The Director of Public Relations (PR) has just finished informing the executive management team that there is no way this launch will be a success without customer references. He has fewer than six reporters who want to speak with customers about the new features. The Director of Industry Analyst Relations (IAR), attending the meeting as well, chimes in that there are four industry analysts who want to speak with customers. Even the normally-sedate Director of Investor Relations (IR) is expressing frustration that there are no customers available to speak with stock analysts about the merits of the new features touted on the past three earnings announcement calls.
These people, whose job it is to influence the company’s key influencers—the press, industry analysts, and stock analysts—do not have what they need to be successful. They need customers to speak with these key influencers to validate the product’s claims so that the company will 1.) get “ink” on the new product in target publications, 2.) have industry analysts recommend the products to the target market, and 3.) have sell-side stock analysts recommend the company’s stock, and for the buy-side stock analysts to buy it.
Who is to blame for the shortfall in customers willing to participate? “Not me,” according to the beta manager. He sent the product marketing manger a spreadsheet of customers who said they would be a reference. The product marketing manager sent it to the customer reference manager. “No one followed up with the customers,” the product marketing manager continues. The product marketing manager claims he did his job: “I told the customer reference manager to follow up with numerous customers who are really excited about the new feature set.”
And then there is the customer reference manager who told the beta team manager that all of the customers in the beta program have policies against public reference activities. “Why didn’t you follow up with the customers I recommended—the ones we know will provide a quote and speak with the media?”
This is a not-so-uncommon scenario, with fingers pointing in every direction except inward. It is painful for everyone.
Long before the launch, the launch team must determine:
- How many customers are needed to support a launch
- A starting point
- What it takes to secure customer participation in order to pull off an effective, customer-focused launch
Define customer requirements
It is important to know precisely how you want customers to assist you with your launch so that you can clearly communicate the request to customers. Your customer likely needs approval from his manager and his corporate communications group. Your communication should take into consideration the customer’s ultimate approvers. Launch activities are straightforward and include:
- Quotes in a press release
- Quotes for general marketing purposes such as web, collateral, presentations
- Interviews with media, industry analysts, and stock analysts
How many participants do you need?
Do you have two references? Or 18? How many do you need? The first step in determining how many customers you need for launch support is to ask the PR, IAR, and IR managers how many people they will be briefing. The assumption is that all who will be briefed will want to speak with one customer, if not two or more. The PR manager might brief five reporters, the IAR manager might have three analysts who will want to speak with customers, and the IR manager two stock analysts who will want to speak with customers. Generally, one customer interview is sufficient for a reporter; however, industry and stock analysts prefer to speak with more than one customer.
Let’s assume two. Given these circumstances, the key influencers will want to speak with 15 customers.
It is unrealistic to expect a customer to do more than two interviews with any combination of reporters or analysts, owing to people’s busy schedules. And it is not uncommon for a customer to participate in only one interview. Based on the scenario above, a company would need seven customers willing to speak to the merits of the new product’s features—assuming the customer is willing to speak with two interviewers of any sort. It is important for the PR, IA, and IR managers to recognize that there is a limited pool of available participants, so they need to prioritize their analysts and provide fewer references than they requested.
Launch-related customer interviews needed to satisfy key influencers
|Reference requests||# of key influencers
|# of references
needed per influencer
|# of customer interviews needed|
Note:  This chart is a guide and may vary depending on a number of influencers your company engages;  assumes customers likely to assist with one and no more than two interviews of any combination.
Allow ample time
Recognize that getting customers to publicly endorse your products is a multi-touch process that takes weeks, if not months. It is critical to factor in enough time for the customer reference manager to secure customers participating in the launch. Customers are as busy as you and often their objectives are not the same as yours.
Remember that your customer’s manager, who needs to sign off, has a busy schedule as well. And your customer’s PR manager has her own objectives that are not your customer’s and certainly not yours. For all of these reasons, allow ample time for getting approvals. A two-week approval period is very aggressive. Most customers cannot come back with approval so quickly. Allow at least one month or a full quarter.
The reference program
The customer reference business is a numbers game. For many companies, corporate policies simply do not allow customers to publicly endorse products, for a myriad of reasons.
One great source of references is the product beta program. While the primary role of the program is to test the product in customer environments, it can also generate references from your early adopter clients.
With that said, you should assume that at least 30% of your customer base, which includes Beta program participants, is not allowed to engage in public-facing reference activities—including a quote in a release and speaking to media. The financial services and insurance industry have very strict policies and may not even allow a name mention. A number of major retailers—with very strong brands—protect their brand very closely. It may still be possible for customers at these companies to speak with industry or stock analysts since interview notes are not published, so it is worthwhile to ask. But in terms of a public endorsement, look elsewhere.
