How to Effectively Engage Customers for Reference Programs

Posted on by Toby Murdock

American essayist Agnes Repplier once said, “There are many ways of asking a favor, but to assume that you are granting the favor that you ask shows spirit and invention.”

This quote reminds me of the subtle skill of engaging customers into serving as a sales reference. Approaching a customer to ask them if they’ll serve as a reference for new business prospects can be more gut-wrenching than a cold call. Yet, your sales team is fully relying on the customer reference to close a deal or influence a prospect. Many people are wary of sabotaging the business they already have in the process of trying to win new business.

But this doesn’t have to be the trade-off. A better approach to customer references shifts the focus on what you are asking of the customer to what participation can offer. By sharing the customer’s success story in print, video or spoken form, you are essentially highlighting their success across the industry, to their enormous benefit. In return, they are providing the critical element to closing the deal with future prospects–it’s really a win-win.

Best Practices for Engaging Customer References

While each company and its customer base is unique, there are five common strategies to engage customers, so they not only become willing participants but also feel they are benefiting from a customer reference program.

  1. Set expectations. Before approaching a customer to discuss customer reference participation, it’s essential to do your homework and understand the individual, their role within the company, the company’s history with the product and potential barriers to participation. Clearly outline the time and commitment involved and be clear that you understand the customer’s work priorities. In doing so, you’ll assuage any fear of commitment by setting manageable parameters–such as limiting their participation to finite projects and time frames, like 30-minute peer calls.
  2. Offer incentives. When it comes to gaining customer buy-in, never underestimates the power of swag. Offering coffee mugs, gift cards, or other gifts can go a long way. One of our customers told us swag was the most significant incentive for customer references. And your incentives don’t have to be physical gifts: Consider offering points or cumulative rewards on products or services; or free passes to conferences or user groups.
  3. Spotlight personal success. While everyone understands specific incentives, it can be challenging to explain the more subtle perks of reference buy-in. It’s crucial to spell out how participation in the program can provide personal and corporate growth through things like peer networking opportunities, access to senior executives, or insights into product roadmaps for future planning.
  4. Make it easy. Make it as simple as possible for the customer to join the program. Provide promotional materials that are easy to read, compelling and require minimal effort to apply to the program. Make the information available on any device, including mobile and tablets.
  5. Recruit across the enterprise. Once you have a customer reference member on-board at a company, you can recruit from within. The customer reference team needs to include both technical and business people, each of whom can provide different perspectives. In my experience, valuable customer references don’t only come from people directly using your service or solution, but also from, for example, the finance department that inquired about a bill and was pleased with the accounting department’s level of customer service. Having a diverse set of participants across your customer’s company will increase your chances of matching the right prospect with the right customer.

Where to Find Customer References

While there are specific ways to win over customer references, the challenge can be in finding them in the first place. Rational thinking says you should get your references from the sales executives working directly with them, yet this can often be easier said than done. Sales executives are often busy working on new sales leads, and it’s usually not a priority. Their ability to provide customer candidates for the reference program, however, should be a fundamental job requirement. Customer reference program managers should regularly meet with account executives or customer success managers (really, anyone who has regular check-ins with customers), analyzing their accounts to help identify suitable candidates.

Another way to identify happy customers is by reviewing call center tickets. Often, customers who were pleased with how quickly issues were resolved or the level of support they received can provide great experiential stories. Besides, customer care surveys can go a long way to help you uncover good customer references. The key is keeping them short and easy to respond to.

Maximizing peer influence in the sales cycle significantly influences revenue, and a comprehensive customer reference program is the key. The right program will enable your sellers to search for, access, and deliver peer testimonials, as well as offer a strong value proposition for your company and customers alike.

Toby Murdock is general manager at Upland Software.

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