Does this sound like a typical scenario in your company? You get an S.O.S. email at 5:00 p.m., blasted out to 20 people asking for a customer willing to serve as a reference. Oh, and the salesperson needs to get the information to the prospect first thing in the morning. A chain of email continues until noon two days later, when the prospect finally receives the reference information. If only there was a better way.
Satisfied customers willing to serve as references for your new prospects often make the difference between winning and losing the sale. Getting and keeping those references, however, is a challenging and time-consuming job. While critical to the success of sales, this responsibility often falls into the lap of marketing and product management professionals who may not be as close to the individual customers as their sales representatives.
Implementing a seven-step customer reference program
There is a better way. These seven strategies help you avoid the stressful and unproductive customer reference scramble. Using this approach, you can systematically acquire and retain customer references that will help grow the company, increase the bottom line, and build credibility and brand equity.
Ask for a reference. It is vital to have a process and communications in place for Sales to ask customers to provide a reference, and then make it easy for Sales to nominate customers who agree.
Surprisingly, many companies simply don’t ask customers to serve as references. Sometimes, sales representatives want to protect their customers by not asking for “favors.” Other times, it’s not top-of-mind or encouraged internally. Or there’s no process in place to make asking for references easy and worthwhile.
In truth, customers are often the best spokespeople—even the best salespeople—a company has. Oftentimes, the customer is flattered to speak of his or her expertise and experience with your product.
Set up a consistent and easy process to make asking for the reference a top-of-mind and painless process for sales.
Broach the subject by including reference language in the final negotiations of a deal.
Designate a marketing specialist to work with sales representatives on opportunities to secure new references.
Keep track of the sales representatives who contribute references, and make their contributions known to others.
Once Sales sees the value of customer references in influencing the next deal, the process gets better and better.
- Set proper expectations with potential references at the outset—and then meet them. Let customers know how you intend to use the references. For example, will you use the reference in public relations activities with the media? Do you intend to use the customer’s name and quotes on the website and in collateral materials? Or will the reference be asked to speak directly with future prospects?
Find out whether your customer’s company has tight restrictions on public testimonials. As a general rule, you will have more luck with customer references if the customer contact doesn’t have to go through elaborate internal approvals on his or her end. Often, getting approval to connect a customer with a peer is acceptable, and ensuring you don’t overstep those preset boundaries can establish a successful, long-term relationship.
Setting expectations also applies to the situations in which you place your customers. Don’t ask them to speak on a topic with which they aren’t familiar. And always try to match the job level and subject expertise of the person with whom they’ll be speaking. Putting customers in situations that aren’t well aligned with their expectations can quickly lead to frustration and minimize the business benefits you hope to achieve.
- Avoid reference burnout. You’ve worked hard to acquire these customer references, so don’t scare them away by asking them to do too much for you. Know how much is “enough” by asking them in advance, and check back regularly to ensure that they are still happy to act as a reference for you. Implement a system for rotating and ranking references for the best fit with a prospect. For example, match a customer who has recently experienced great troubleshooting and customer service with a prospect who has questions about your company’s support.
By keeping track of which customers have participated in which activities and how this activity stacks up against reasonable thresholds, you’ll be in a better position to communicate why a particular customer “needs a rest.”
The other key to avoiding burnout situations is to make sure you have sufficient back-up resources. If you have only one customer willing to speak about your new product, you are heading for trouble. With some visibility into your portfolio of customer references, focus the company on nominating additional customers where they are most needed.
- Stay in contact with customers. Learn their business for the most relevant, up-to-date references. The best way to match the right reference for a prospect or for marketing purposes is to learn how your customers have implemented your product or are using your service. How happy are they? Have they bought subsequent products from you? Has your contact changed positions or left the company? There’s nothing worse than serving up a customer reference who’s just had a hiccup with your product. Have an efficient way to update information in a centralized place, and always ask the sales rep for last-minute updates just before using that customer as a reference.=
It’s also important to keep it personal. With numerous customers and a lot of activities happening at once, it can be hard to keep track of it all—but most of the time, a customer’s willingness to be a reference is ultimately based on a relationship either with you or with other individuals in your organization. Keeping track of these relationships can go a long way toward creating success.
One often-overlooked angle is maintaining some visibility into customers who may be willing to serve as a reference, but for whatever reason, have not recently participated. You can track underused customers with some of the same methods previously mentioned. Find ways to reach out to these customers and either get them involved or let them know that they are still top of mind.
- Centralize and have a champion for the corporate customer reference program. Customer reference efforts often fail because once you provide a reference and win a deal, it’s time to move on—until the next scramble ensues. The problem can arise because no one owns customer references. Or because no one champions the need for a formalized reference program. Or because there is no central repository for reference information with notes about accounts and activities. Information often resides in individual spreadsheets and emails. A champion communicates and demonstrates the benefits of a formalized reference program. A champion also maintains the momentum of valuable reference activity.
Finding a champion often comes from a marketing or sales executive who understands the benefits and challenges associated with customer reference management. From Product Management to PR to Sales, effective customer reference management helps all facets of the organization, but it often takes a whisper in an executive’s ear to get the ball rolling and formalize the effort.
- Let customers know their references are appreciated. Just as you would thank a friend who gave you a gift, it is important to acknowledge the value your customer has given to you. Send handwritten thank-you notes. Find out what is important to that client and start there. It might be as simple as getting connected with a product manager to give feedback. Get creative. Everyone likes to feel appreciated, and proper etiquette and timely follow up just might improve your customer satisfaction ratings, too.
- Consider automating your customer reference program for a more effective, systematic approach to customer reference management. Although you can manage a customer reference program without sophisticated or pre-packaged technology solutions, as your organization grows, it becomes more difficult to manually track and manage the details, interactions, and activity with homegrown spreadsheets and processes. There are software solutions that can help keep all your reference program activities organized, productive, and moving in the right direction. If you have more than a few dozen customers or a fast-growing pipeline, it might make sense to evaluate some of the technology tools designed specifically to solve this challenge, streamline your program, and improve your results.
Customer references are often the “hot potato” between the sales, marketing, and account management areas of an organization. Done correctly, an effective customer reference program can help close sales faster, give your entire company more credibility, lead to more media coverage, and provide great marketing content.