There are a number of companies able to assist with public-facing reference activities, but have policies against speaking about a product that is not production; i.e., they do not want to risk endorsing a product that has not been fully implemented, or has not been in production for a certain period of time. Even if such a corporate policy is not in place, some individuals are reticent to endorse a product until it is implemented. Conservatively, that cuts another 10% from your beta program, leaving 60% of the pool of beta participants who can possibly participate.
The funnel continues to narrow. A certain percentage of people will not be pleased with the features in your new release. Let’s say that equates to 15%. A certain percentage will drop out of the beta program because they did not have the time to participate. Let’s say that equates to 15% as well. You are now left with 30% of your beta participants who may be able to assist.
Even those in the 30% pool who do participate may be too busy to assist, as noted above. I would put this number at 15%, leaving approximately 15% of your beta participant pool who may be able to assist. If there are 100 people in your beta program, you are in good shape. However, if you have a smaller beta program of 50 people, only 7.5 people are likely to assist!
Customer reference people know these ratios and have experienced them first hand but it is hard for many people involved in the launch process such as PR, Product Marketing, the Beta team, and certainly executives, to recognize this.
Determining the number of customers you want in the beta program who will support you in the launch is a straightforward mathematical equation. If you need seven customers to speak with your key influencers, and you know approximately 15% of the people in your beta program will be willing and able to assist, then you need nearly50 people in your beta program.
Estimate of beta customers willing to assist public reference activities
|Reasons for not assisting||Eliminated
|Policy requires completed implementation||10%||60%|
|Dissatisfied with features||15%||45%|
|Dropped out of beta program||15%||30%|
|Willing, but too busy||15%||15%|
Seed your program
Getting to this point—knowing which of the 7.5 customers can publicly endorse your product—is time-consuming. Keep in mind that a “yes” given to the beta manager does not necessarily mean yes. It is certainly a good base to start from, but not all willing customers know if their corporate policy prohibits PR and media participation of a vendor’s launch effort. Further-qualify your potential “yeses.”
You can count on the customer reference manager spending an average of one hour per customer in
- initiating customer contact by phone and email
- subsequent follow up if you do not reach them in person
- recording communication notes
A product beta program with 50 participants equates to a week and a half’s worth of work. The 50 hours occurs over several weeks, as it takes that long for your customers to respond.
You can now see the value in truncating this process. And the best way is to seed the program with people you know can help, based on their knowledge of corporate policies. The customer reference manager is the person to recommend these people. It is very important for the beta manager to closely monitor the progress of these customers.
If some of your best references are too busy to participate in the beta program, you want to provide a mechanism for them to learn about new features. Arrange a webcast where the product marketing manager covers the product’s new features, and the customer reference manager explains and invites customers to this event.
Don’t skip approvals
Your customer likely will need to get approval from management, and if you are asking for a quote in a press release or customer willingness to speak with the press, permission from their PR manager is necessary. Do not overlook this step. It is important to let your customers know in advance that public-facing activities like a press release and media interview require their company’s corporate communications approval. This adds a lot of time to the approval process. One well-known vendor requires 13 weeks for a quote to be approved by all the involved departments. But don’t take shortcuts. Here is why.
Shortcuts generally result in a few unsavory outcomes:
- your customer will get admonished by upper management
- your PR team will get a call from your customer’s irate PR team and/or an irate customer executive
- your customer will tell you at the last minute that they cannot assist because their corporate policies do not permit such participation
In any of these scenarios, you have likely lost this customer as a reference for good.
This brings us to the scenario of when executives are dissatisfied that there are not enough “big name” companies supporting the launch. Your CEO will want to know why, for example, there is not a quote from Big Name Company XYX in the release. You have heard directly from the account manager, the customer, and his PR manager that Big Name Company XYX will not provide a quote in the release. Corporate policies at some companies are so strict that not even a name mention on a website is allowed. Accept that some companies do not allow endorsement of vendors, and turn your attention for launch support to the customers who will assist.
Pave the way
Proactively provide all the information your customer, his manager, and his PR manager need to make a decision as quickly as possible. This means crafting a detailed email that states exactly what you are asking for and when. Further, the PR and product marketing mangers should draft the quote that they want the customer to approve. The customer reference manager will tell the customer that this is the ideal quote as drafted by PR and product marketing, but the customer should feel free to tailor it to reflect his environment.
Also, remind the PR and product marketing managers not to get too wrapped up in their messaging. Most people, and in particular your customers, do not talk in messaging. If customers make tweaks to your quote or even radical edits, so long as they are generally on point, accept the edits. Why? Because that likely is the only way you will get a quote approved by that customer.
Work directly with your customer’s PR whenever possible, although it is OK to work through your customer if that is what the customer prefers. Find out how the customer’s PR team likes to be engaged. Are they OK with their employees speaking directly with the press? Or do they require a PR person to join the call? Some PR groups require in advance the questions the reporter is likely to ask. Or, the customer’s PR manager may require any copy to be reviewed. Many reporters will not allow this, so that requirement generally rules out that customer for media opportunities.
