When I began building my first customer reference program, a friend in sales pulled me aside and said “you know we’re all coin-operated, right? If you want us to nominate references, you’re going to have to fork up some dough.”
I was naïve. I came from PR, so what did I know about sales people? I bought into this idea like so many others, and headed down the path toward failure.
Here’s why relying on any kind of incentive program as a primary means to entice sales personnel to recruit customer references simply doesn’t work.
This is not to say that spiff programs never work. They just don’t work in a vacuum.
So what does work?
The path to reference program success includes buy-in and support from sales leadership, and a willingness to partner with marketing leadership.
This doesn’t just mean a “sure that’s a good idea, go ahead and do that” vote of confidence. It means sales and executive leadership exhibit an expectation of reference recruitment.
When there is an expectation that sales will actively engage in reference recruitment, periodic incentive programs can be used more successfully to bolster the reference database. For example, occasional spiff programs can rally the team to fill gaps in use cases, verticals or geographies.
Some organizations go one step further, incorporating metrics such as percentage of referenceable accounts into MBOs for individual account managers and sales leadership.
Too often, though, the reference program is seen as a marketing initiative along, and given only lip service by sales leadership. The reality is that when it comes to creating an effective customer reference program, the best indicator of success is the alignment of marketing and sales. In no other practice area is this more crucial.
I'm three months post lay-off, and I've thought of this time as my summer sabbatical while I've explored potential new gigs - both corporate and consulting. I wanted to make the most of my time. If I had to reverse-engineer my to do list, this would be it.
Sit. Think. Heal. Don't get me wrong, the uncertainty that comes from the sudden end of a job has been be stressful. But wow, what a blessing it has been to allow my mind and body to heal from the everyday push. Hatha Yoga has been my sanctuary, and it's a habit I want to keep.
Apply agile principles to cleaning out the garage. My husband did not agree with this approach. Lesson learned: you must have buy-in from all parties for an agile program to work. Moving on...
Connect with vendors. This is one of the best things I've chosen to do with my time. When I was running a customer reference program I was slammed every minute, and didn't have the time to learn about new customer advocacy and insights technologies like SlapFive and Cognition Insights. I also had never looked in-depth at Point of Reference when I was evaluating customer reference management systems, so CEO David Sroka took the time to walk me through it. Not only was the sales pressure off so I could have more relaxed conversations with vendors I'd been curious about, but they also became great connections for me.
Try something different. I'm also a singer, songwriter and visual artist. And I can't sit still. So, I created the B Strings line of recycled guitar string jewelry and went on the local street fair circuit in addition to launching an online store. Follow me on Instagram.
Be authentic. I'm a firm believer that things work out exactly as they are supposed to. I may jump back into the world of full-time corporate employment if and when the right opportunity comes up. But for now, I'm working on consulting projects with great people who I've thoroughly enjoyed working with in the past, and I have more conversations lined up over the next few weeks. I'm right where I want to be.
cross-posted on LinkedIn
(originally posted on LinkedIn)
Let's be honest. For the sponsoring organization, the end goal of any customer reference or advocacy program is the resulting customer content, and data to feed back into organizational planning.
But customer-centric organizations also understand that when the love flows both ways, the experience is as valuable for the customer as it is for the vendor - and the rewards keep on growing.
The result? A spectacular bloom of customer advocates and a beautiful array of customer content… with an added bonus of additional revenue. Reference and advocacy managers on the front lines know that those perfect blooms start with a lot of digging around in the dirt.
As every gardener knows, you’ve got to pay attention to what your plants need if you want to keep them happy. And if they’re not happy in one part of the garden, you may need to uproot them and move them to another spot. In short, if you’re serious about the garden, you’d best be ready to get your hands dirty.
Customer Advocate Programs are like that, and the path to success is pretty simple.
Anyone for a pair of gardening gloves?
I first introduced this gardening analogy in the Fall of 2016 when I spoke on getting executive buy-in at the request of the folks at RO Innovation, makers of ReferenceView, for their Elevate user conference. I presented it again at the Summit on Customer Engagement this past March. You can listen to the audio of my presentation at the Summit here.
Industry watchers like Forrester Research, Gartner and SiriusDecisions continue to send a strong message for B2B marketers: Customer advocacy is a critical function.
SiriusDecisions points out that advocacy programs have grown out of traditional customer reference programs, but the role has expanded to encompass more non-reference, but non-the-less customer-focused, activities. Events, communities, social influencer engagement and advisory boards are just a few examples.
For a small, lean organization that can seem like a luxury.
Or maybe its just semantics? Whatever you call the program, let’s not lose sight of what is truly critical: Starting with a solid customer reference process as a manageable first step on which to build.
Most customer reference programs initially spring up from necessity, and as such, they can be tactical in nature. Marketing needs case studies to drive demand gen. AR needs customer references for annual analyst reports like the Gartner Magic Quadrant and Forrester Wave. Sales needs one-on-one references to close deals.
Addressing these needs and balancing them with the interest and availability of key customers without burning them out is the basic function of the customer reference process. And good customer reference managers take this one step further to really engage with their customers to understand their personal and organizational goals, so the program is beneficial for everyone.
The idea of transforming the traditional reference program into a customer advocacy program has blossomed over the past few years. This was a pervasive topic at the Summit on Customer Engagement where I spoke this past March.
From discussion in the advanced practitioner’s workshop before the conference to the organic buzz during the networking breaks, it was clear that we’re on a trajectory to up-level the strategic importance of identifying, recruiting and cultivating customers who want to share their expertise as well as their experiences with our brands.
There’s no denying that this function – whether you call it customer marketing, customer advocacy or customer reference management – has tremendous potential beyond the basic goal of recruiting and managing references. The by-product of increasing customer engagement has become the driver that supports cross sell efforts and provides valuable insights back to the organization for everything from demand gen and ABM to product marketing and strategy.
So do lean organizations need a customer advocacy program? Yes. But like everything else, it can start small.
A customer advocacy program doesn’t have to encompass an advisory board right away. It doesn’t have to include a community. It doesn’t have to have a brand or an annual event. It can start with the basics of a reference program and build from there, no matter what you call it.
The difference is attitude.
Customer-focused organizations collectively and instinctively think in terms of advocacy. Their programs will build toward the bigger picture even while starting with a basic reference program. The most crucial component is the agreement from both marketing and sales leadership to support the program and keep it moving forward.
(cross-posted to my LinkedIn profile)