If you’ve put a lot of work into creating a customer reference or customer advocacy program, there’s a very real chance that you’ve encountered some hidden (or perhaps not so hidden) frustration from the sales team.  Usually this comes from an understandable, and fixable, frustration.

There aren’t enough good references to go around.  

Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sales probably isn’t the only  party looking for help with references. Marketing, PR, product management, perhaps even customer support may have opportunities that need references as well.

Regardless of origin, the common denominator is that you have too few references. Thus you risk burning out the ones you do have if you rotate them too quickly in order to fill existing requests.

While there’s no magic bullet for this issue, any of the solutions outlined below can be enacted before your co-workers begin feeling the squeeze for new references.  Better still, you can enact these ideas before your references become too fatigued to work successfully anymore!

1)    Ask your sales organization which of your company’s current customers they wish were references.

This will give you a list of possible references that you can begin pursuing immediately.  At the same time you can use the commonality of these customers to develop profiles of what preferred reference candidates look like, allowing you to reach out to existing customers that fit the bill but weren’t specifically named by sales.  This also allows you to begin laying down plans for a future pipeline as you can keep an eye out for future customers that fit the same said profile.

2)    Insert yourself into the on-boarding process of new customers.

Nothing can irk someone more than being asked for a favor by someone they’ve just met.  So you don’t want to do that in your first customer contact (“Hi, I’m the reference manager, nice to meet you!  Wanna be a reference?”).  Introduce yourself to new customers early and make yourself available to them should they need anything.  If they don’t know who to turn to, let them know they can come to you.  Check in on them during the implementation of your solution to their organization and make sure they’re happy.  If they aren’t happy by the end, don’t ask them to be a reference, but maintain contact should the use of your product make them happy enough to extol your organization’s virtues.

3)    Get sales to nominate their happy customers and pocket references.

Chances are good that your sales reps have a number of happy customers that would make good references, but no one has ever approached them about it.  It’s possible that this isn’t sales, but account management or another function. Approach whichever department owns the customer relationship post-kickoff and ask which customers are the happiest.  Start there.  If necessary, move down the list from happiest customers to merely happy, but don’t go to low.  Otherwise you’ll be pulling references that no one will be happy with: you, sales, or the sales prospect.

Additionally, sales reps most likely have a number of pocket references they use from time to time that if pooled with all the other sales reps’ pocket references would make for a decent number of references.  However, fear of burning out those relationships, or perhaps just cautious hoarding, may be keep sales reps from sharing these.  This is best solved with a carrot and stick approach.  Incentivize your sales reps with a positive action to nominate their references for your program, either by appealing to their competitive nature via a contest or by a quid pro quo exchange.  The carrot is simply to make it clear they are welcome to not nominate their references, but if they choose to do so they’ll need to rely solely on those references.

True, that’s a bit of hardball, but you’ll need a bit of that, and a good eye for people and details to get (and keep) a reference program up and running.  For more information on getting your reference pipeline going from scratch check out RO’s guide to starting a reference program from scratch.

If you’d like to discuss this further, or how ask how RO Innovation can aid in these endeavors, please contact me.

eBook: Starting a Customer Reference Program from Scratch
Download the ultimate guide to kick-starting a customer reference program! Covering all phases, from securing program approval to launching the program and measuring success, this valuable eBook provides best practices and tips directly from your peers to get you up and running fast. Plus there is a bonus download for a set of checklists to make sure you don’t miss any steps.

Matthew McLean
Matthew McLean is a Program Manager at RO Innovation. He has a passion for helping organizations and individuals increase sales and market share through the design and application of software. With over 15 years of experience in customer relationship management, project management, and product management with companies ranging from startups to Fortune 500 in a variety of industry verticals, McLean can help your company grow via sales and marketing best practices.