A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words, and So Is One Great Customer Reference

Seeking peer recommendations before making a purchase or signing an agreement is nothing new – it’s been part of commerce since the beginning. From farmers asking their neighbors for advice on the best cattle feed suppliers to celebrities promoting toothpaste in television commercials, another customer’s experience is a powerful endorsement.

Although company websites, content and sales presentations are highly used assets when evaluating an organization and its products, a Harvard Business Review study determined that customer references are an influential decision support tool too. Further, SiriusDecisions’ buyer surveys continuously show that C-level executives make their purchase decisions initially based on their previous company experiences, followed by the influence of customer references, the relationship with the salesperson, the perception of the brand, and then what peers say.

While it’s clear the influence of customers and their experiences is becoming the key to closing a deal, it’s easier said than done. Your customers are used to you helping them, not the other way around, so requesting that they serve as a customer reference is a big ask. Likewise, sales and marketing departments may be siloed, so implementing a formal customer reference program requires some marketing of its own. It’s a challenge figuring out how to create a plan that resonates with buyers, provides a positive experience for customers and makes the best use of staff time.

Setting the Foundation for a Sustainable Customer Reference Program

Creating a customer reference program begins with a solid foundation that sets the tone, defines the scope, and supports the customer reference infrastructure. It requires the insights and direct input from multiple departments, but perhaps most significantly, from sales and marketing. However, things can get complicated when these two groups have conflicting viewpoints. It’s critical, therefore, that senior management reinforce common corporate goals and ensure the program aligns with the company’s overall strategy. 

It’s imperative to have a broader understanding across the entire organization that customers are not “owned” by any one department or person. This too sets a foundation of success because it inherently discourages hoarding of customers and encourages the use of customer relationships for the greater good of the whole organization. 

Building the Framework

Proper planning also can help steer the adoption of a customer reference program and mitigate the risk of failure. It’s crucial to develop a customer reference management plan, which includes elements, such as a:

  • Value proposition, mission statement, program goals, and key performance indicators (KPIs)
  • Budget, which might include costs for video testimonials, as well as promotions and incentives for participants 
  • User adoption plan, which could comprise a 30-60-90 day execution plan
  • Workflow strategy , which might incorporate processes for requests, nominations, recruitment, and all subsequent activities

Successful customer reference programs must be able to maintain a broad range of customer profiles for the myriad reference activities for which you’ll need them – from taking a call to speaking at a company event. It also means having a mix of customer characteristics to pick from to ensure the most relevant reference matches possible. Conducting a database audit can help determine where gaps exist, helping to align current “reference stock” against what will be needed to achieve any immediate goals.

Rolling Out the Program 

Making the transition to a formal customer reference program can be challenging. One way to make it easier is to break it down into a tactical 30-60-90 day business plan. 

30 Days: The first 30 days should focus on completing introductory tasks:

  • Share internal operating policies and procedures with different departments
  • Familiarize yourself with typical reference asks, challenges, and strategic roadmaps of stakeholder groups
  • Explore the existing reference processes and databases

60 Days: The next 30 days will tackle alignment, as well as includes tactical tasks:

  • Create internal advisory councils
  • Define benefits for stakeholder groups
  • Discover the reports and program metrics that are most important to executives 
  • Secure budget for your program
  • Map out and build the initial reference database, and evaluating the need for automation

90 Days: The 90-day section of the plan should involve getting the program off the ground: 

  • Create launch and an internal communication plan for the program
  • Demo reference technology tools
  • Build a script for formal customer reference recruitment

Rolling out an effective and rewarding customer reference program for all stakeholders requires careful, up-front planning that can pave the way for more efficient use of resources and stakeholders – from customers to sales teams, marketing departments, and senior management. Developing such a program is not something that comes easily, but it is well worth the effort. After all, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but a customer story that encourages new customers is priceless.    

Toby Murdock is general manager of Upland Software, providers of enterprise work management software.


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