By Lisa Hoesel, Voice of the Customer Program Manager at Upland Software
More and more, companies are investing in amplifying the voice of their customers. B2B enterprises with revenues under $10 billion are spending an average of $250,000 on formal customer reference programs according to inEvidence; and those generating over $10 billion annually are shelling out more than $1 million.
It’s money well-spent. The CMO Council reports that nearly half of the buyers surveyed cite professional associations and online communities, as well as industry organizations and groups, as the most valuable in shaping their purchase decisions.
The Evolution of Advocacy
I have had the honor of working in the voice of the customer discipline for seventeen years, since Jim Mooney, the founder and CEO of RO Innovation (since acquired by Upland Software), had an idea for software that would efficiently respond to the quest of salespeople to find reference customers to speak with their prospects.
RO Innovation and similar software began as ways to host audio clips and basic customer-sourced content in a searchable fashion so that sales and marketing could find satisfied customers to speak with prospects during the buying cycle—as well as to share similar stories via case studies and interviews. Over the years, the theory that our customers’ voices were more relevant and credible than any information our sales or marketing groups could provide has been backed up by industry studies, analyst research, and the feedback of a very sophisticated software marketplace, where buyers are sourcing even specific use case details among their own networks before knocking on our digital doors.
As the customer reference landscape has evolved, one thing has become clear: It’s about customer engagement throughout the relationship, not just at the specific “reference” activity or point in time.
Harnessing the voices of your customers in myriad ways and even—and perhaps most importantly—facilitating customer-to-customer conversations in the form of CABS or tech councils cements the investment and exchange that your customers feel they have with you. It doesn’t only contribute to customer loyalty, but also extends through their other networks as buyers do their research and connect with their peers in the types of industry organizations and groups I’ve already mentioned.
As the ancient philosopher, Aristotle, reminds us, “Nature abhors a vacuum.”
What Best-in-Class Customer Reference Programs Look Like Today
From Chasing to Facilitating
The burden of identifying great new participants to a voice or reference program has shifted from your sales organizations to include account owners, customer success management teams, and support groups as they often have interaction with daily users of your solutions that are extremely relevant to your buyer audience. Most compelling is that your customers themselves truly enjoy sharing their stories and the successes they have achieved with a partnership with you. If your program is flexible and your need to scale to accommodate stories of variety and use case versus more generic quotes from your clients, follow the lead of your peers with successful programs and consider adding internal users and soliciting their nominations.
As the discipline of customer voice activation has matured, teams responsible for identifying and recruiting customers to participate in advocacy activities “Ω that providing customer-sourced “evidence” of the viability of our solutions proactively the primary shift in our focus. Not only does having a breadth of customer voices available to participate in key sales and marketing support activities help us avoid the dreaded 11th-hour appeal to account owners or worse, directly to customers. Share the wealth!
We Can’t Control the Message
Given the information and networks available to our buying audience, the idea that we would somehow be able to control the message about our solutions or even be present in every channel where we are being discussed is an exercise in futility. What is possible and necessary now is that we are able to identify the channels for communication that have the most influence on our specific buyer personas so that we can strategically identify and support those voices that we want to activate.
All Kinds of Activities
It’s not just that there are endless opportunities for our prospects and buyers to consider and exchange opinions about our value, it’s a plethora of options for them to network and for us to invite them to share their voices.
Consider the explosion of social networks over the past seventeen years and the professional communities that we each have joined. Just as our sellers are seeking new relationships in this fashion, it is appropriate for us to monitor where our customers and prospects are gathering in order to invite them to share their thoughts about their relationships with us.
Tech Stack Integrations
It is expected rather than a vision for our programs to harness intelligence from multiple data points within our technology stack.
Whether the solutions we use are fully integrated with our CRM, marketing software, or customer health programs or whether we as program managers use data from those sources to holistically profile our participants and look for new recruits, customer voice programs are increasingly dependent on and must consider, among other things:
- Health scores
- Tech support data
- NPS scores
- Renewal dates
Mapping to Use Cases and New Buy Cycle Personas
Our efforts must exist in the context of the marketing and sales activity of our organization as a whole. This means we must align with:
- The challenges of our salespeople
- The verticals that our organization wants to penetrate
- The inevitable changes in our GTM strategies and messaging
As I have always said, I will never turn down an endorsement from a CEO, but we need bench strength in our programs, down to the persona level, so that we can facilitate conversations at multiple points in the sales cycle, not just at the “check-list” point.
