We’d like to ask you a very important question: Do you have a Customer Reference Program?

About Customer Reference Program in San Jose

Why do you need a Customer Reference Program

This month, we want to get you thinking about a fresh way to help close sales more quickly and leverage your untapped goldmine of satisfied customers.
We touched on this subject in our October 2005 newsletter when we discussed the power of client testimonials which are a key component of the larger Customer Reference Program picture.
So what, exactly, is a Customer Reference Program and why is it an important part of the sales, marketing and public relations mix?

Businesses in San Jose, California

About our Customer Reference Program

What is a Customer Reference Program?
At its essence, a Customer Reference Program gives your team access to your satisfied customers. A solid Customer Reference Program can help you effectively illustrate the very real results your customers have enjoyed due to your product or service. Satisfied customers are held in high regard by potential clients – if you can utilize your current clients effectively you will shorten your sales cycle.

A satisfied customer willing to speak publicly about their business challenges and how your product met those challenges – and positively affected their bottom line – is the best and most effective sales and marketing tool you have. Many companies fail to utilize this fantastic resource.

Why Invest in a Customer Reference Program?
Customer Reference Programs really are a two-way street. Not only are satisfied customers one of the best ways to provide independent validation of your sales and marketing claims, but a customer who is part of the program is one who is interested in a long-term relationship with your company. Participants in the program are more likely to feel your company is invested in their long-term success.

Furthermore, Customer Reference Programs help your team keep close tabs on key customer’s satisfaction with your product or service. In addition, the program can smooth the way for more honest feedback and more timely notification of issues with the product and its performance.

How to Implement a Customer Reference Program:
A Customer Reference Program can range from the simple – a customer allowing you to use their logo – to the complex – a customer who is willing to speak to analysts or join you on a road show. Reference programs can incorporate a variety of variables such as geographic location, industry, product purchased, business challenge, etc.

Regardless of the complexity of your program there are a few basic points to consider:

· Clearly communicate to your potential reference account the different levels of participation and what is expected at each level.

· Reference accounts can help in many ways, including:

* Allowing use of their name and logo on your website and in cross-promotional and marketing efforts and direct mail campaigns.
* Supplying a quote or testimonials.
* Contributing quotes and data for case studies and success stories.
* Participation in events such as user conferences, analyst tours, press events, road shows, etc.
* Making key personnel available to discuss their business challenges and your products with prospective accounts/clients (make sure the reference contact is someone who can speak accurately and clearly to your prospect’s challenges and/or concerns.)
* Some customers may be willing to be featured as a reference site where potential clients can get a tour and a first hand look at the product in use.

· Keep your reference account’s involvement limited to an agreed upon time-frame (6 months, one year, etc.)

· Be sure to always contact your reference account before they receive a call from a potential client so they are informed and prepared.

We hope this has gotten you interested in the vast potential associated with a Customer Reference Program. As you may have guessed, there is much more to this subject than the few points we have discussed.

The good news is that a Customer Reference Program lends itself quite nicely to outsourcing. There are many reputable, experienced agencies that can handle the entire program – from contacting customers to indexing data and managing the relationship. The investment is worth it!

Read this article for more tips on building a successful customer reference program:

Lessons for Building a Successful Customer Reference Program
by Michael Teeling

1. Get the blessing of your VP of Sales

Most likely individual sales people are already using references in the sales process, but they are guarding them like gold and not open to sharing them with Marketing. To be actually followed (and ultimately successful), any customer reference program that is introduced needs to be blessed by the head of Sales, and rolled out to the sales force in a formal way.

2. Integrate the program with your sales process

The best way to build a reference-based business is to get new customers on board the program as soon as possible. Adding a discussion to the sales process (and better still, adding a "reference clause" to the contract) communicates that reference activity is not just highly valued and appreciated, but rewarded. This leads to the next must-have...

3. Incent sales people properly

Sales folks are predictable creatures - they respond very well to money! Give them extra cash for entering new customers into the reference program from the outset, and reward them whenever a customer graduates to a new level. Sure, Marketing knows that press articles and analyst reports on customers ultimately help sales. But without a formal compensation structure, the sales force sees Marketing's needs as just creating more work for them, and so will see no reason to help out.

4. Define program tiers

Build the reference program with multiple tiers of participation. The basic levels number five:

1. Sales reference by phone (low risk for customer)

2. Written case study for use in sales & marketing (approved by customer for publication/distribution)

3. Marketing reference for analyst relations (usually accepted by customers if positioned as helping "market research")

4. Press article reference (high risk for customer, because articles are typically published without review/approval)

5. Joint sales & marketing activities such as sales seminars and speaking at user conferences (highest risk/reward for all parties)

If your business is one in which the sales process would benefit from customer site visits, then that could be an additional level.

5. Formalize rewards structure for customers

Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum are oft used definitions. Other companies track the number of reference calls and other activity, and reward customers based on a point system. The rewards can be things like free consulting time, free upgrades, discounts on additional product, etc. Occasional feel-goods like wine baskets and sports tickets don't hurt either. Make sure that your best references know they are your best references! However it is formalized; make sure the program structure is clearly communicated to references. Building and rolling out a customer portal site at the annual user conference is a stellar approach.

6. Designate relationship owners for each customer

Most likely some individual owns the customer relationship already - whether it's the sales person, an account manager, or service/support person. Make sure this person knows that they won't be pushed aside, and will in fact act as the gatekeeper for all contact with their customer. That way, participation can be accurately tracked, and existing relationships aren't disrupted. This will put the customer at ease with the process as well.

7. Co-management by Sales and Marketing

To avoid the perception that the Reference Program is just for the benefit of one department or the other, the program should be co-managed by representatives from both sides, or a committee if other departments (such as customer service, technical support or professional services) have direct post-sale customer contact. A full scale, up and running program may eventually require dedicated staff to maintain, but should not necessarily at the outset.

8. Use a database or application to track the program

All this contact and reward structure needs to be captured somehow. A networked database or application is essential to controlling the input and output of the program. Hopefully the existing sales system can support this with some minimal customization, but don't forget that marketing needs to access it as well. Pray for minimal training to be necessary if relationship managers are to input activities themselves.

9. Formalize program tools & procedures

Once the program levels, administration, and compensation structure are defined, the tools of the program need to be formalized. What questions need to be answered by sales references? What is the case study creation process? Will the customer be media trained before PR activity? Sales people - indeed everyone involved in the program - need to be trained and clear on the procedures followed at each step.

10. Start with your buyer, but get to the user

Obviously, the person that mandated the purchase is the first person referenceable at any customer organization and remains critical in influencing future sales. But it is often critically important to marketing, especially with technology products and services, to eventually secure an end user as spokesperson. If possible, move toward these people as the relationship matures and reference activity warrants. They are going to be best suited to communicating the bottom line business benefits of your technology in plain English - the mandate of marketing. Most likely your original reference will be happy to share his or her duties with others as activity volume grows.