Reference programs, and other customer-focused programs like them, are all the rage today.

Executives want high-visibility customers to speak on their company's behalf at C-level events. public relations wants customer quotes for its releases in order to illustrate company momentum. Marketing wants customers to wave the company banner in promotions and in ads. Product Development wants customer insight to help uncover the next big marketplace hit. And Sales wants customers to persuade prospects that its company's solution is the only choice that makes sense.

Daily Insanity—The Enemy of Your Program's Success

With such high demand for customers, more and more companies are building formal reference and customer programs and developing customer initiatives that enable the effective and efficient recruitment, management and delivery of customers and customer successes to customer-hungry groups.

Our experience with dozens of clients and their customer programs has shown us that the professionals who lead these efforts are often under-funded and under-staffed. They start every day behind and can't get away from the cacophony of various demands that follow them down the halls.

From Sales: "We need a robust set of customers for references!"

From an executive: "I've got to have a customer join me for this speaking engagement!"

From the new head of Marketing: "We've got to have higher-impact customer content!"

Sound familiar?

In the day-to-day scramble to satisfy tactical stakeholder demands, you must set aside time to focus on activities that build a successful customer program. While it's very tempting to put those strategic activities you've been thinking about on your "to-do-someday" list, remember that you'll only succeed in the long run if you keep your strategic focus.

Yes, you have to meet the demands, but that shouldn't stop you from taking even a few minutes each day to ensure that you stay the strategic course for developing customer relationships. After all, customer references are tools. Customer relationships are assets. Which would you rather have?

Six Strategic Activities That Make a Real Difference

1. Create a 100-day plan: You'll never get enough funding if you can't build a business case that demonstrates you can deliver on your promises. And you can't demonstrate you've succeeded unless you know where you were headed in the first place.

So get out a pen and craft a plan; do it during lunch hour if you must. Write down 3-5 key initiatives your program should work on over the next 100 days. Define the tasks that will bring those initiatives to fruition. Assign the tasks to your team and make sure people know you're going to hold them accountable.

When the 100 days are up, take your plan to lunch again. Evaluate your success and identify the next set of initiatives. Repeat the process. Make it a habit. It sounds simple, but a plan is a powerful tool for transforming your reality.

2. Segment your customers: All customers are not created equal so you can't give them all the same level of attention. Sales knows this and has already segmented customers for its purposes. But a sales model won't work for you. Just because a customer represents high revenue doesn't make them a "top tier" reference.

So figure out which criteria are important from a referencing perspective and segment your customers into three to four tiers, then define the following for each: typical customer profile, primary customer activities, rules of engagement and program value to customers.

3. Craft a customer value proposition: Next, craft a value proposition for each tier that clearly articulates what customers in that tier get for participating in your company's program. If you're having a hard time, it may be because your program is not offering customers anything inherently valuable. This needs to be corrected, or you'll have problems later. But try these quick fixes to get through the short-term:

  • Leverage other programs within your organization. Find out which groups are already providing benefits to customers and attach your messaging to their activities. After all, the customer doesn't care about your internal organizational boundaries. Does your company have an executive sponsor program through which key members of the C-suite touch high-value customers? How about a beta program? Is PR placing customers in trade magazines? Does your company nominate customers for awards? If you look long enough, you'll likely find several pockets of customer value throughout your company.

  • Host a webinar or conference every three months to give customers access to people of interest, such as a celebrity executive or product marketing VP. By giving customers opportunities that aren't available to everyone, you make them feel special and build stronger relationships.

4. Mind the gap: While a large storehouse of reference customers might seem like an accomplishment, it's not necessarily a sign of success. To know whether your inventory truly measures up, you have to know which kinds of customers your stakeholders need and how your storehouse maps to those needs.

Here's how we suggest you start. Identify three key sales executives and two key marketing stakeholders. Ask them what the primary sales focus will be in three to six months. Get specifics. Learn about products, solutions and partners. Then create a gap-analysis grid. Label priority quadrants based on what you learned from your five informants.

Next, see how many customers you have for each quadrant. You'll see the critical gaps instantly and can focus your current recruiting efforts on filling them. If you discover that the company doesn't have customers to fill those gaps, ring the alarm. Work with sales executives; they should understand that their teams' efforts to fill the gaps will help them later.

Repeat as needed (every three months).

5. Outsource strategically: If you're understaffed, it's likely that you're depending on vendors or consultants to help you meet the demands of your stakeholders. While outsourcing is a powerful tool, make sure you keep in your pocket those activities most critical to developing stronger relationships.

For example, many companies outsource customer content creation to vendors that excel at this function and add great value to any program. But if you allow outsourced vendors to be the only face customers see, you won't build powerful relationships. A more strategic approach is to participate in key customer touch-points with vendors while relying on them to independently do the heavy lifting needed to prepare for meetings and to author content.

6. Capture intelligence intelligently: You have an opportunity to capture customer intelligence every time someone from your program talks to a customer. Conversations aren't a means to only, for example, writing a success story. So take advantage of the position you're in and capture data that larger audiences can use. And aggregate it.

Increase the value of your program by identifying trends that will help other groups in your organization make informed decisions about marketing plans, sales targets or product direction. Or if trend identification is beyond what you have time to do, simply share the aggregated data with key departments on a regular basis.

By doing so, your program will become a strategic partner to other organizations. It'll earn more respect and, ultimately, more sponsorship and budget.

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Kathleen McBride is a consultant with The Phelon Group. She specializes in customer relationship management and reference systems implementation.

Steven Nicks is a partner with The Phelon Group (