Earlier this month, I was super proud to see RO Innovation hit a company milestone: bringing our first RO Elevate Customer Summit to life. Overall, it was a successful event that our customers said was well worth a day away from the office to attend.

Almost a year to the day prior to this customer summit, RO Innovation acquired Boulder Logic, another leading solution provider in the customer reference management space. In doing so, customers from the two companies were brought figuratively under one roof. Well, this summit event physically brought them together for a jam-packed day of networking, best practices sharing and “roll up your sleeves” work on their customer reference programs.

As a result, we gained invaluable insights into the ever-changing world of customer reference management. In an effort to share with you some of the most important takeaways from the event, I received input from our customers and my staff, who have helped me put together this list below. (Thanks, everyone!)

1.   No one has a perfect program

Although sometimes we like to pretend otherwise, no company has a perfect customer reference program. Even companies with reference programs that are mature, well established, and appreciated – both internally and externally. Every program has their own unique set of challenges. Every program uses trial and error to an extent.

“I was actually pretty nervous to come to Elevate when I saw all the big names attending. But then they sit across from you at the table and talk about their programs, and I realize their programs have just as many problems as mine!” – Robb Verna, Greenway Health

One thing that I heard over and over from our customers at this event was how great it was for them to be able to be in the same room with peers who were facing the exact same challenges as they were. So even if a customer self-admitted they were “just trying to hold their program together with shoelaces and glue”, the environment of the day made it okay for them to actually say it out loud in front of their peers. What was even better, was when they did voice a challenge they faced in their programs, someone else immediately said, “hey, me too!” and nearly instantaneously, an organic brainstorming session started on ways to address it. I’ve never seen anything like it!

2.   Customer Reference Managers Kick A**

The idea and discipline of customer reference management is relatively still in its infancy stage. There is no college degree offered in customer reference management. There is no secret blueprint that works for everyone, every time. Reference managers are paving the way as they go, which makes them true pioneers and heroes in this field. That’s why we’ve started the Reference Management Elite program. Reference Managers are out there every day in the trenches kicking butt and taking names, showcasing the true magic and power behind the customer’s voice in driving revenue at their companies.

“Reference Managers are the powerful guardians of the critical customer relationships that move business forward.”  – Jamie Clark, RO Elevate Keynote Speaker

Reference managers learn best practices from their peers, which is why events like this are so vital for progressing the strategic importance of customer reference management in B2B organizations. Every time I looked around the room that day, I saw true engagement and peers helping peers. Every person sitting around each table was engrossed in conversation with each other, physically leaning in and hanging on every word of their peer who was sharing. You could see the concentration and mental note taking happening. The energy was truly amazing.

RO Elevate Customer Summit Break Out Discussion

3.     References are BIGGER than ever before

This takeaway was two-fold for me. The first is the undeniable momentum and focus around customer advocacy as a top strategic initiative in modern B2B sales and marketing organizations. The greater focus on advocacy as a whole positions customer references to be a huge value differentiator and an even bigger value creator within companies. It is the window of opportunity for the customer reference industry to elevate and truly showcase the strategic importance and critical role references play in driving revenue generation within organizations.

“In 2017, I predict the Customer Reference industry grows even more as it gets more recognition as part of purchasing requirement due diligence and drives sales for organizations.” –Barbara Thomas, Microsoft

The other aspect of this takeaway…Part B if you will… was the idea of operating a customer reference program. Building, managing and growing a reference program requires a lot of moving parts. It includes different management levels within the organization: having their buy-in and continual support of the program. There are many different departments that have vested interests in a program like this and even customers who may not truly understand the value and power of their own voice in today’s B2B buying journey. Today’s most successful reference programs touch more areas than at any point in the past, which is a tall order at some companies. But one that RO Innovation is fully ready and able to help with.

Real World Stories of Your Peers

Spencer Duncan of Ceridian presented best practices on Operating Models & Resource Alignment at RO Elevate. Find out more about the award-winning Ceridian reference program story.

