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How to Turn Your Customer Reference Program Into a Strategic Asset, Part 1

by Whitney Wood  |  
June 12, 2007

Customer references have always been key ingredient in successful selling and marketing. Nothing differentiates you from the competition as effectively as strong customer references, and nothing but first-hand experience provides better evidence of your claims about what your company delivers.

As today's markets consolidate and become increasingly competitive, and as buyers become more sophisticated and demanding, customer evidence gains even greater importance. But many customer reference programs (CRPs) are stuck in outmoded thinking, and that could be significantly holding your company back.

So how can CRPs evolve to meet today's challenges? This article will take a look back at how customer reference programs arrived and where they are today, then give insight into how you can help them to evolve into strategic assets.

Early Evolution in Perspective

Reference programs were born out of frustration. Sales reps found they were spending too much time looking for customer references—emailing colleagues, scrambling for information and good matches—and that the last-minute mad dash ate into their productivity. Marketing departments were only too happy to take on this valuable role, and reference programs as we know them were born.

Once marketing departments had established these programs, they realized they were on to something good. Logically, the same CRPs that were already gathering information for sales could also create case studies and videos, and provide customers for PR and analyst relations needs too. So CRPs expanded their charters, and some even specialized to focus more exclusively on marketing deliverables.

These were good times for customer reference programs, and many grew by leaps and bounds, fueled by an intuitive sense of the value CRPs offered. As more headcount and marketing dollars were committed to CRPs, traditional marketing functions claimed greater influence over the programs' outputs.

For many CRPs, the pendulum swung toward the creation of marketing assets, and many let go of their historic connection to sales. Today three of ten programs infrequently or never meet with the sales forces they serve—a clear indicator of missing alignment.

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Whitney Wood is director at The Phelon Group (

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  • by Jagdish Fri Jul 11, 2008 via web

    I wante to know how whether customer reference programs can deliver tangible value for the reference customer per se.

    A customer makes all the investments in technology, consulting, infrastructure, etc. and when its successful, the vendor walks away with more business from future customers!

    Shouldn't reference customers charge the vendor for any references which convert to sales? Are there any ethical issues involved? Does it happen that customers charge the suppliers for successful references?

    Would love to hear practical insights into this.

  • by Anika Mon Jul 21, 2008 via web

    Hi Jagdish, I run a customer reference program consulting firm and your question is a good one.

    Customers can get value out of being a reference if their vendor is smart about their program. The program should be designed so that it gives something to their references, without actually "buying" references. A reference program should be relational, not transactional, where the customer can join a community, benefit from being closer to the vendor, get premier support, early alerts on deals, tickets to user conferences, PR exposure (references are great for all types of things beyond sales), and more. In the end, the customer likely won't get as much out of the process as the vendor gets, but building a trusting relationship (not over using) during the process keeps the customer engaged and willing to be a reference.

    You should never, never, never pay references. It not only hurts your program by seeming unethical, but hurts all reference programs because then nobody believes what the customer is saying, they just assume they wanted the payout. Also, if you have customers engaged as a PR reference, and media find out that the customer was paid, this could lead to negative, i.e. "ABC company has to PAY their customers to say nice things about them because their product is so bad."

    Best of luck!

  • by Gary Wed Nov 25, 2009 via web

    I would suggest that a well defined Customer Reference Program incentive strategy is required to keep references motivated, you can read more about such approaches at thanks, Gary

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