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Customer Reference Program Terms Defined

Nearly every organization uses customer references to accelerate deals and win new business. But companies often use different terminology and phrases. It’s not uncommon to be talking with a colleague at another organization and find you’re using two different words to refer to the same thing. Other times, you might think you’re talking about the same thing, only to find out later you weren’t.

So, what is a customer reference anyway? Let’s make sure we’re all working from the same definitions.

  • Customer Reference Contact:
    • An individual who uses your product or service and is willing to provide a customer reference.
  • Customer Reference:
    • A positive story your customer reference contact shares about your products or services.
  • Customer Reference Activity:
    • The way customer reference contacts share their customer references (e.g., by talking with a prospect on the phone, participating in a case study interview, sending a written quote via email, etc.)
  • Customer Reference Content:
    • The lasting result of certain customer reference activities (e.g., written case studies, video testimonials, recorded webinars, customer quotes, etc.)

Companies share customer references in different ways and forms at different points in the buyer’s journey to help progress deals and win more business faster. After all, most prospects would rather hear from a trusted industry peer than someone from a company’s sales or marketing department.

More mature organizations typically formalize their customer reference strategy and processes by launching a customer reference program. What’s that? We’re glad you asked.

  • Customer Reference Program:
    • An organization’s formal strategy and processes for collecting, organizing, and maximizing the value of customer references.
  • Customer Reference Manager:
    • The individual (or group of people) responsible for running an organization’s customer reference program.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s go deeper down the customer references rabbit hole.

What is the best way to share a customer reference?

This depends on who’s sharing the customer reference and in what context. A seasoned customer reference manager will skillfully edit and repackage the same customer reference into several forms to make it useful for various use cases. For example, a reference manager could condense a two-page case study into a one-slide case study vignette and pull a key quote for use on a landing page.

Also, some customer references are only willing (or allowed by company policy) to participate in certain reference activities. Here’s a quick look at some of the ways sales, marketing, and public relations (PR) might use customer references.

  • Sales:
    • Often need reference contacts who are willing to talk with prospects live during reference calls to help progress or win the deal.
  • Marketing:
    • Frequently capture customer reference stories in case studies and use customer quotes in marketing assets, social media, and websites to reinforce value propositions. Also, invite customer reference contacts to speak during webinars.
  • Public Relations (PR):
    • Often call on customer reference contacts to talk with industry reporters and analysts and to provide quotes for upcoming press releases and articles.

Are customer advocates the same as customer reference contacts?

This is one of those “all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares” situations. Let’s look at the definitions first and explore the subtleties.

  • Customer Reference Contact:
    • An individual who uses your product or service and is willing to provide a customer reference.
  • Customer Advocate (or Evangelist):
    • An individual who proactively and independently promotes and defends your products, services, and organization. This individual is likely—but doesn’t necessarily have to be—a current user of your product or service.

A key difference between a customer reference contact and a customer advocate (AKA evangelist) is that customer reference contacts wait for you to ask them to take part in a customer reference activity—they’re reactive. Customer advocates (AKA evangelists) support you so enthusiastically that they proactively tell anyone who will listen how great your organization, products, and services are.

Understandably, many customer advocates are also customer reference contacts because they would be more than happy to help with specific customer reference activities if you asked. On the flip side, a customer reference contact who is happy to provide a quote when asked may potentially never talk about your company again.

Is customer success the same as customer reference management?

No. Many companies, particularly software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies, have a dedicated customer success department staffed with customer success managers (CSMs). While the role differs between companies, CSMs are primarily responsible for reducing churn by helping their customers get the most value from their purchases.

CSMs may be involved in customer onboarding, support, and training. Customer reference managers often work with CSMs to identify happy customers who are open to becoming customer reference contacts and participating in customer reference activities.

How do I build a customer reference management program?

The customer reference management experts at Upland RO Innovation compiled their best practices and suggested steps for building and scaling a successful customer reference management program into a concise handbook. The easiest way to get your reference program off the ground is to download our free guide to starting a customer reference program.

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