In the past 15 years, customer reference usage in marketing and sales has evolved from simply inserting testimonials in ads to a dedicated discipline that drives revenue.

Now, many more savvy marketers are looking at the bigger picture: they’re turning to customer advocacy as their “secret sauce” for making a bigger impact on their company’s bottom line with a sustainable stream of customer references. To give you an idea of just how big: in just the first five months of 2014, a Fortune 500 software security company (name protected for contractual reasons) tied $96 million in revenue to advocate references.

Today’s modern customer reference programs are one piece of the larger customer advocacy pie at any organization. To truly reap all the benefits, you’ll need to incorporate your customer reference systems and practices within your overall customer advocacy efforts. Revenue aside, these genuine customer success stories also have an incredible brand building effect, cutting through competitors’ claims and validating your offering in the marketplace.

As companies build their army of customer advocates, many decide to leverage and manage them through a formal advocate marketing program. Having the right set of complementary tactics and technology tools in place to help you do this can give you an extremely powerful end-to-end system—and ease a lot of the headaches you’d experience by doing everything piecemeal.

If and when your company decides to take this next step, here are a few best practices to keep in mind:

1. Audit for gaps in your references

Advocate marketing programs are most successful when there is a depth and breadth of customers you can call upon for any sales or marketing situation under the sun, including customer references. (Learn more about advocate personas here.) As such, you’ll want to audit your pool of customers to find the gaps that may exist.

“Slice and dice” your advocate base by industry, geography, product, etc. to see where you’re strong and where you may need to focus some effort in recruiting additional advocates. Dashboards and pie charts are a great way to easily see those gaps in a visual format. It is also important to expand the depth of your contacts within your customer organizations.

Also look at the types of reference activities your advocates have agreed to do, as you’ll want a good mix there as well. If you’ve got a million customers willing to take a phone call, but only a couple willing to speak to an analyst or write a review for you, there’s room to grow.

Lastly, don’t forget to also look at content you have created with your customers, such as written case studies and video interview clips that are often used by sales and marketing teams in the upper parts of the funnel to increase engagement and motivate buyers to move further to a closed sale. Make sure you’ve got a fairly solid amount of content assets that can be accessed and used at any stage of the cycle, because leveraging customer advocacy early and often is one of the best and fastest ways to go from “lead” to “new customer” faster.

2. Centralize and formalize processes

There’s no point in having a great pool of customer advocates if your sales and marketing teams can’t access them when they need to. If everything lives on a protected spreadsheet or on one person’s desktop (or worse…in their head), it’s not super helpful. It is best to centralize your advocate information to not only make it easy for others to find and search for possible references 24/7, but also for reference managers to maintain data and monitor usage in one place.

Once your customer data has been centralized in a purpose-built system, you’ll also want to consider formalizing and standardizing the reference request process. Eliminate those ‘Hail Mary’ emails and prevent sales reps from hoarding back pocket references by making it a simple process that is:

a) relevant for the sales team
b) not complex, and
c) gives the ‘requestor’ increased visibility on the status of their request

Often a simple request form with just 2-3 fields the rep needs to complete is a great first step. You might even go as far as integrating it with the other platforms your sales and marketing team uses on a daily basis (like Salesforce) so they have no excuse not to follow standard procedures. As a reference manager, a formal process also helps you manage frequency of use and protect valuable customer relationships to prevent “reference burnout.”

3. Continue to add to your program

Just establishing an initial pool of advocates and a centralized tool for managing them isn’t enough. You will need to continually add and grow your program over time to fill gaps, replace outdated content and customers, and expand your reach within customer organizations. As such, it is wise to establish a set of customer reference nomination and recruitment strategies and know the tactics and tools that will help you get there. When done right, these practices continually breathe new life and depth into your customer reference program.

More Resources:

This blog post was originally published on January 21, 2015, and updated on January 19, 2018.

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