What’s Heard on the Therapist’s Couch Must be Shared!
As we consider all of the ways that the information gathered about the influence of the customer voice must be shared in order to drive strategic adjustments in our messaging, communications, sales methodology, and content creation, we also have a significant opportunity to drive up and cross-sell conversations.
I have threatened for years to go back to school to obtain a counseling degree, as I find that the type of information I obtain during customer reference recruiting calls and when tracking the types of personas that are engaged in activities and with content delivered by a VoC program is not just useful in terms of traditional reference initiatives, but can be leveraged more broadly to supplement our understanding of the buying landscape. This can be as simple as monitoring promotions and job changes via a participant’s LinkedIn profile or as complex as creating heat maps for social networks in which our ICP personas are engaged. Either way, since Voice of the Customer programs are seated at the center of a vast communications hub, they are ideally suited to provide a wealth of data beyond our standard tracking of the revenue influence of a peer-to-peer phone call in a sales cycle.
Don’t Just Take it From Me
In the spirit of today’s topic, what kind of Voice of the Customer professional would I be if I didn’t solicit insight from some of the folks I’m lucky enough to support? Here’s what three of them had to say on the matter:
Customer advocacy is now a business imperative. Look at how the sales cycle has turned on its head in the last decade.
Today, somebody who has a business issue immediately reaches out to their network of friends, colleagues, and peers to ask for recommendations for how to solve it…When a proposed solution surfaces, they talk to their colleagues to get connected to someone that’s currently using that solution and the cycle of customer advocacy starts. In the meantime, the vendor of the solution has no clue that it has a prospective customer until way down the buyer’s journey when a lot of advocate conversations have already happened.
Eventually, the vendor gets approached when someone says, “Here’s an RFP,” but they’re oblivious to the customer advocates in their installed base that have facilitated this engagement. The critical turning-point is when the vendor engages with their advocates in such a way that the advocates willingly self-report the early stage conversations and help the vendor build a strong funnel of leads.
Many solution providers are just experiencing the dawning realization that any of their customers can get tapped at any time through social media and that means they have to keep their customer base happy, engaged as active advocates, and able to self-report leads. If this is done right, it’s a self-fueling upward spiral of growth and market game-changer. Customer advocates are mission-critical today.
—Helen Feber, Owner and Founder of Referencetial, Inc.
As I’ve watched customer programs change over the past few decades, what began as a tactical and part-time requirement for a junior marketing person has become an entire career path in many cases.
Customer engagement programs should be the driving strategy underpinning any organization that is aware of the huge paradigm shifts in our buying audience… With information far beyond what an account representative used to be able to cover in a demo call or standard slideware conversation, customization is easy to do for each customer.
Our buyers are far savvier than ever before, with purchase decisions being made by larger and larger committees that include representation from diverse business units with very particular use case interests. Customer references are still one, if not the most, valuable sales tools. Far from the days when facilitating a reference call was a nice-to-have and largely reactive tool in our differentiation kit, the Voice of the Customer has now become part of the DNA of any truly customer-centric company that seeks to prove that their solutions have the X-factor required to rise above their competitors and the noise in the marketplace.
— Rhett Livengood, Director, Digital Business Enabling at Intel Corporation
Where customer advocacy started as a siloed function, it now has become a real job with a title and specific software to support the discipline.
In the early days, a lone person spending some of their time exported lists from the CRM tool so they could add the information into a spreadsheet. It’s that spreadsheet that was the coveted holy grail of potential content/reference customers. Now, we have real dedicated technology tools integrating directly into the organization’s CRM to help prove customers’ real value. Measuring beyond the customer’s spend is important. Sales executives need insight into customer engagement when determining a renewal discount or customer visits. The number of reference calls taken can add up to millions of dollars, enabling a small-sized customer to be valued more than a Fortune 500 company. Customer advocacy participation can be a competitive advantage if used right.
Are you leveraging these advocacy activities to their full advantage? If you’re not, your competitor just may be doing it.
— Barbara Thomas, Senior Adocacy Strategist at Yesler
Customer advocacy has come a long way, and there’s so much further we can go if we have the right tools and continue to optimize and demonstrate the value of our work. I’d love the opportunity to discuss your challenges and share more specifically what I have seen as our discipline has evolved. I invite you to take a look at some thoughts that all of us continue to encounter as we continue to evolve as a significant influence on revenue.