6 Steps to a High Impact Customer Reference Program
Customer references are worth their weight in gold. Unfortunately, in many markets, like automation, references are at a premium because most customers prefer to keep a low profile and do not want to appear to endorse one vendor over another. This is understandable, given the legal paranoia that grips the business world. However, this doesn't help marketing teams as they struggle to find compelling customer quotes, and encourage customer participation in PR opportunities and the sales cycles.
What most people forget is that a formal customer reference program can be mutually beneficial. It can deliver great PR value to your customers who want to demonstrate they are forward thinking, leading edge players; this helps recruit employees and customers of their own. A customer reference program can also help your marketing and sales teams build a stronger brand and close more sales by leveraging the strength of the customers' testimonies.
There are many different flavors, but here are 6 key steps to keep in mind as you put together your reference program.
1. What's In It for the Customer?
You need to know this answer before reaching out to anyone. You already know how it will help your organization. A reference program can be an enriching experience for both parties, if it is designed right. Programs will differ in nature, but they should be designed with tangibles such as:
- Advance notice on new product releases
- Roundtable opportunities with executives
- Discounts on products ordered
- Participation in exclusive product planning meetings with opportunities for direct input
- Participation in regional and user events
One customer program I worked on was branded a Marquis Customer Program that included the opportunity to develop exclusive, up-front and personal relationships with our executive management and product development teams in exchange for being a reference. As part of the program, an annual event was held for Marquis members to create the intimacy and interaction those customers wanted most. The events were a great success and became an important feedback mechanism for product development plans.
2. What Customers Do You Invite?
If you think about it, the customers who would be good candidates are those who already speak out about your products and services. Shy doesn't help when it comes to references. It's important to keep in mind the different types of participation that you'll need from customers. For example, some users of your products may not be the best press reference, but are a great sales reference. When designing the program, make room for different types of members so you can carve out specific benefits/incentives for each member type.
3. Establish Trust, a Timeframe, and Clear Incentives
One of the challenges in a customer reference program is making it valuable enough so the customer and the business agree to participate. They are not always the same thing. The biggest hurdle in securing participation is setting up checks and balances so the customer organization doesn't feel exposed or blind sided, and so their business benefits somehow. Participation needs to include a defined timeframe with renewal options so there is a beginning, middle, and end. It also allows for new customers to come into the program and allows others to leave.
In another program I worked on, there was a clear exchange of value when a customer participated in the program - when they fulfilled one of their roles as defined in the program, they received something. There were different levels of value received for the different roles, i.e., providing a quote in a brochure got them free entrance into regional events, and being a sales reference got them a product discount on their next purchase.
4. Preview the Program with a Handful of Customers
To make sure you are not drinking your own kool-aid, we recommend you engage a friendly customer or two and get their feedback before full launch. It is likely that they have been invited to participate in programs like this before, so they can tell you what works and what does not. That insight will help reduce potential barriers to securing customer participation.
5. Beware of Program Burnout
Nothing turns a good customer reference off more than overuse. Word spreads quickly among sales reps when it comes to references, and they will quickly develop a preference for who they want to tap in their sales cycle. This can lead to burnout. It is important to think through the time commitment expected from your customers and how often they will be tapped over the span of a year. Build those expectations into the tenants of the program.
6. Administration is Key
Someone needs to administer the program -- keep track of which references participate, when they participate, how they participate, and then how to distribute the rewards promised. This is no small task, and can make or break the program. Keep in mind that it will be important to track how much the program costs your organization in terms of benefits disbursed. Appointing a program manager will help manage the flow of the program and provide a central point of contact for customers who do participate. It will also validate your business' commitment to how seriously the program is valued overall - both internally and externally.
Find out how to get the most from your public relations program, see Telesian's Public Relations Builder.