Word of Mouth is a Powerful Tool

The Reference Management Elite - Shawn Dukes

Meet Shawn Dukes

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Shawn Dukes, Customer Reference Manager at Blackbaud, has a lot on her plate. Currently, her company’s reference program has over 2,000 references. As she puts it, “I’ve talked to many of my peer reference managers whose programs hover around 40, so I know that’s a big number!”


From HR to RM

Shawn comes from a background in human resources, so we were curious how she found herself with a career in the world of reference management. “I have my degree in HR, so I’ve always leaned more toward the people aspect of the organization,” Shawn explains. “As an HR generalist, I didn’t always get to hear good things—when people would sit down to talk to me or give me a call, it typically involved complaints. While I loved being that person to bring about change by coming up with workable solutions, I missed the more positive aspects I saw in other areas of the business. So I got involved in customer service, using my skillset to build relationships that were proactive rather than reactive. That lead me to Reference management—talking to clients, making those positive connections, building relationships—it’s a great fit for me.”

Fun Facts About Shawn

  • She makes homemade soap bombs. We’re jealous of how luxurious her baths are!
  • Her current obsession is watching anything on Investigative Discovery (ID) network.

Voice of the (Happy) Customer Is Key

Because Blackbaud is in a non-profit space, Shawn says that one of the most powerful tools for them is word of mouth, where one non-profit customer recommends them to another. “They are enriching each other as they’re recommending the products and influencing the decisions of their peers and our prospective customers. When I tell you that happy clients are the core of it all, I can’t stress that enough.”

Shawn tells us the best part of her job is talking to the clients to hear their personal wins with Blackbaud solutions as she’s building relationships with customers. She tells us about one instance when her team was interviewing a reference to determine if she was a good fit to speak with a prospect. It came out during the conversation that the reference was gearing up for a birthday party for her 4-year-old, who loves superheroes. Blackbaud has small gifts in their “Champion Swag Bags” (Blackbaud’s official reference name is Blackbaud Champion) that they randomly send to their references, and it just so happened that there was a superhero cape. The reference was thrilled (and almost moved to tears) when it arrived just in time for her son’s birthday.

“When you’re able to make those connections and do something for them, or help them along the way, it makes it really worthwhile,” says Shawn.

“Shawn has doubled the number of customers in Blackbaud’s reference program in two years. This past year alone her efforts increased revenue influenced by references by over 20%. She is consistently recognized by Sales and Marketing leadership for the outstanding impact references are having on Blackbaud’s success.”

Michael Beahm

Senior Marketing Manager, Blackbaud

Anatomy of a Reference Program’s Growth

The customer reference team at Blackbaud currently numbers five members. Shawn attributes leadership buy-in as a large supporter of that growth. “When I joined this team, it was just Michael and I, and the reference program wasn’t robust. It was the place that people came to look after they had exhausted all other avenues. We revamped the program and got the VP of Marketing on board. Now one of our biggest advocates is the VP of Sales.” Shawn attributes this to the fact that they built a trustworthy relationship with sales. Like any relationship though, it didn’t happen overnight. “We would get constant questions from Sales about whether we had actually talked to the references. We learned the sales team had received some bad references in the past, which had them up in arms. They had to start trusting our new information and process. We began providing them with these rock star references and they learned that they were great references and couldn’t wait to connect them with the prospect. They began believing the quality of the references we were providing them and started coming back.”

Shawn says her team views the sales team as their internal clients. “They’re using our system and giving us feedback—they’re letting us know what is and isn’t working and what would be beneficial to them.” That teamwork has also created some program advocates within the sales team. “We got internal buy-in from some of the top sellers in Blackbaud, and then those top sellers started talking about us to their team members. Their managers start listening and invite us to their meetings. From the sales managers, we made it all the way up to the Sales VP, who is now one of our program’s biggest advocates.”

Getting Granular in 2017

Shawn explains that because their reference pool was very small when they started, reference burnout was a challenge. So they went on a mission to grow their database in numbers, and they achieved that. Now that they have the larger reference pool to draw from, this year they are digging deeper into each reference story. “We’re getting very specific requests on how references are using the products.” She provides an example: “Say you have a very small finance department—two people—and ask, ‘Can you match me up with another Financial Edge client who only has two people in their finance department so I can see if this product is helpful to such a small staff?’ While we have some of the data, this year we want to get ahead of the curve and discover the stories of how they’re using products like Financial Edge—are they using it for invoices, are they using it for reimbursements, i.e., travel reimbursements—and just get really granular in how we’re matching them up.”

Shawn Dukes

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Nichole Auston
Customer Marketing Director at RO Innovation
Nichole Auston is the Customer Marketing Director at RO Innovation. With a background in digital marketing and nearly a decade of experience managing marketing programs for a variety of SaaS companies, she’s passionate about sharing insights, best practices and stories about sales enablement and customer reference management, and the people and technology that power it.