Customer reference programs are more critical today than they ever have been. Customers today want to see a robust set of information about a product or service before buying it. They want to see reviews, testimonials, interviews, and more. And the quality of this media matters greatly. How many times have you skimmed straight past a review on Amazon because someone simply wrote: “product is good”? In this scenario, “good” is useless information. It’s subjective. What makes something good to you might be different to what makes it good to someone else. By reading that review, you’re no closer to finding out whether that product is a good fit for you. Will it solve your needs? Who knows.
Therefore, testimonials and case studies are much better at spelling out exactly why a product is “good.” They’re more useful for customers. This is even more true for B2B companies where customers will often spend much more money on a single purchase than is expected in the consumer market. In the consumer market, a customer might be willing to pay $50 on something they are mostly sure will help them, even if they aren’t 100% sure. They might still have some questions about the product, but they are willing to pay $50 to get the product quickly and figure it out for themselves rather than doing lots of additional research. This is much less common in B2B purchasing decisions for several reasons. Firstly, products are typically much more expensive, so people are much less likely to take a risk and hope it pays off. Secondly, employees often have to sign off on the purchase and be held responsible if it is not fit for purpose.
Put simply, having a broad but also in-depth body of customer opinions about your product is critical to your business success. This effect can be felt more greatly for B2B organizations where purchases are less frequent and more costly to customers (both in terms of risk/reward and monetary cost). However, customer reference programs are still a good idea for all businesses. Today we’re going to be looking at how to get started with your customer reference program. Let’s take a look.
What is a Customer Reference Program?
A customer reference program (CRP) is a function typically found in large business-to-business (B2B) companies. As part of the program, employees such as CRP managers reach out to customers to ask them to be a reference for the company. This is generally a more active role for the customer, so it’s distinct from simpler forms of customer feedback like writing a short review. They essentially function as a customer spokesperson for your brand.
CRP Managers are responsible for:
- Helping salespeople gain new clients.
- Providing proof of customer success stories for industry analysts and the media.
A well-coordinated customer reference program can result in the following benefits:
- Salespeople spend less time searching for suitable customer references – With a good program, you already know who these customers don’t have to search for new customer references. This can be invaluable in a time-pressured environment, for example, if a media publication asks for a comment from one of your customers.
- Faster customer reference fulfillment and a reduction in sales cycles.
- Finding niche examples within industries or geographies.
- Boosts sales and revenues.
- Higher customer engagement and customer loyalty overall.
Why Customers Choose to Be Customer References
Why do some customers choose to become a customer reference? It’s a simple question, but it’s one you need to answer when you start your customer reference program. Without a good understanding of this question and its answer, you will struggle to attract the right customers for your program.
There are three key reasons that some customers choose to become references:
- Strong bonds with the main point of contact – If a customer has good chemistry or a strong bond with a salesperson, product manager, executive, or sales engineer, then they may consider becoming a reference. They will be motivated by a desire to strengthen this relationship further and help out their friend.
- Love of the product or solution – Some people are passionate about products and solutions. They value the role the product plays in fixing their problems, making their job easier, or providing entertainment. These people are invested in your company’s success because they don’t want to live in a world without your product. They are happy customers, and they don’t want to have to look for an alternative. They are likely to be motivated by this passion they have for your product.
- They want to be professionally associated with your brand – Some people want to attach themselves (their name or personal brand) with your company because they believe it elevates their status.
Remember these reasons because we’ll touch on them again in our eight tips section!
8 Tips and Tricks to Get You Started with Your Customer Reference Program
1. Strategies for Attracting Customer References
To attract the right type of customers to become your references, you have to be deliberate. You can’t cast a wide net, but instead, use strategies that align with the customer motivations we talked about in the last section.
Customers who have good chemistry with their main point of contact in your business have their own set of motivations for becoming a reference. To attract customers who fall into this category, you need to talk to key customer-facing leaders in your business. The two most prominent examples will be Account Executives and Customer Support Managers. However, you shouldn’t limit your reach to just these employees. As we discussed, this can also apply sales leaders, sales engineers, executives, product managers, and even advisory board members.
For customers who are motivated by the other two reasons (professional association or love of the product), relationships with points of contact are less critical. You can use a direct outreach strategy. For example, you can send a communication to customers who have been buying from your company for a long time (longevity screening) or customers who have engaged with you professionally in the past (e.g., on LinkedIn).
2. Measure the Response to Requests to Participate in the Program
You can tell a lot by how your customers respond when you ask them to participate in your customer reference program. It’s a good idea to track responses because this data can help inform you of how strong your customer relationships are. If you get many negative responses (customers saying no or customers not responding), it could mean that your customers are not as engaged with your product or brand as you think. It’s worth remembering that the only customers who will be asked to participate are customers you have personally chosen as promising candidates for being a customer reference in the first place.
This means that if you select 30 customers in the category of “they love our product,” and yet, they all say no to being a reference, it could mean they don’t love your product. You’ll have some work to do to change this around. Or it could mean the criteria you’re using to find customers who love your product is flawed.
3. Get Buy-In from Key Groups in Your Business
Before you can even begin to launch a customer reference program, you have to ensure you have buy-in from these key groups in your business:
- The Sales and Marketing Team – You’ll need full buy-in from these teams because your program will never lift off without them.
- Your Partners – This applies if you sell your products through a network of partners. In this scenario, the partners need to be on board for your program to be successful; otherwise, they could hinder progress. The best way to get them on board is to highlight the advantages of the program.
- Your customers – Make sure there’s some desire among your customers to participate in a customer reference program. This isn’t as formal as actually picking your references, but instead trying to capture customer sentiment. You can send out a quick poll asking customers whether they think it would be a good idea or whether they would be willing to participate.
4. A Smooth Recruitment Process
All good business programs need to have a smooth onboarding process. If customers find the process complicated or think it takes up too much of their time or energy, they will abandon the idea. Then your program is dead before it’s even begun. Make the recruitment process slick – Customers should get quick responses and have a dedicated route of communication. Your customer reference program must appear professional from the offset.
5. Pick Your Tools
You’ll likely need tools for managing your customer references. All customer references will need to provide their personal contact details and availability (or capacity to participate). It’s important to capture as much information about your references as is useful, but no more. You don’t want to make this a chore for your customers, but you also need to know what each reference is comfortable with. For example, some references might be happy to write testimonials but not happy to talk directly to the press. A lot of businesses default to using spreadsheets, but spreadsheets aren’t always the best option. Look for dedicated tools capable of collecting and storing the information you plan to capture.
6. Give Your Program a Personality
Many reference programs struggle to lift off because they appear overly serious or bland. The word “reference” can scare off potential participants. To get around this, you can create a personality or brand for your program, so it appears more fun and less serious.
7. Create a High-Level Document for Participants
It would be best if you create a high-level document explaining your program. Here are our tips for designing the document:
- It should be no more than one page of A4 – Customers will be put off if they feel overwhelmed by the information. The document isn’t supposed to detail all the program’s ins and outs, but rather to be an “everything you need to know” snapshot.
- Use bullet points – They help break up information into easily digestible chunks.
- Tell customers exactly what they can expect.
- Tell customers exactly what their role is, including examples of what they might be asked to participate in.
A significant benefit of this document is that it keeps the information centralized and the narrative coherent. You don’t want to end up in a situation where every business point of contact tells potential participants a different thing.
8. Appreciate Your Customer References
Remember, they are volunteers who give up their free time to help your business achieve its goals. Never treat your customer references like your employees, demanding their participation, sending them excessive emails, or threatening to remove them from the program. This is a bad look for your company and will harm your potential to attract new customer references.