4.  You MUST report the value of your program

When it comes to reporting KPIs and metrics, other areas of marketing and sales have an easier time. They can simply regurgitate website traffic numbers or volume of sales bookings. Turns out, reference managers have a harder time navigating the metrics they should be reporting to senior management. Unfortunately, it’s not as cut and dry, as say, the cost of a lead.

“The two key metrics I roll up to management: how the program is effecting sales pipeline and bookings.”

Robb Verna

Director, Customer 4 Life Marketing, Greenway Health

“It was fascinating to hear what people are tracking and measuring in RO Innovation – from service level agreements to reference engagement and influence values in the pipeline and how different groups communicate that out to different internal teams.  We track the regular number of recruits, fulfilled reference requests, types of activities requested, where requests are coming from regionally and what business groups. But with RO, we’re expanding our tracking to include engagement value and influence value through the pipeline and the value a reference brings through their participations in reference activities. It was a great event to be at to share ideas and experiences with professionals of like-minds!”

Barbara Thomas

Customer Advocacy Team Leader, Microsoft

Internal value selling, and showing the impact your program is having on the business matters if you want budget, executive buy-in, user adoption and additional support for your program. Luckily, there are resources available to help you do this:

5.  Multiple executives need to be bought in. It’s not a one-time event!

During the morning workshop session on executive buy-in, there was a resonating best practice shared amongst the group. Successful programs create multiple internal advocates for your program – both from an executive and end-user levels. Reference managers must develop a mentality that even though they may have one executive sponsor, that isn’t enough anymore. They must extend the reach in order to make the program “sticky”. That way, it significantly lowers the challenges and risk your program faces. This requires reference managers to think of executives, sales users and marketing staff as internal customers they have to sell to…not just once…but every day. Here are a few tips our customers shared at the event for doing just that:

  • Jack Ferres of Kronos believes it’s a good idea to have multiple sponsors rather than just one and that you should try to get 15-20 minutes with them each quarter if possible. He suggests trying to get included in an Ops meeting if possible or to try to empower your manager to be able to share info on your behalf.
  • Danielle Camara of Marketo said to find the nuggets that make your program look good and get executive buy-in based on that, “we find that shiny object our execs really care about and report on that.”
  • Abby Atkinson of FireEye said she reaches out to sales reps with the biggest deals in the pipeline and proactively provides them with references and content they might need. Her executives really liked that.

6.  The RO Innovation product roadmap is designed to make your life even easier

The RO Elevate day started off with a presentation from RO’s CTO, Tony DeLollis, on the 2017 product roadmap. Attendance was optional, but man, it was standing room only! (P.S. RO Customers…keep an eye out for an invite to catch a live presentation of the roadmap discussion in your inbox!)

The theme of what Tony presented was definitely around improving usability, proving the value of references and streamlining workflows within the RO Innovation platform. He also covered the Boulder Logic best practices being brought into the RO Innovation platform and showed previews of a handful of new, exciting features and changes being added to the platform in the year ahead.

Customers also discovered new features, or new/different ways to use existing RO features simply by talking with each other. For example, many people were interested in the Record Review feature, but weren’t aware of it. This feature is used to keep data updated and relevant so users have confidence in the information contained in the system (both for customer records and content assets). Another feature customers seemed to have interest in was the Archive feature, which promotes user adoption by “hiding” archived or outdated materials, giving the user the most relevant experience and information possible.

7.  User Adoption…Everyone wants more of it!

No matter what kind of program you have, mature or brand new or somewhere in-between, everyone always wants more user adoption for their program. The Elevate Summit was a fantastic way for our customers to not only gripe a bit with each other about common frustrations every program faces in this area, but also share some tips with each other:

