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Customer Reference Programs, Part 2: Changing the Corporate Culture Through Customer Focus

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Part 1 of this series discussed the evolution of customer reference programs and gave guidance on how to create a program that's a strategic asset to your company. This article discusses the next steps of customer program evolution and how to change corporate culture by focusing on customers.

A strategic customer reference program delivers tangible, clear value to the sales force, the marketing teams, and even executives. It can highlight the diverse contributions various teams make to referability, showcase the value of cultivating customer references, and—perhaps most importantly—drive revenue. Not bad at all, but you'll notice that those value propositions are all internal-facing. Even the best CRPs don't deliver significant value to customers when they stand alone.

This fundamental fact is a source of deep and abiding frustration for many customer reference program leaders. These are people with a privileged view of customers' experiences, but they are not people with the institutional power to make those changes happen, however passionately they believe in the cause.

While this is a shame on one level, it's also sensible. CRPs serve a critical and strategic purpose for companies, but they fundamentally exist to centralize reference information and deliverables. It really is beyond the scope of a reference program to improve referability across the board, and no matter how well-run their customer hospitality efforts, how friendly their reference managers, or how carefully they monitor for customer overuse, CRPs must look outside their borders in order to truly improve customer relationships.

Referability: It's Everyone's Business

Customer reference programs harvest referability, but they don't create it. Instead, a broad range of relationship factors converge to cause customers to feel good about speaking out on a vendor's behalf. A few of those factors:

  • Marketing messages ring true and accurately reflect customers' pains and concerns.
  • The experience of working with a sales team is positive and value-oriented.
  • Information available to support the decision-making process is targeted and helpful.
  • Pricing and contracts seem fair and clear.
  • Implementation follows a predictable path and help is easy to come by when needed.
  • The solution performs as expected.
  • Technical support is prompt, knowledgeable, and thorough.
  • The solution delivers the expected and needed business benefits.
  • The company seeks and reacts to customer feedback on its performance.
  • Communication from the company is helpful and timely, but not excessive.

It's a long though not exhaustive list, and you'll note that not one of these factors is owned by the CRP.

Sales, marketing, pricing and licensing, product management and development, professional services, technical support, customer communications—all of these departments contribute to customer referability. No single department owns it, so customer reference programs can become the scapegoat for lack of results. That's an unfair outcome.

Really, companies looking to increase referability need to change their corporate culture, and they need to do it by creating a broad, pervasive focus on the customer.

Listen, Act, and Listen

Though they can't solve problems of referability on their own, CRPs do have a role to play. CRPs typically possess a tragically underutilized asset: rich insight into customer successes and frustrations.

Get a customer reference manager or customer evidence manager talking, and you'll get an earful about why customers love your products and services (often not for the reasons your marketing department says they should), what drives customers crazy (often easily fixed with the right resources), and why customers flat out refuse to reference or stop referencing (usually indicators of deep and potentially fatal problems). That kind of insight is gold, but it's not being mined properly.

For companies working to bring a customer focus to their corporate cultures, the CRP represents a valuable "listening post" in the quest to gain insight into customer opinion.

But one listening post is not enough. Customer surveys, advisory boards, user forums, executive sponsorship programs, beta and early success programs—these are just a few of the typical listening posts that combine to give a full and nuanced picture of customers' opinions, frustrations, goals, intentions, and successes.

But listen all day long and in every possible way, and you can still fail to influence referability and create a customer focus. The trick is to get a variety of departments or the entire company to act on the insight gained, and to act in a programmatic and coordinated way. Sales may need to adjust is methodology, marketing may need to revamp its positioning, pricing may need to adapt, product development may need to shirt priorities, and on and on, through every department.

Each department must feel empowered to improve its processes and strategy, and it must understand that those improvements can and should combine to improve customer referability overall.

Listening and acting become iterative, ongoing practices in the truly customer-focused organization. The mechanics and logistics of listening may be centrally managed or coordinated, perhaps by a customer feedback team, but the actions and programmatic changes inspired by feedback need to be managed by the departments that rightfully own them. Continued listening measures the improvement and feeds the cycle.

The process of listening and acting is a shift in corporate culture, but it also fuels a continuing shift in culture as new insights are gained and improvements made.

Harvesting Success

Lucky is the customer reference program operating in a company that has a culture centering on the customer. Those programs have a broader and deeper pool of truly satisfied customers for whom reference activities feel like a natural extension of the relationship and a true reflection of their opinions and experience.

Referability is a strong measure of customer opinion and experience—in fact, it's the ultimate measure. Companies that tap into existing customer insight, augment it with feedback from other "listening posts," and empower each team to enact changes—those are the companies that foster referability and reap the rewards with powerful, plentiful references.

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Whitney Wood is director at The Phelon Group (

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