The voice of the customer is everywhere these days. Just look at the number of customer reviews and ratings available each time you purchase a product or service online. And the power of customer endorsement isn’t confined to the consumer world. It’s equally powerful in business-to-business marketing.
Today, B2B buyers no longer see talking to a vendor as the first stop on their road to making a purchase. Instead, buyers talk with their peers in their personal networks, do their own research via web searches and social media, and have already done a great deal of vetting before they even talk to sales.
According to a Nielsen survey, only 33% of buyers trust what a seller tells them, but 90% trust what another buyer tells them. For even the most trustworthy companies, these statistics are too difficult to ignore. Building effective customer reference programs should be an integral part of the B2B marketing tool-set in 2019.
Customer references shorten sales cycles, increase deal sizes, build trust and value with prospective customers and lead to higher revenue margins. Yet, while customer references are a fast track to trust and value —and ultimately closed sales —why do so many B2B companies lack a systematic approach to consistently leverage customer references with buyers?
Until now, the priority of sales enablement has been creating and communicating the brand instead of letting customers do the talking. Most customer reference programs have not been formalized, are managed with a spreadsheet at best, and are conducted as afterthoughts. By creating and maintaining a formal customer reference program, companies can build a focus on customer-centric marketing.
Establishing the Foundation
The key to creating a solid customer reference management begins with a solid foundation. Below are key challenges, as well as solutions to ensure that you get off to a winning start.
- Break down the department silos. Successful customer reference programs require insight and direct input from different departments, such as sales and marketing. Unfortunately, these groups are notorious for conflicting beliefs and goals. Getting them to work together can be difficult and sometimes is a major roadblock to getting your program off the ground. Having a senior executive who has political influence and authority to straddle these divisions, and who is willing to elevate the program to a corporate initiative, is critical.
- Win over the sales team. All organizations have referenced customers, but often they are maintained and nurtured by the salesperson who owns the relationship. Getting salespeople to release control of those customer relationships is a big hurdle. Past efforts share their references may have put a bad taste in their mouth, and a formal process may be seen as just another thing they have to do. However, by providing a clear picture of what the reference program objectives are, how the salesperson benefits, and how the customer will be successfully managed and utilized, salespeople may be more willing to engage in the program.
Creating the Blueprint
An effective customer reference program begins with a blueprint that can be communicated to users and stakeholders. As you identify your initial strategy and road map, make sure it supports your expectations for supporting your plan today and that it entails a high-level plan for adjusting those expectations as your program grows.
Elements that should be in your blueprint include:
- Resources such as value propositions and program mission statements, staffing, budget and database tools.
- User adoption plan, including promotions and user and non-user feedback.
- Customer reference management workflows, including the request framework, nomination and recruitment strategy, and understanding how stakeholders touch and leverage references.
Getting the Lay of the Land
Before you implement the program, you also need a thorough understanding of the current tools, workflows, processes and people that have been involved in reference activities and customer relationships in the past. It’s important to become familiar with the following:
- Technologies — In order to identify where internal and external customer marketing assets and customer contact records are being stored, you need to understand the technology and apps currently being used by key stakeholders, such as intranets, sales portals, CRM platforms, financial apps and contract software.
- Processes — Schedule meetings with each stakeholder department you have identified as key to your program to get a better sense of how the program would impact their departments and how it could aid them in being more successful in their daily jobs. This also gives you an opportunity to evaluate the way each department would utilize references and the appropriate workflows to support requests from each department.
Creating a Database Edit
Successful customer reference programs live and die by their ability to maintain a broad range of customer types for reference activities. That means having a variety of customers willing to do different activities — from taking a call to speaking at your next company event.
Mapping desired attributes to existing referenced customers will help you determine where gaps exist — especially as you align current reference stock against what will be needed to achieve any immediate company goals.
Setting the Metrics
Before you begin planning a formal reference program, you must define the metrics, reports and measurements that will be important for determining program success, value and growth over time. You will need that knowledge for not only securing executive sponsors and stakeholders buy-in, but it will also help you assess if you have the existing resources and tools to capture that data now and in the future.
Like any other critical business process, building a world-class customer reference program requires careful thought, planning and organization, but in an age in which decisions are made thorough peer reviews above all else, the work should be a core component to any marketing strategy.