Finally, find out how the customer should be alerted to the media opportunity once it arises. Should you call and/or email? Should you send it to the customer and PR manager?
Ensure no trouble with the media
The worst-case scenario would be your customer speaking negatively about your product to the media. We all assume customers who are a part of the beta program are pleased. The customer reference manager should double-check this. And be direct! The customer reference manager should tell the customer we assume they are a happy customer, as confirmed by the beta manager, account manager, or other such party.
If you are not familiar with this customer, you should directly state in a polite fashion that bringing up any product issues with the media is not ideal. You can even express embarrassment at having to say that, but to avoid mishaps, be direct. The customer reference manager needs to directly state and hear that this customer will be suitable to speak with the media.
While some customers are perceived as better references than others in that they are particularly well-spoken and excellent communicators, do not rule out those who are more understated. Assuming they have a good story to tell that meets the writer’s requirements, they should make a fine reference. In general, the only customers to rule out are those that are “hot and cold” or unreliable.
Schedule time slots for media interviews
In order to ensure getting “ink” on what your customers have to say about your new product, secure two to three time slots of 30-minute increments on your customers’ calendars multiple weeks in advance of the expected time that reporters will want to speak with your customers. This may seem overzealous, but if you want to ensure your customer’s schedule is free, this is the recommended approach. Reporters are usually on deadline with a small window of free time.
To make this work, the PR manager needs to tell the customer reference manager when they will be briefing reporters, and when they expect the reporters will want to speak with customers. They all have publishing deadlines, and your PR team should know them. While the PR and product marketing teams are briefing reporters during the media tour, you can be sure reporters will want to speak with your customers. By arranging time slots with customers in advance, the PR manager can ask the reporter what times work best, then share that information with the customer reference manager, who will confirm the pre-agreed time slot with the customer.
Thank your customers
You need your customers’ help to make the launch a success. Let them know the importance of the activity: “In order to be successful, we need to have our customers let our key influencers know that what we are saying is validated by you, our customers.” And when customers agree to assist you, genuinely thank them. Thank the customers who are unable to assist as well.
Is it common for customers to ask for something back in recognition of their participation? In general, the best references do not expect anything in return. They are willing to assist for a variety of reasons:
- a general willingness to be helpful
- a love of the product because it is integral to their success
- pride in what they have accomplished using the product
- the desire to showcase their success
A few customers recognize the symbiotic relationship between customer and vendor. In order for a vendor to sell more products, it needs existing customers to publicly state the merits of the product. A successful, revenue-generating company is then able to pour additional funds into development, so that customers continue to get excellent products. When a customer vocalizes this relationship, you know you are working with a very helpful reference.
Numerous problems may arise if you compensate customers for reference activities. First, you may run into a tit-for-tat scenario. A customer may require you to compensate them for every activity. This means that your marketing people need to have good negotiating skills, which is not likely an area of expertise. Do you have a budget to accommodate frequent compensation? Second, should a customer renege on an agreement, are you prepared to insist that the customer uphold their end of the bargain? Third, would you—the marketing organization—be prepared to be one of the first phone calls a customer makes when they are unhappy with the product?
Some companies do put into place a “points” system and have good success with this. However, this depends on the makeup of your customer base. If your customer base is high-level executives, they are not motivated by redeemable points. If your customer base is motivated by a points system, do not underestimate the infrastructure required to launch, execute, and manage such a program.
For all of these reasons, it is best to provide a genuine thank you to your customers during your reference request process and to conclude the launch process with a thank you gift. It could be immediately after the launch or part of a quarterly thank you program. A logoed item, such as a high-end pen set, makes a nice gift, as does a box of chocolates. Depending on how much the customer assists, a coupon or free pass to your annual user group conference or some level of free training, should your company be able to support such gifts, is much appreciated.
Better references mean better launches
Following these suggestions, the beta, product marketing, customer reference, and PR managers, working together, ensure target media write glowing articles about your new release; industry analysts tell your prospects to purchase your products; and investors buy your stock. Good references are critical to a successful launch. It is almost impossible to find these references afterward. So be sure to identify references early in your launch-planning cycle.
Key responsibilities by launch team member
|Customer reference manager||Recommends customer references|
|Secures customers participating in the launch|
|Provides realistic number of customers able to assist to PR, IAR, and IR managers|
|Beta team manager||Shares list of beta participants with CR manager|
|Invites customers recommended by CR manager into beta|
|Closely monitors progress of CR manager’s recommended customers|
|Product marketing manager||Delivers webcast on product features to reference customers not participating in beta program|
|Works with PR to draft ideal quotes for customer approval|
|Public relations manager||Works with Product Marketing to craft ideal quotes for customer approval|
|Alerts CR manager to timeframe of release and media interviews|
|Schedules interviews between reporters and customers|
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