18 November 2019

Attracting more and better advocates

“We need more and better advocates, but they’re either too busy or unwilling to engage with us.”

Ever heard that? We have. Tons and tons of times. Very 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 we’ve encountered in over 20 years in the business. The 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 advocate, the more weight their opinion carries. 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” programs, which usually come with a costly and labour-intensive software platform you just don’t need. That approach guarantees one thing: it maroons your 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. They have different hot buttons. More pressing matters.

The second rule is to have the right hygiene factors in play. Consider these six 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?
  • Does your customer reference team talk regularly to sales? Have they got champions in sales who provide advice and help open doors?
  • Do you have a simple and persuasive advocacy kit that customer-facing people (sales, service and senior management) can use whenever they meet a client?

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

The third rule is to seek advocates in the right places. It never fails to amaze us that most customer reference programs are predicated around publicizing new 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 defuse 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 a great job you do and may positively affect the bid’s outcome. As an alternative, ask about areas of the customer’s business that aren’t 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, what’s being done about them, and when they’re expected to be fixed. If you see a pattern emerging, 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 great way to get to know someone new. On the other hand, someone they’ve been dealing with for a long time can use a case study to enhance and grow their relationship with a new boss … or improve their CV.

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 programs

Many IT and telecom companies have one flavour or another of programs aimed at senior customer executives. Among the most popular are:

  • Peering programs, which match senior company executives with their customer executive equivalents and encourage dialogue between them.
  • Briefing programs, one-to-one and/or in groups, which aim to deliver key insights to help senior customer executives with their strategic planning.
  • Panel programs, which enlist business leaders to take part in regular discussions around topical subjects.
  • Club programs, which organize scheduled networking events attended by senior company and customer executives.

Many companies run all four models or mix and match. But what’s surprising is that customer reference programs seldom engage with them and their captive audiences. It’s as if they live in different worlds. The customer reference program 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.

Reach out to GoRefCo if you’re time-starved or need an expert hand. We’d be delighted to help.

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