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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 (www.phelongroup.com).