Home » Blog » E15: All You Need to Know About Customer Reference Programs

What do you do when a hot prospect asks for a customer reference?

Is it a last-minute dash on Slack with everyone trying to find a happy customer?

Or do you have an organized way of finding the best match?

No matter where you are between these two extremes, a customer reference program might be just what you need.

To help you get started, David Sroka has joined us on The Advocacy Channel to provide his expertise. As the CEO of Point of Reference, David has years of experience helping large enterprise companies like Benevity and Amplitude run successful programs.

Tune in as David and Will discuss when you need a customer reference program, how to get started, what to avoid, and the importance of training your sales team.

Check out the full episode below, or keep reading for our favorite pieces of advice from the episode.

Prefer to listen on the go? The Advocacy Channel is available anywhere you listen to podcasts.

First of all, what is a customer reference program?

(Listen from 3:29)

Especially in B2B sales, it’s not uncommon for your prospects to ask for a reference before signing the deal. When you have a complex sales cycle, a significant price point, and a decent amount of competition, the buying decision requires a lot of confidence.

Customer references (a.k.a. your advocates) provide that confidence. They reassure your prospect that your solution has worked for a company like theirs, in a similar industry, with a similar product, etc. It’s often that extra opinion that helps seal the deal in addition to marketing materials and the persuasion of your salesperson.

But when a prospect asks for a reference, how do you know which of your customers are happy and willing to speak on your behalf? How do you find a good match?

To prevent a last-minute panic, a reference program helps you collect, organize, and search for the best references for your specific goal. As David puts it with regards to launching his company Point of Reference, “To have that database with pre-qualified, referenceable customers ready to go when somebody needed it, that was the holy grail we were going after.” (4:10)

Reference program managers are responsible for making sure that the database has the right customers in it to support the needs of the organization and the company’s growth goals.

How do you know when you need a program? Is it possible to start too early?

(Listen from 7:10)

As companies grow and scale, they benefit from different tools and programs. But not every single tool is needed at the beginning – it can end up being overkill and a waste of resources.

David shares that a full-fledged customer reference program can be one of these.

“I think there’s a point where you can manage things with custom fields in your CRM, or, God forbid, spreadsheets. I never thought I’d be saying that, but there’s a point where it’s OK!” (7:48)

Maybe you have 30 or 50 references, and your volume isn’t that high. This is where using free tools already at your disposal can help you manage references until a dedicated tool becomes an obvious need.

David shares that the tipping point is when you can no longer keep up with managing your references and it starts to impede your ability to close deals or launch advocate-focused marketing campaigns. When you can’t do those things as well anymore, you’ve reached the point where you need to be more organized and proactive about maintaining that database.

Until then, something like a spreadsheet can be just what you need. Especially if the buy-in for a dedicated platform is going to be difficult to get before the need and payoff are proven.

David shares that at Point of Reference, they didn’t even use their own product in the early stages!

“When we started our business, we didn’t use our own product. We didn’t need it! We didn’t have that kind of volume and it wasn’t overwhelming. But we definitely use it now.” (9:15)

“I think there’s a point where you can manage things with custom fields in your CRM, or, God forbid, spreadsheets. I never thought I’d be saying that, but there’s a point where it’s OK!”

What do you need to be ready for a reference program?

(Listen from 9:38)

If you’ve decided that a customer reference program is for you, what do you need to have in place to support your success?

David points out a few conditions within a company when it comes to the culture and leadership team that can help or hinder your success. Your company needs to be mature enough in its thinking when it comes to advocates, and be prepared to provide the right budget and priority. If the leadership team doesn’t get that, it’s hard to be successful.

“You really do need alignment all the way to the top of the organization to do an advocate program well.” (10:27)

If you want to gain alignment and get buy-in for a reference program, you need to build your business case based on where the pain points are, and harness that into a message for the decision-makers.

David suggests presenting something like this:

“’This is how X leader or X manager is telling me references (or lack thereof) are hurting them. It’s slowing things down, decreasing win rates, etc.’ You have to build your business case and use real pain points. Just saying that you want salespeople to find things easier won’t work. Present it in a way that resonates with the decision maker’s personal goals for the company.” (11:10)

Why (and how) should you train your sales team on your customer reference program?

(Listen from 12:25)

Much like a referral and loyalty program, implementing and launching it isn’t always enough. Program promotion and education are key to having it actually drive results.

David brings up the point of making sure your sales team in particular is trained on how to use the program. This makes sense given the request for a reference is usually during the sales process.

From David’s experience, there are three big things to make sure your sales team understands about the reference program:

  1. Knowing when to use references properly: They may not always think about when to incorporate a reference or know when it’s important. A newer salesperson might be inclined to use a reference as soon as they get nervous about the deal going sideways.
  2. Aligning prospects with the right reference: The sales team needs to be able to match up the right parties who can relate to each other, either by similar company size, job title, goals, etc.
  3. Knowing the protocol within your organization: If you want to avoid a free-for-all in Slack when someone needs a reference, make sure the sales team knows the protocol for going through the account manager or CSM, and communicating with the account’s relationship manager.

Closing the loop: Following up with each of the parties should no doubt be part of the reference process. This means talking to your references not only to thank them but because you can learn a lot from them about how the call went! Closing the loop also includes following up with the prospect to make sure all of their questions got answered.

Training can be done as an onboarding sequence, though David also encourages his clients to have open training sessions during the month for anyone who needs a refresher. Building that training right into the tools that your sales team uses is even better:

“One of our clients actually added process steps for each stage of the sales cycle and it includes their suggestions as it applies to advocates. Prompts like: ‘This is a good time to share customer reviews from G2’ or ‘Now you should start thinking about finding a referenceable account’, etc.” (17:17)

David emphasizes that everpresent training is key, whether this is automated responses in Slack, training sessions, or another method.

“One of our clients actually added process steps for each stage of the sales cycle and it includes their suggestions as it applies to advocates. Prompts like: ‘This is a good time to share customer reviews from G2’ or ‘Now you should start thinking about finding a referenceable account’, etc.”

Once your program is set up, what do you need to be successful?

(Listen from 21:55)

What do you need to think about for your customer reference program to remain successful after everything is implemented?

David shares three basic aspects that they focus on at Point of Reference to maintain a successful program.

  1. Awareness: Have everyone in the organization know that the tool exists, and where to find it. This includes having promotions and reminders, talking about the program in sales meetings, etc.
  2. Education: Inform users on how to use the program, and how to accomplish various tasks like filtering, searching, and nominating new customers.
  3. Data quality: Users can be aware and educated, but this doesn’t matter if the data is poor and no one can find what they need. Having a list of poor-quality references isn’t much better than having no references at all.

Beyond this, David shares gamification strategies that can help people use the program in the right way. For example, you can award points to those who begin using the reference program and who complete activities like nominating customers or submitting requests through the designated system instead of using Slack. Using leaderboards for friendly competition and publicly recognizing the top users can be really meaningful for salespeople.

On the other hand, oversight is still needed in order to have people using the designated system in the right way. For example, having managers point people to the system instead of using Slack.

All of this works much better when the executive support remains strong – something that David goes into more detail about in his blog post and e-book.

Listen to the full episode for even more expert advice on leveling up your customer advocacy initiatives. David and Will also discuss creative and unexpected uses of reference programs, common pitfalls of reference programs, and more.

Special thanks to David for being on the show!

Connect with David on LinkedIn here.

Got questions or feedback about the podcast? Send us an email!

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