  • Sue Renner of Sitecore, who shared a quick TED-style presentation on this topic at the event, said she creates and leverages the Leaderboard functions within the RO platform to help get upticks in user adoption for her program by the salespeople.
  • Jim Wharton of Navicure shared something most every reference manager can relate to. He says the biggest challenge is getting salespeople to use the central system, rather than their own back pocket references. He thinks salespeople don’t use it simply because they are afraid their pocket references are going to get overused. The group discussed the idea of top-down support to help Jim with this obstacle.
  • Abby Atkinson of FireEye says that she was able to increase Sales usage of the nomination functions of the program by enabling a Q3/Q4 spiff program (with qualifications for the types of nominations the program needed). She required Sales to provide background on a new customer with competitor they went up against during the buying cycle, why they chose FireEye and their business challenge. Once Abby validates the reference and approves, the Salesperson gets the spiff.
  • Marie Ross and Kristen Hofstede of Next Level Customer Marketing shared that reference managers need to treat the sales team as their internal customer. Think of the program as the thing you want them to “buy” more of. Tailor user adoption campaigns, calls to action, strategies and tactics with that idea and mind and success will come easier.

8.   Recognizing and Rewarding References for Engagement is a “Gray Area”

Customer reference engagement and recognition was one of our most popular afternoon breakout sessions. One of the biggest challenges discussed was assigning the correct values to the appropriate activity. Not so much in TRACKING the points, but assigning correct point values. The consensus seemed to be just when we thought one thing was more powerful than another, it changes! Customers also discussed the top five benefits/rewards they give customers, which in general seemed to be:

  • Education opportunities
  • Tickets for user group/conference attendance
  • Money/gift cards
  • Industry awards
  • Schwag (branded giveaway items, iPads, etc.)

9.   Building the Customer Reference Pipeline Using Two Approaches

This was also a packed breakout session! In the best practices discussed, there were two major areas reference managers should focus on when it comes to building their pipeline of new reference customers: Internal and External. For the “external” approach, strategies were discussed for how to recruit additional customers specific to different audiences, personas and titles.

Three approaches I found interesting for seeking nominations from internal staff were:

  • Take sales out of the equation to market your program. You need to foster program advocates beyond sales.
  • So where do you look? Rather than relying solely on the sales team to cough up new customers, some other departments to approach include: Customer Success Managers, Sales Enablement team and Field Marketing/Demand Gen teams.
  • Conduct analysis for targeted references by partnering with leadership. This will help you understand where the gaps are and target those specific areas with the support of leadership to make it happen.

10.   Make a plan, and stick to it!

No matter the size of your team or the budget you have (or do not have) the most important thing is to make a realistic and actionable plan and then follow through for any goal or challenge you’re addressing in your program. Hold yourself and others involved accountable. It was great to see our customers ‘rolling up their sleeves’ to brainstorm ways to help each other by sharing their own experiences and best practices. I also suspect there will be a certain level of support and accountability that arises from those peer-to-peer conversations as well. For example, Lisa Matzdorff of Symantec shared this best practice when the challenge of “back pocket references” came up:

“Salespeople with back pocket references is like the ‘Wild West’ of the reference world. However, those are the people that can become huge evangelists for your program! When you are able to change their thinking and show them how much better it is to use the program rather than their pocket references, and how it doesn’t ‘break’ the customer relationship, they become loud champions for your program. Furthermore, if you have an operating model and clearly defined operations or functions on what you do and what you don’t do you can break the ‘Wild West’ cycle.” – Lisa Matzdorff, Symantec

For those of you that attended the inaugural RO Elevate Summit, my deepest gratitude. We truly were honored and proud to host you at this event. I personally hope you got a lot out of it, and will become an evangelist of this event in the future. I’d love for you to share your top takeaways and thoughts with me!

For those RO customers that are reading this that did not have the opportunity to attend, hopefully you were able to capture some value in what I shared above. I’m also hoping it gave you a small taste of what the Summit was like and the sharing that when on amongst your peers. I hope you can join us next fall!

Jim Mooney
Jim Mooney is the Founder & CEO of RO Innovation. His passion for helping salespeople excel in all aspects of B2B selling, especially where customer references are involved, was the reason he started the company. His desire for helping others succeed flows through in the expert thought leadership he provides the industry, his customers and his employees.