Take Your Customer Reference Program from Reactive to Proactive

8 minute read

If a frantic email with twenty people on copy is your first heads up that sales needs three customer references by tomorrow, your organization has a reactive approach to customer reference management. Waiting for reference requests to come in and then dropping everything to find customers who can help works occasionally. But you don’t need us to tell you that it’s not a strategy for successfully scaling your reference program or building a dependable customer reference pipeline.

Before we dig into what it means to have a proactive approach to customer reference management and how to make that transition, let’s take a closer look at the risks of reactive reference management. If you can express both how the status quo is falling short and the benefits of transitioning to a new method, you’ll have a far easier time getting executives, stakeholders, and teammates in your corner when it’s time to make the change.

Limitations of a Reactive Approach to Customer Reference Management

In this scenario, typically, someone in marketing or sales operations handles customer references on an ad hoc basis. Without a dedicated customer reference manager, securing approved customer references yo-yos between dead last on the priorities list to the absolute top when urgent reference requests come in.

Through a herculean team effort, your company can usually complete last-minute reference requests on deadline. But you have to set the bar for success low. Just getting some sort of reference back in time feels like a win, even when the reference isn’t a great match. Without a pool of preapproved customer references to work with, there isn’t much else you can do.

Real-World Example: To finish a request for proposal (RFP) response that’s due tomorrow, you need to provide three references from customers in the banking industry. You manage to get three references approved in time: one from a company that sells software to banks, one from an insurance company, and one from a cable provider. While this isn’t an abject failure, it’s tough to call it a win either.

Beyond lacking a proactive customer reference management process and strategy, your organization likely doesn’t have the right tools. You’re probably working with a tricked-out Excel spreadsheet (that generates random errors half the time) and a couple of customer reference fields in Salesforce that your sales team mostly ignores. It’s no wonder that every time a reference request comes in, you have to resort to emailing everyone in sales and customer success to beg for help.

Benefits of a Proactive Approach to Customer Reference Management

In this scenario, typically, you have a dedicated customer reference manager who is responsible for running your customer reference program. Just hiring a customer reference manager doesn’t magically make your customer reference management approach proactive, of course. There’s going to be a transition period before your reference program is up and running smoothly, with a reliable customer reference pipeline.

Your customer reference manager will spend every day obsessing about getting more customers to join your reference program. This way, you’ll always have a pool of preapproved reference contacts and content to choose from. Beyond that, your reference manager will work to transform your happiest customers into advocates who will gladly sing your company’s praises in webinars, reference calls, online review websites, and when chatting with their friends and peers.

Real-World Example: It’s one week out from a webinar with two hundred registrants. Three customers are supposed to talk about the challenges facing the retail industry, but your star speaker just backed out because of a last-minute conflict. Instead of panicking, you call your customer reference manager. Thanks to her proactive approach, she offers two highly qualified potential replacements on the spot. The webinar’s on.

To support a proactive approach to customer reference management, go ahead and trash that quirky reference tracking spreadsheet and look for a customer reference management software instead. Software designed for customer reference management will give your team one place to nominate references, request references, and quickly locate the best-fitting customer references and reference content.

Customer reference management software also gives you the ability to link reference activity to deals accelerated and revenue influenced so you can prove the return on investment (ROI) of your new proactive reference program.

Three Ways to Encourage Customers to Become References

Now you understand the value of transitioning from a reactive to a proactive customer reference program, but how are you supposed to get customers to participate? We’ve filled ebooks and webinars with customer reference program best practices and recommendations, but to get you started, check out our top three tips for getting started.

1. Set Customer Reference Expectations Early

Discussing your reference program early in customer relationships is a great idea. If your customers at least have a high-level understanding and awareness of your reference program, this will save you time down the road when you reach out to see if they’d like to participate.

On the other hand, requiring customers to participate in your reference program in their contract is not a good idea. Usually, customers are put off by this aggressive approach. And you want to work with happy customer reference volunteers, not customers who see participating as an obligation. Instead, try to get time during every customer’s initial implementation or onboarding to chat about your customer reference program, what sort of activities are available, and how the customer could benefit from taking part in the future.

Never offer an up-front discount or incentive in return for customer reference activities. That said, if a client asks for a discount or incentive, evaluate the strategic importance of their participation, and act accordingly. Keep in mind: once word gets out that you gave one customer an incentive, it can be hard not to offer that same deal to all customer reference participants.

Establishing a customer reference program where participants expect to get paid to participate will make your budget balloon and often decreases the quality of your references and reference content. That’s because your reference program participants often start doing only the bare minimum to get the promised incentive, instead of going above and beyond because they love your offering and genuinely want to participate in your reference program.

2. Cultivate Customer Reference Partnerships

If you wait to reach out to potential customer references until you need something from them (e.g., a case study, reference call, or quote), they are more likely to see the relationship as one-sided and respond negatively. The key to securing compelling customer references is building sincere, mutually beneficial relationships with your customers.

Start a conversation with your most promising customer references by discovering what you can do for them. If they’re looking to build a personal brand, see if you can get them on a webinar in front of a large audience of their peers. If they could use a case study on their success to get internal recognition, offer to create one, and co-brand it.

Once your customers get to know you and see that you’re there to help—not just take up their time with reference calls and interviews—they’ll be far more open to working with you.

3. Expand Your Customer Reference Relationships

Having customer references and reference content that aligns with your primary industries and use cases is only the beginning. Based on their role and interests, different prospects will want to hear from different types of references. For example, some prospects may want to hear from a technical person to understand how your offering works, while another may want to hear from an executive to get a feel for the level of service and support you provide.

To get ahead of these requests, don’t stop after you have a single customer reference at a company. That trusted reference can very likely introduce you to others in their organization on other teams and in other departments who would also be open to learning about your reference program. Having a diverse set of customer reference participants from the same organization will increase your chances of matching the right prospect with the right customer.

Preparing to Launch and Expand Your Customer Reference Program

To get a head start on launching or expanding your customer reference program, check out Upland RO Innovation. RO Innovation is a customer reference management and advocacy management software designed to help you build reliable reference pipelines, so you can share trusted customer voices throughout the buyer’s journey and win more business.

To see how Upland RO Innovation can meet your unique needs, contact an RO Innovation customer reference management expert.

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