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Customer reference organizations are turning heads. Marketing can't help but to take a second, third and even fourth look at these emerging, appealing groups that sit on a goldmine of strategic customer touchpoints.

That they're turning heads is not surprising. Reference programs, traditionally chartered with creating success content, are maturing--from Parcheesi to chess, from content to company-wide impact, and therefore from the basement to the boardroom.

As a reference professional, how do you, too, get marketing and other critical program success enablers to gaze at your program with wonder? How do you start to turn heads in your organization--to move from content to impact, from the basement to the boardroom, from Parcheesi to chess?

The first step is to improve your chess skills, to convince yourself that your role is more than that of a tactician--it's that of a customer strategist.

In late 2004, we looked across the reference industry to see which characteristics and actions helped customer reference professionals turn heads and acquire greater influence within their organizations. Early this year, we spent time speaking with and directly observing these people, many of whom are our clients. Here's what we heard and saw--six actionable, head-turning techniques of successful customer strategists:

1. Build operational expertise

Pick 10 customer accounts or companies with whom you are intimate, those on whom you consider yourself "the expert." Gather "why us" insight about these accounts from sales. Learn "how we did it" from the consulting organization. Find out "how the customer perceives us" from the technical support team. And as often as possible, speak to individuals within those accounts to keep up to date on the issues they're facing.

Yes, we know you're busy. Yes, this takes work. But aren't your company's customers worth it? Invite people from sales, consulting and technical support to lunch for one-to-one chats about customers. Etch out 15-minutes each day to build your storehouse of knowledge about customers and about how they interact with other groups within your company.

2. Leverage all customers

The "L" word is much overused. Everyone wants to "leverage" something or someone. What leverage means to us is the ability to use one element or object to buoy or propel another. Your customers get your company more of what it wants: better products, return on marketing and faster sales, for instance.

What's important to know is that every customer relationship matters. You'll learn just as much from a happy, articulate customer as you will from a foul anarchist who slanders your company in blogs and other forums. Develop a plan for how to treat customer intelligence when you come across it.

Most companies have a strategy for what to do with "happy" customers, but what do you do when you run across someone who defected to the next-biggest competitor? Don't hang up. Don't walk away. Dig in. Ask questions. And using your plan, document and communicate your findings so your company can leverage them.

3. Understand and articulate how what you do fits with your company's customer strategy

If your company is strategizing in this century, it's a good bet that customers comprise at least 50 percent of its strategic themes or objectives. How does your organization support those themes and objectives? How does what you do align with or support your company's existing or forthcoming customer loyalty, CRM or customer advocacy initiatives?

To turn heads, tie your program into one or more critical objectives or themes, and articulate that alignment and support with the language of strategy--from maps and dashboards to scorecards and benchmarks.

4. Be a customer steward

Treat each and every interaction with customers as important, as how you act or react may influence how customers act or react to sales, operations and other groups. If you learn during a conversation that something critical happened with a customer, share or escalate it to the right team or person.

For instance, if customers complain to you about critical service issues that are (or were) slow to be resolved, problems with overbilling or misquotes in a press release, identify and use the right channels to pass their feedback along. Let customers know you're doing so, too. Let them know you care about their experiences, both good and bad. And follow up on those issues for and with them.

5. Desperately search for a champion

Did you know that most senior executives are looking for people they can mentor, preferably those at the operational level? Yahoo CMO Cammie Dunaway shared the same thought with her peers at the 2004 Spencer Stuart CMO Summit: "It's very important to reach down into the organization and find people that you can champion, particularly those who may be a level below your direct reports."

Take advantage of this! Get management to help you identify two or three executives who may be interested in learning and championing the customer message. Look for executives whose jobs are somewhat related to what you do--those with the word "customer" in their titles are usually great people with which to start. For instance, senior champs at our clients' companies carry titles such as VP of Customer Advocacy, VP of Customer Service and Satisfaction, and SVP of CRM Initiatives.

6. "Speak customer" to all who will listen

After you've done your homework and invested your time in understanding your company's customer landscape and learning the soup-to-nuts saga of your top 10 reference customers, put pizzazz around it--and turn heads--by continually speaking customer. Share what you've learned about customer+marketing for marketing heads, customer+product pricing or packaging for product development groups, or customer+the market for executives. Not only will this new conversation interest people more than will news of the latest internal shuffle, but it might also spark ideas that will help you fulfill your mission of leveraging customers.

Speak any language long enough, and you'll become fluent; take on the mindset of a strategist, and you'll start to see things through a strategist's eyes. And others will notice the change in you--you'll turn heads and find yourself more and more being called on to act as counsel on all matters customer.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Promise Phelon is president and CEO of UpMo and founder of the Phelon Group.

Twitter: @PromisePhelon

LinkedIn: Promise Phelon