Building a Strong Customer Reference Program

Posted by Lisa O'Brien on May 6, 2021

There are few things more important to sales and marketing than customer references. Prospects want to speak with them, marketing wants to use them for written case studies and testimonials, media relations needs them to conduct interviews with reporters.

Unless a company consciously manages customer references, ideally from very early in the organization’s life, references will be sparse, the few that a company does have will be burnt out within a matter of months, and myriad valuable opportunities will be lost.

How early? As soon as you have your first customer, your organization should create a customer reference strategy. Your first few customers are vital to the success of the company, because prospects will heavily lean on their experience as they evaluate you. But even if you’re a company with dozens or hundreds of customers, it’s not too late to set one up — the larger your company, the more important it becomes to create a formal program.

Make sure someone owns the customer reference program

The first step to building a successful customer reference program is to make sure someone owns it. If you’re a startup, this can be part of one person’s job in sales or marketing, but as you grow, this rapidly will become a full time position that will eventually require a team. 

Too many companies make the mistake of keeping customer reference management in the hands of someone who already has other substantial sales and / or marketing responsibilities long after the work has become a full-time job. Hiring a full-time customer reference manager is a wise investment that will pay off long-term in shorter sales cycles with higher conversion ratios, more powerful marketing programs and stronger press coverage. 

Next, determine your needs so you can create a strategy. What kinds of references do your sales reps need? Are they looking for specific geographical regions? Are they targeting specific verticals? What roles are most important to the sales cycle?

Marketing, too, may have similar needs. Do they need customer quotes for the website? Customers to appear in video testimonials or webinars

What about media relations? Do they need a customer quote for upcoming press releases? Customers who are willing to speak to press?  Customers who might allow them to ghost write contributed articles?

Formalize your program and be strategic about it

Once you’ve inventoried the needs, prioritize them so you can be strategic as you recruit for your customer relations program. But before you begin recruiting, think about how you can make acting as a reference for your company both fun and beneficial for participants. 

Early on, when you only have a handful of customers, it may not make sense to have a formal program, but you should nevertheless come up with ways to ensure that your customers see value from participation, because you’re going to be relying on them a great deal. Discounts are, of course, a tried-and-true way of incentivizing participation, but if you’ve got an executive reference who is eager to promote themselves as a thought leader and innovator, they might find the prospect of a media relations organization promoting them for free a pretty enticing benefit. Win-win for everyone.

As the program matures, however, you’ll want to formalize these benefits. Many organizations find a points system works well. Each reference the customers provide or activity in which they participate provides them with points they can redeem for training, discounts, professional services and other benefits. 

Hold periodic events with your customer references, as well. Local events (once it’s safe to do so, of course) provide great networking opportunities for them, and if you’re creative in choosing the venue, they can be a lot of fun as well.

Recruiting customer references

Now it’s time to recruit customers, and there are two basic ways to do this: soliciting nominations from people inside your company who already hold relationships with customers and through direct recruitment.

The people in your organization most likely to hold relationships with customers are sales and support, and it’s important to incentivize them to provide the customer reference program with nominations and warm introductions. Some within the executive suite may balk at this, saying that providing references is a part of their job -- why should they be paid extra? But setting that question aside, the goal is to get strong nominations. Running contests and paying bonuses for nominations that turn into qualified references will generate more of them … and that’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it? 

However you decide to incentivize people for references, make sure to communicate about the program often: new references, sales that closed thanks to a good reference, press coverage, webinars — show everyone the benefits of having a strong program and make sure they know that they’ll be personally rewarded for contributing. 

When it comes to direct recruiting, it’s a good idea to include acting as a reference in the contract itself. Companies rarely enforce these clauses, but they are helpful in getting some customers over the hump and into the program. Another good lead can be your NPS surveys. Customers who say they’re very likely to recommend you to others are good prospects for the program. You can even include a question on the survey itself asking if they’d be willing to participate. And if you’re stuck on what to write in your email asking them to join or participate, Hubspot has a good selection of customer-facing email templates you can use. 

When looking for good candidates, remember to keep your organization’s needs in mind, and try to find customers who are using the full capabilities of your solution. 

Program management

As your customer relations program grows, you’ll need to make sure you manage it well. That means you’ll need a strong tool to make sure you’re not using some of your customers too often, and that you’re not overlooking good references that have gone unused. Spreadsheets may be sufficient early on, but eventually you’ll want to graduate to something more robust. Many CRM tools, such as Salesforce, have strong customer reference management capabilities, but there are also plenty of specialized tools on the market. 

Make sure you have a clear process for requesting customer references and that everyone who needs them — sales, marketing and media relations — knows how to use it. Certainly, there may be important points in a sale where you’ll need to come up with a reference quickly — and hopefully you’ll have your go-to references on-hand for those situations — but people need to understand that getting a reference requires some lead time.

And don’t forget to take care of your customers. Make them feel appreciated and, even if you have a formal system to benefit references when they participate in activities, sending a thank-you basket or some company swag their way can make them more likely to say yes the next time you ask.

Finally, as with any sales and marketing function, it’s important to measure your program’s effectiveness. How you measure success, of course, is up to you, but there are many metrics to choose from: the number of case studies produced, references provided to prospects, views of video testimonials and even press interviews set up with customers. Measurement should be as rigorous for the customer reference program as it is for any other in your organization. Also, periodically assess your roster of current references to make sure they’re meeting the needs of your organization with the right verticals, uses cases, roles and geographies. 

Customer references can often make or break a quarter’s sales target, a marketing campaign and media relations programs. It’s well worth your while to invest in a formal program with dedicated resources. Done properly, the investment will yield enormous benefits and eliminate the chaos of a catch-as-catch-can system.

Want to learn more about how you can build a successful customer reference program for your organization? Get in touch!

Topics: Sales Enablement, Customer Service

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