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

by Whitney Wood  |  
July 10, 2007

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.

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Whitney Wood is director at The Phelon Group (

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