A Reference R(e)volution

Over the past 20 years, a handful of responsibilities never leave my job description, and customer references are one of them. Yes, references, whether directly or tangentially, followed me when I started out as a content manager, moved into a marketing communications role, oversaw sales operations (for a hot second), and then were my direct focus for over three years—an entire job built around securing quality customer references. Now this may lead you to believe that I have the entire “reference game” figured out – after all, I touched, executed, discovered, and managed more than 10,000 reference requests in my career. But nope, I don’t have all the answers.

References are elusive, but there are common themes that remain true:

  • Education around reference management is an ongoing, often thankless job, but it is critical to ensuring internal stakeholders are following processes, and respecting customers AND customer marketing/advocacy team members
  • References need to be readily available and represent a variety of geographies, industries, and solution sets
  • Customers willing to serve as a reference deserve to have their time and effort respected (e.g., engaged at an appropriate time, providing background on the request, accommodating their calendars)
  • References need to be available in a variety of formats so they can assist sales and customer success at all points during the buyer’s journey 

I could draft an essay on any of these topics, but today’s focus is on making references available in a variety of formats—and in a way, it helps solve for bullets 2 and 3 above. I certainly didn’t coin the terms “static” and “live/dynamic” references, but the combination of the two is necessary for any successful reference management program or professional. There’s a handy picture here as well to explain the difference between the two.

And, to help provide examples of the two – some options to consider. Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list, so feel free to keep the conversation going and offer additional options! 

Static Content

  • Customer data: We don’t think of this right away because it’s not a type of reference…but without data, you’re dead in the water. Do not underestimate the power of having your stuff together when it comes to customer data. This is the fuel that allows you to build your list of potential of referenceable customers – harness customer data from across the organization that represents all facets of a customer (e.g., demographics, products, customer health, marketing engagement). Marry this with feedback from the organization on what they need for customer references – press your sales team to “put up or shut up.” If they cannot articulate what they need, your energy is best used elsewhere. 
  • Customer stories, customer videos, etc.: If you took the time to capture an amazing story, either visual or narrative, highlight it as a customer reference! It is easily shared by sales, promoted by marketing, and relished by customer success. 
  • Pre-scripted proposal responses: If you’re an organization forced to do business via RFP, chances are you’re asked for references every single time. And much of the time, the issuing organization includes the question as a part of their generic template, a box to check. And since RFPs are often at the front end of the sales cycle, there’s so many more boxes to check before a peer-to-peer conversation is beneficial, like pricing, product features and functionality, how can you customize an offering to meet a prospect’s needs. Do we really want to put our best customers forward at the wrong time? And do we want to risk someone contacting our customers without our knowledge, or their knowledge? By providing “scripted responses,” you can still check the RFP box, but hold the power of your customers until it’s time to close the deal. Try something like: “We value our customers greatly at CompanyXYZ; as such, out of respect for their time, we are happy to provide references upon selection as a finalist.” Or, if you don’t think that will quite get you there, try this: “We value our customers at Company XYZ and have several customers in your industry that would be happy to share their experience. Companies like Bank of America and Morgan Stanley have long used our solutions to solve business problems. Out of respect for our customers’ busy schedules, we are happy to connect you with specific contacts within these organizations upon selection as a finalist.” 
  • Customer success snapshots: These little gems come in the form of a presentation slide; they are concise and capture a single customer’s experience with your organization. Less is more when it comes to these – include the logo, a brief description of their success with your product/service, and always include a testimonial. Put a handful of these together and create a library of success snapshots that sales can insert into first meeting decks, finalist presentations, etc. 
  • Testimonial Library: It doesn’t have to be housed using elaborate software, but if you’re able to get yourself a nice content management system, more power to you. But grab all the golden nuggets you collect regularly from customers – feedback from surveys, conversations at events, interviews, etc. Take that good stuff and organize it in such a way that people within the organization have a “grab and go” resource for the customer voice. You own it, control it, and update it – meanwhile, sales, marketing, product, and customer success and thrilled to have it. 
  • Customer Web Page: Many of us already have a customer stories page on our public website (and if you don’t, a good idea to have one). Make sure that you’re actively involved in the content highlighted on this page, work alongside your marketing partners to add testimonials, videos, customer stories, etc. And then teach sales how to use this as an email signature, as a link within emails to prospects, etc. – teach them that this is another form of a customer reference…and what’s even better? If your featured customers on the web page are willing to serve as live references, then it’s an even stronger promotion: “Here’s a link to what some of our customers are saying about us. If you’re interested in speaking with any of them, I am happy to help connect you.” 
  • Customer Profiles: These one-pagers can be leveraged inside and outside your company’s walls. Essentially, it’s a snapshot of a customer, but unlike a success story, it features more information that you would cover on a traditional reference call – more detailed background on the customer, how they are using your solution(s), what quantitative results they experience – and it’s set up in such a way that the information is easily digestible and covers the highlights. Profiles quickly educate sales internally and can be shared externally to either streamline and expedite a live reference conversation or negate it altogether. Work with your customers to update their profile annually, help them understand the importance of the information (it highlights their success, ensures they are speaking only with customers that make sense based on their experience, etc.). 

Customer Reviews: Yep, reviews are not a one-trick pony. If you’re investing in customer reviews AND if you’re building a diversified review strategy (which you should be – more on that in another post), you should leverage them as customer references. Especially if you’re working with PeerSpot (shameless plug), where the average customer review is over 1,500 words. That’s a review, a customer story, and a reference all in one – use it how it makes sense! There are many times when sharing customer insights from a third-party review site negates the need for a live reference (and thereby negating an ask of your customer).

Live/Dynamic Content

  • 1:1 Conversation: The tried-and-true customer conversation…the one that everyone wants. And often the only option that sales thinks is available. 
  • Webinars: Chances are you’re already engaged with your demand generation team to showcase a customer on webinars – these happen once a quarter, a couple of times a year, whatever the cadence, start thinking about them as reference opportunities. If a customer tells their story, they are acting as a reference. Share these links whenever possible for obvious reasons, but also because it drives traffic to your website (SEO and marketing analytics love you for it). 
  • Networking Groups: The one-to-many method of sharing information is fast becoming one of my favorites. Protecting advocates is important – never should they feel they work for your organization – so allowing them to share their experience with multiple customers/prospects protects their calendar and shows them their value as your advocate. Set up a time once a month, or once a quarter for the customer to show up and be available to answer questions just as they would on a traditional reference call. Then have a schedule available to sales and customer success – they can send the meeting link to prospects/customers and invite them to hear from another customer, ask questions, and learn. The networking that takes place is just icing on the cake. 

It’s easy to see that we’ve come a long way, evolving our customer advocacy programs, and getting more agile with our ability to respond to reference requests. But we can certainly do more to go beyond the reference and create a multidimensional approach that maximizes the customer voice but minimizes our workload. Leverage some of these suggestions to better support sales without exhausting customers with repetitive requests and become more strategic with your approach. To learn more about implementing a reference r(e)volution, check out my presentation from the Advocate Marketing Academy here, or listen to my PeerTalk (webinar) that includes questions from the CMA community.

And as always, connect with me on LinkedIn, and let’s keep the conversation going!