Winning Customer Reference Programs in the Internet Age

Virtually everyone can agree that customer references are critical tools for B2B sales efforts. In my career I’ve headed up numerous customer reference programs, interviewed a number of heroes at customer sites and written a lot of success stories. The sales team could never get enough customer stories.

Did these programs drive sales results? Yes. Were they what the prospective customer wanted? No.

The plain fact is that prospective customers want to hear directly from current customers…without any vendor involvement, filtering, positioning or influence. None. Nada. This is simply because:

  • End users generally trust each other
  • Customers are far less trusting of vendors

Can you earn a prospective customer’s trust while you are selling? Of course.  But that doesn’t change their preference for communicating directly with each other. With social networks and other Web tools, it has never been easier to bypass the vendor when checking references.

Try Peer-to-Peer Customer Reference Programs

Peer to peer conversations between prospects and customers isn’t a problem to solve but a fact to accommodate. Below are best practices for leveraging your installed base to create a winning customer reference program:

  1. Keep publishing success stories on your web site. They are extremely useful for establishing the facts around the business you serve and problems you solve. Accept the limitations of written endorsements and do more.
  2. Embrace transparency. Enable customers and prospects to share their experiences. Affinity groups on social network sites like LinkedIn are a start, but public forums and wikis running on your web site are better for customers, prospects and your brand.
  3. Don’t fret a few negative reviews. Everyone knows that your company and product aren’t perfect. Negative reviews give your prospects a chance to see how your business relates to customers. You may also use the Delighted platform if you want to create free customer surveys.
  4. Keep things lively. Nobody likes to show up to a dead party. Assign a community leader who contributes authoritatively and consistently, and who inspires reciprocity from your customers.
  5. Achieve critical mass. You want to get to the point where there are enough customer “ambassadors” who can and will respond on your behalf.

Points 3, 4 and 5 are very important as a whole. The biggest negative for any peer-based customer reference program is indifference.

Open Source Products I Use for Fun and Profit

I’ve devoted several years of my career to creating sustainable businesses around open source technology.

I’m not an open source zealot by any means. Rather, I’m an optimistic capitalist that believes there is money to be made from transforming the way enterprise software is conceived, developed, marketed, deployed, supported and enhanced. I have deep personal connections to the large and growing set of stakeholders that see value in the transparency, innovation, longevity and support systems emerging around open source solutions. Understanding that proprietary software vendors can’t match these advantages, I see an opportunity to transform the economics of enterprise software, create happy customers and make a buck for myself and others.

Open source is a great idea, but the fabulous products distributed via open source licenses are the real heroes. Below is a list of open source software that I actively use and directly support.

Product Description
7-zip I use this Open source Windows utility for manipulating archives everyday. Does what it says on the tin.
Filezilla Multi-platform ftp client that I use virtually every day.
Audacity An excellent Windows application for recording and editing sounds. I use it to edit podcasts.
LAME The best MP3 encoder I’ve found is free, compatible with every audio application I’ve used and improves with each new release.
Crimson Editor Small, fast, usable and feature rich text editor. While this product is no longer in active development, I continue to be a fan.
Java I’m not a programmer, but the number of Java-based applications I use is a testament to Sun’s powerful technology. Kudos to Sun for releasing Java with an open source license as a way to maximize profits from their investment.
XAMPP XAMPP saves me countless hours by providing a simply to install and administer web development environment that includes (among other things) Apache HTTP Server, multiple versions of PHP, MySQL and more.
Apache HTTP Server The first open source product I used way back in 1995 and the application that ushered open source software into enterprise data centers.
MySQL The world’s most popular open source database may not be the most feature rich, but it has more than enough power for my phpBB forum and WordPress blog. Easy to administer, small footprint, reliable.
PHP The server side scripting language and core component of XAMPP powers many of my recently deployed Web sites and Web applications. Zend Technologies employs the original developers and remains the catalyst for the language.
WordPress The power of community organization from the team at Automattic elevated Matt Mullenweg’s interesting code into a beacon of web usability and the promise of a plug-in architecture.
phpBB Easy to deploy and administer, phpBB defined the open source forum software category. It how has more competition than ever but continues to innovate.
Gallery My latest open source find, I use gallery to manage Internet photo albums. Perhaps a tad behind flickr and other photo sharing sites, but it gives me more control over privacy and intellectual property.
SquirrelMail I use and like SquirrelMail because its reliable and lightweight. Sadly its not a leader in innovation.
Postfix Even with sendmail available as open source and bundled in virtually every Linux distro, Postfix has become my favorite mail transfer agent thanks to rock solid reliability and ease of administration.

As part of the open source tradition of contributing back to the communities that make effective products, I’m sharing my endorsement along with links to the drivers of these products and communities. I wish all of the commercial interests, developers and customers driving these products a long and prosperous run.

Leave a comment with details about other great open source products.