We all know references are critical to closing deals but most companies don’t get around to actively managing them until the 2 referenceable customers they do have are all yelling “Am I your only crummy reference?!  Pick on someone else!!”  I launched a customer reference program from the ground up once and it was PAINFUL!  I’ve now seen it all from big companies and small ones and here’s what I’ve learned.

Starting a Customer Reference Program – A Few Things to Think About

  • Partner with Your Sales and Professional Services Teams – The key function of this program is to increase revenue.  Never forget that.  You need to understand how to build something that the sales team will find valuable.  Decide up front who does what.  Professional Services needs to be involved because they are going to help you qualify the reference, figure out who the spokespeople should be and how to articulate the value of the solution.
  • Set Goals and Success Metrics and Revisit them Often – Here is how a customer reference program gets started and killed.  Marketing spends all their time writing success stories that sales never uses. Sales continues to use their own set of references because “the marketing references are crap.”  One day the execs get in a room and the CEO says, “What about this reference thing?”  Everyone looks at each other and says “I have no idea what they do.”  Snip, snip and the program is history.  Figure out how you are going to measure the success of the program and make sure Sales, Marketing and anyone else involved agrees.  These cannot be just soft goals like “increased awareness”.  Are you shortening the sales cycle?  Increasing your win rate?  Revisit these goals regularly and solicit feedback.
What To Do When the Customer Won’t Talk
We’ve all been there.  You are working on a great new product with a hot customer and as you are closing the deal they refuse to be a public reference for you, usually citing the reason that your solution is such a competitive differentiator that they don’t want any of their competitors to know they have it. Worse, their lawyers get involved and say flat out “We don’t do those.”  Here are some ideas of how to move forward.

Give as Good as You Get (aka Bribery) – Most customers can’t accept gifts or payment for being a reference (and let’s face it, that’s just no way to do business) but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something for them.  The obvious one is to give them a product discount or free premium support.  Get creative and don’t be afraid to ask them what they want.
Give them an Award or Invite them to Speak – An oldie but a goodie this one works surprisingly well.  Many customers can’t give a public reference for your product but would love to be your keynote speaker or Customer of the Year.
Give them More Than One Way to be a Reference – The definition of referenceable customer is that they agree to talk to other customers about your solution.  Some customers don’t want to go beyond that because they automatically think you want them to do a customer case study.  Give them some other options though and you might be surprised when they say yes (and let’s face it, that case study thing is getting a bit old isn’t it?).  Here are some ideas and I’m sure you can think of more:

  • A Guest blog post on your corporate blog
  • A video/audio interview with pre-set questions
  • A Q&A interview by text
  • A quote Agree to be a reference for press interviews
  • Agree to be a references for analysts
  • Agree to speak at your conference or local events
  • Agree to speak at your sales conference or internal kickoff
  • Agree to being on a public list of members of your advisory council

Let Them Promote Themselves – A lot of the ideas above involve letting the customer promote their products and/or services.  Oh and don’t forget that even IT folks are interested in raising their personal profiles.  Figure out a way for them to do so that benefits you both.
Develop a Relationship – Although the point of running a a customer advisory council IS NOT to convince members to do things for you, a well-run council will leave them feeling like they are actively engaged in the success of the company and therefore more likely to say yes if and when you ask.  For key customers, the head of marketing needs to develop a personal relationship with the key spokespeople.

One More Thing

Always ask for Video – Video is customer reference GOLD.  Having a customer give a well-articulated couple of sentences about why they chose your product or what the product has helped them do with their business (preferably both!) is simply much more powerful than written case study or quote could ever be.  I once got a CIO of a major account to say that his company was going to save “One million dollars a day” using our software.  Every sales rep on the team used that clip on every sales call for over a year.  That video was completely priceless.  Video used to be an expensive undertaking that cost thousands of dollars for a camera crew.  Now you can buy a high quality HD video camera for less than $1000 and edit the stuff yourself if you are short on budget.  Chances are you already have a YouTube savvy editor on staff somewhere.  There is no excuse for startups to not be doing video.
More Information
Marketing Profs has a great 2 part article on Customer References Programs.  Part 1 has some very practical advice for starting and running a customer reference program and Part 2 goes into a thoughtful discussion of the role of the customer reference program with other customer programs and the overall customer centricity of the corporate culture.  Well worth a read.
Forrester’s Jeremiah Owyang has a great post on The Impacts of Social Media on Corporate Customer Reference Programs.  A lot of this advice is more relevant to larger BtoC type organizations but pay attention to the “opportunities” section where he outlines non-traditional ways of using/working with a reference.
*Update* As pointed out to me in the comments, Joshua has a blog focused on customer references and I think it totally rocks.  Check it out here and in particular this post on why references are important in a down economy.