them how the effort will translate to benefit them. Remind them regularly with customer reference success stories from peers, offer reinforcement training, and solicit feedback regularly. The reality is that “If you build it they will come” is a nice dream, but rarely the case when it comes to our Sales colleagues. Just as they are judged (What have you done for me lately?), so will you.

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