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Why Salespeople Don't Like Your Customer-Reference Program (and What to Do About It)

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Salespeople work under the pressure of a very competitive environment, and they want access to any tool or resource  that will help them win business.

And, as with most large corporate purchases, the only way to get new customers to sign on is to let them hear directly from current customers who can speak about their experience with your products.

So why do salespeople often resist participating in your company's customer-reference program? For several reasons...

Salespeople may feel like they are "bothering" their customers when asking for a reference. Once a new customer has signed up, it is the salesperson's and account manager's job to keep that customer happy. Asking for "favors," such as taking reference calls or participating in marketing-reference activities, can seem like an unnecessary burden.

Salespeople may view the customer-reference process as interfering with their deal. Sales professionals are very focused on reaching the final negotiations of the sale. If the customer-reference process is too rigid or asks too much from them, they see it as a distraction. They often feel they will do better dealing with the reference request themselves without going through a formal channel.


Salespeople are competitive by nature. The customer-reference process is designed to benefit the entire organization, not just one sales professional, yet each salesperson is trying to become the top performer. So if a customer-reference manager asks a salesperson to contribute something that will help another sales representative, the salesperson may not see an immediate benefit to himself.

Salespeople may have had unsuccessful experiences in the past with formal customer-reference programs. Perhaps they have spent time filling out forms, only to wait for help that didn't come. Or perhaps they were given references who were not able to give a positive reference or speak about the appropriate subject matter.  Or possibly they had to repair relationships with customers after a failed reference attempt.

Those are all valid concerns. But you need the salespeople to be on board to successfully leverage customers for the next sale. What can be done?

Get top-level buy in. It is important that an organization's executives communicate the value of the customer-reference program to the entire company—and to the sales team, in particular. Find the most visible way to reinforce the need for all constituents to be involved, and clearly state the companywide benefits of a successful customer-reference program.

Make it worth their while. Demonstrate the value and benefit that the sales reps will gain directly as a result of their actions and efforts with the program. Reinforce that a successful customer-reference program will save them time in the future by making valuable references available to them as well as their peers. Sales reps would always rather work on negotiating than spend lots of time hunting down hard-to-find references.

Reward salespeople for obtaining new or repeat references. Develop a consistent system that publicly recognizes and praises those reps who bring in good references. Consider providing points or prizes to them if the budget allows, and be sure that the reward is something they will care about.

Make sure that your program has enough detail and coordination to provide the right references every time. Maintaining a solid customer-reference program will keep the momentum going because everyone will find the program easy to use and productive. It will also demonstrate to the sales reps that the program works for them.

* * *

The bottom line is that Sales, Marketing, and Management must work together to reap the great benefits of having a productive customer-reference program. Marketing must understand Sales’ motivations and vice versa, and Management must become engaged to convey the importance of succeeding with customer-reference programs.


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Joshua Horwitz is the founder of Boulder Logic (www.boulderlogic.com), an enterprise customer-reference solution. He blogs at Reference Success. Reach him via jhorwitz@boulderlogic.com and Twitter (@boulderlogic).

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  • by Cheryl Tue Mar 16, 2010 via web

    How do you have an effective "reference" program when you don't want to publicize the reference names due to competitive pillaging? And, is a "non-posted" reference as effective as a posted one? In other words - keeping a list of reference customers that agree to be contacted upon request.

  • by Chad Tue Mar 16, 2010 via web

    Great article! A couple of notes. We automated the reference process using a combination of Eloqua to capture and communicate to references as well as Salesforce.com to store and report on reference data.

    In addition, we have our Customer Success Managers request references rather than sales. This may make it easier for the sales team.

    Chad
    @chadhorenfeldt

  • by Anna Tue Mar 16, 2010 via web

    In response to Cheryl's question we have the same issue of keeping customer identities private for competitive reasons, for us and for them. What's worked best for us is to keep a list of possible references in each of our product lines and when a sales rep sends his/her request to marketing we go to the well and make calls to the customer who fits the best. This works for three reasons: 1. The customer knows who will be calling and what specific questions the prospect might be asking 2. It forces the sales rep and marketing to think strategically about the customers who would be the best fit for the prospect 3. We don't over use our customer references.

  • by Cas Thu Mar 18, 2010 via web

    Very good article with in depth analysis

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