Many organizations have had customer reference programs in place for years, but not until recently have those programs begun to capture the executive attention they deserve.

Senior management has a vested interest in reference programs (and the customer evidence they create); companies recognize that the role of the truly effective program must be less about merely reacting to requests for customer references and much more about understanding customers, deepening relationships, and empowering industry thought leaders.

Reference programs touch customers at numerous milestones in their relationship with solution or service providers, so the intelligence they capture has huge value within the entire organization. Proof of preference for your solutions provided by happy customers is one of the best competitive tactics any technology partner can leverage, and that proof is precisely what reference programs should strive to provide.

Recent research from The Phelon Group shows that reference programs are entering a growth period. Preliminary results from our 2006 customer reference benchmarking study suggest that reference programs are becoming more centralized and formalized, program budgets are increasing, and program headcount is on the rise.

As the demand on reference programs continues to increase, The Phelon Group offers several insights into growing your program from the customer-reaction stage into a full-blown Customer Relationship Program.

Tie your program to business initiatives

One of the leading challenges that reference professionals face today is how to best measure the impact of their program and communicate successes. We continue to see many companies using volume metrics: numbers of references, numbers of requests fulfilled, etc. Reference inventory will always be counted, but it should not define the success of your program. To elevate the impact of the reference program within your organization, measurement must be translated to a language that your CMO understands and finds compelling.

Gain a clear understanding of corporate goals and how your executives are measuring success, and assess your reference program to see what aspects influence these goals. We've seen customer retention as a high priority for many organizations. How can your reference program measure impact or contribution to this objective? Measure the type of evidence you have that articulates deeper, long-term customer relationships or compare the time to revenue between reference customers and non-reference customers.

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Kathleen McBride is a consultant with The Phelon Group. She specializes in customer relationship management and reference systems implementation.