The Future of Customer Reference Programs: 2020 and Beyond

Authored by Lisa Hoesel, Voice of the Customer Program Manager at Upland Software

Over the past seventeen years in this industry, I have witnessed the evolution of customer reference (voice of the customer) programs. What began as a gleam in many of our eyes as we responded to a sales person’s 11th-hour Hail Mary email seeking a customer who was willing to speak with a prospect, this discipline has now matured into a fully strategic, tech-enabled discipline.

Today, we have fully automated programs that attract, track, and support the search for the “right content and contact” at the right time, not only in sales cycles, but in marketing initiatives, executive briefings, customer interactions, and several other areas. Many customer reference programs have evolved from spreadsheet-based lists into comprehensive platforms that process requests for customers’ insight and analyze the impact down to the specific buyer and customer persona level, ultimately showcasing the value customer stories have on an organization’s bottom line.

It’s hard to believe there is still more to conquer. But as our industries continue to advance, there are new trends in the B2B marketplace we can’t afford to miss.

Why customer voice programs matter
If you aren’t convinced by the many metrics that demonstrate the need for the continued attention and curation of your customers’ voices, well, you should. Forrester continually emphasizes the need for an increased focus on customer-related content in messaging. According to , Vice President, Principal Analyst at Forrester, “the business consumer, digitally savvy and self-directed, is in control,” compared to the historical viewpoint that “as few as 10 years ago, vendors held the power of commerce by controlling information.”

To bring the point home, Forrester provides these metrics:

  • 92%of B2B purchases start with search.
  • 68%of B2B buyers prefer to research online on their own, up from 53% in 2015.
  • 60%of B2B buyers prefer not to interact with a sales rep as the primary source of information.
  • 75%of B2B buyers use social networks to learn about different vendors.
  • 62%of B2B buyers say they can now develop selection criteria or finalize a vendor list — based solely on digital content.

In my opinion, here are some industry trends that will continue to shape how we manage our customer reference programs:

1: Activation across the buyer’s journey
Sales, Marketing, and Reference teams continue to identify ways to activate customer voices throughout the sales cycle by serving up content, peer networking activities, customer testimonials, and sales playbooks at the appropriate times.

Measuring how customer reference programs influence revenue at specific sales stages, by product, by buyer persona, by vertical, and many other dimensions is increasingly an ask of program managers.

The pre-sales buyer intelligence, peer validation, and education demand that once prospects are in the sales cycle, customer reference programs must equip their sellers with increasingly specific customer referrals and collateral.

2:  Persona and use identification, not just product and revenue alignment
Prospects—and often existing customers—are looking for more than just traditional referrals: They want peer support in their area of expertise and responsibility.

At a given stage or to support a specific message, your program should be flexible enough to align your reference customers with their areas of expertise (by vertical, industry, etc.) and desire to participate.  Socialization and personalization at the persona level, especially as your buying audience becomes more and more mobilized, mean that your delivery of reference content at the specific consumer level is increasingly critical.

Your program should also be flexible enough to align your reference customer and their preferred activities, at any given stage or in support of any specific message. As your buying audience is increasingly mobilized, and based upon their specific personas, they must have the ability to search for peer validation of your solutions and specific use cases in channels that resonate with them; it has long been insufficient to tailor your messaging only in the traditional channels. The options that our buyers have to peruse peer opinions will become increasingly diverse and available in a predominantly mobilized world.   The creation and publication of tailored, buyer-persona content is as much an art as it science. The good news is that with the right program and platform, one project with a customer reference and multiple contacts can provide you with many outcomes. Most importantly, you can maintain the ability to track the effectiveness of each project and roll up the revenue influence by subset, geo, persona, sales stage, or marketing campaign, etc.

3: Advocate personas
What motivates one advocate to share their voice might not motivate another; not everyone feels valued by being gifted with a branded coffee mug.

Consider, again, the need for different personas as indicated by your buyer’s journey analysis as you fulfill requests and review Sales wins; and then recruit and reward to those personas. Similarly, ensure that you offer customer voice activities that are varied enough to attract different decision-making roles, including implementers, stakeholders, and others.

4: Emphasis on flexibility and scalability
We can expect even more focus on cross-solution reporting and strategic trend analysis in the years to come, complemented by the ability of programs and supporting technology to make agile adjustments. Automation continues to be a top priority with continued pressure for customer reference programs to serve larger internal audiences and accommodate increasingly variable customer expectations.

Being able to prioritize and scale programs should be one of the top drivers of focus and attention. The trend of customer-centric content focused on specific buyer queries has not changed, so your ability to respond flexibly to the needs surfaced by revenue-facing teams is only gated by your ability to automate your response.

To do so, you must invest the time to understand the needs of internal customers and identify processes by which you automate surfacing the right content and contacts at the right time in your sales and conversational processes. Only then will you be able to grow and measure the influence of your customers’ voices on organizational revenue.

As we take on the new decade, we must set our sights on building flexible programs that can iteratively respond to changes in buyers’ journeys, sales methodology, and organizational priorities.

No matter how many new ways you offer supporting evidence for your solutions, if you support your program with processes that enable you to strategically analyze the trends in your sales cycle and adjust accordingly, you are taking steps in the right direction vis-à-vis curating your most valuable asset:  the voice of your customers!

Cheers to a successful 2020! Whether you’re just getting started and require a Customer Reference Handbook, or you have a mature program, but require a gut check to ensure you’ve checked all the Best Practices boxes, RO Innovation is here to help. You can also request to see how our customer reference solution can fit your unique needs.


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