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.

3 thoughts on “Winning Customer Reference Programs in the Internet Age

  1. Thanks for joining the discussion, Joshua. Peer-based customer reference programs are one of many topics on my mind. This blog focuses on marketing and persuasion for B2B marketers and customer reference programs are a critical facet of this mission. Readers of this blog will see myself or guest writers cover lively and relevant topics ranging from growing revenue to generating buzz, awareness, web traffic, leads and opportunities. I’ll also share my passion for fact-based marketing decision-making.

  2. Of all your points above “Embrace transparency” resonated the most. I think this should be a central theme in how a Customer Reference Program (CRP) operates. From my experience it’s not the vendor involvement in general that turns off potential buyers, or undermines credibility, but rather, the way that vendors have always attempted to manage and control the interactions. As an example, we have many clients who host regular reference “forums” (i.e., conference calls featuring one customer w/ many prospects). These calls can be tightly controlled where every participant must submit his/her question via IM, and specific questions are then picked carefully and submitted to the customer to answer. OR, the call can be completely open where prospects ask the questions directly, in their own voice. Having been on and facilitated many of these calls, *they work* as evidenced by prospect feedback after the event: “I got what they needed.” It didn’t matter that there was a vendor representative (or 2) on the call. The customer was candid and genuine and the information flowed unobstructed.

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