3 October 2023

Recruiting convincing reference customers in numbers and of the right quality

“We need more and better advocates, but they’re either too busy or unwilling to engage with us.” Ever heard that? We have. Tons of times. Occasionally it’s because the client has a corporate policy not to endorse its suppliers. In such cases, don’t waste your breath. Move on. For everyone else, we’re going to share ways to fix the problem. Best practices encountered in over 20 years in the business. Things you need to get right.

Attending to the ground rules

The first rule is to talk to customers at the right level. The higher up the pecking order the advocates, the more weight their opinions carry. Sadly, the level of most salespeople’s customer relationships is not even half high enough. Your company needs to consistently operate at the most senior executive tier possible.

Don’t listen to agencies who try to sell you “points mean prizes” programmes, which usually come with a costly software platform you just don’t need. That approach guarantees one thing: it maroons salespeople in the low-tier relationships they’re used to. Because the CXO-level people they ought to be talking to just aren’t interested in tee-shirts and cheap tickets. Don’t have the time. Can’t be bothered. Different hot buttons. More pressing matters.

The second rule is to have the right hygiene factors in play. Consider these four questions:

  • Does your CEO show real passion when it comes to recruiting advocates or references? Which they regularly communicate internally?
  • Are advocates or reference customers a mandatory item on the agenda of all senior management meetings? Especially sales?
  • Do your sales managers have personal objectives to turn clients into advocates? Are those targets taken seriously … and made to hurt if not met?
  • Is being an advocate included in your customer contracts? Perhaps with a clause agreeing to involve themselves in a case study six months after signing?

If the answer’s no to any of the above, fix the situation. Take it to the top. Straightaway.

The third rule is seeking advocates in the right places. It never fails to amaze us that most customer advocacy programmes (CAPs) are predicated around publicizing recent sales. That’s OK when you’re trying to build awareness for a recently launched product or service. But otherwise? Look to longstanding satisfied customers and build your stories around their experiences. They’ll be much more receptive, probably pleased to be asked, and not subject to pressing implementation issues.

Overcoming barriers erected by sales

Isn’t it true that all salespeople need references to help them sell? But isn’t it also true that when it comes to enlisting their own customers—for the betterment of their colleagues—it’s never quite the right time?

Here are the three most common excuses and the best ways to refute them:

  • “We’ve got a big bid going on with this customer.” Explain that running a case study will be a perfect way to remind them what an excellent job you do and may positively affect the bid’s outcome. Or ask about areas not affected by the bid and pitch your story there.
  • “There are service problems and the customer’s unhappy with us.” Offer help. Ask for details of the service problems and when they’re expected to be fixed. If a pattern emerges, contact someone senior in the service organization and make them aware.
  • “The customer’s in the process of reorganizing.” Explain that running a case study can be a terrific way to get to know someone new. Or someone they’ve been dealing with for a long time can use a case study to grow their relationship with a new boss.

If all else fails, but you’ve got access to enough budget, try playing the video card. The pitch goes: “Oh, that’s a shame as I’ve got video budget available. Your customer would be an ideal candidate and you’re just the kind of articulate person we’d like to feature in our video productions.” A little flattery goes a long way.

Another weapon you should use is a scorecard. A simple product/sector matrix, targeting and recording the number of customer references in each cell. Used as a management tool it brings into sharp focus sales areas not pulling their weight in the fight for advocates.

Leveraging other customer communication programmes

Many IT and telecom companies have one flavour or another of programmes aimed at senior customer executives. Among the most popular are peering programmes, which match senior executives with their customer executive equivalents and encourage dialogue between them.

Many companies run similar models. But what’s surprising is that CAPs seldom engage with them and their captive audiences. It’s as if they live in different worlds. The CAP needs to reach out to the marketing (or sales) people running those activities and look for synergies. The most fruitful gambit is to encourage the involved company executives to get commitment from their customer counterparts to engage in blogs or case studies.

A brief history: it’s the encomia, stupid.

As a pun on a phrase from Bill Clinton’s winning 1992 presidential campaign, an encomium is what we all crave from our customers. Originating from the ancient Greek word enkōmion, today it conveys glowing and warmly enthusiastic praise.

Sales and marketing people have always used encomia as key levers in their toolkits, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s the idea entered the mainstream. It’s stayed there ever since.

In fact, the founders of GoRefCo were first to use encomia at a 1991 expo in Geneva.

Building the entire BT booth around live environments showing satisfied customers using the company’s products and services – there, on-stand – other exhibitors stood open-mouthed. “Why didn’t we think of that?” they asked as they looked at the jumble sales they’d brought to the show. They returned from whence they came, determined to plagiarise the idea.

Also, executive invited to the BT booth were treated to business-led workshops supported by two-minute videos. Printed case studies flew off the stand. Copies of the BT ‘Business Agenda for the 90s’ booklet ran out, despite a 10,000-print run. Of course, that’s now all long-ago and faraway but GoRefCo built a company on the idea. Many copycat competitors have since emerged. These days they probably don’t even know where the idea had its genesis, but we take their presence as a resounding compliment.

GoRefCo is still doing that same thing enormously successfully for companies right around the world. The most significant difference is in the digital media we leverage today; light-years beyond the limited range open to us in 1991.

So, when you’re asked how you closed your last major sale or, indeed, why your company just keeps on beating its competitors, take a leaf from Bill Clinton’s campaign and say: “It’s the encomia, stupid.”

If you’re time-starved and/or need an expert hand, reach out to GoRefCo. We’d be delighted to help.

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