Why High-Quality Relationships Precede High-Quality Referrals

You wouldn’t ask someone you just met to help you move…so why would you ask a customer you haven’t gotten to know for a referral? In his 2016 Advocamp AMP talk, Michael Beahm, Senior Marketing Manager at Blackbaud, explains how he achieved his aggressive referral goals by developing lasting relationships with his customer advocates first.

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Today I want to talk about how advocacy starts with relationships. I especially want to discuss how referrals start with relationships, if you want to achieve your goals and receive a ton of referrals.

Was anybody here in scouting? I was an Eagle Scout. My dad was a Scout Master growing up, and the Scout motto is “Be prepared.” Going along with the Advocamp theme, I want to talk about how to be prepared to get referrals.

First, though, I wanted to tell a quick story about one time that I was severely unprepared. Five years ago, my brother, who’s five years older than me to the day, invited me to go to Rocky Mountain National Park and climb Long’s Peak—which is 14 thousand feet—for our shared birthday.

I went to college in the mountains in North Carolina, which is three thousand feet. That’s a pretty big difference, but I thought that it would be a fun walk in the woods with my brother for a few days. I thought it would be refreshing to get out of the corporate office.

Little did I know that at Long’s Peak, somebody dies every year. It’s actually not that easy. We camped at 10 thousand feet the night before. We got up that morning to go ascend, and we get to about 13 thousand feet where there’s a section that’s called The Narrows… also known as The Widow Maker, or at least that’s what I wanted to call it. My wife was with child at the time, so I wanted to get back and not fall off the cliff.

I wish I had a picture of it, but it’s extremely narrow at 13 thousand feet. I wouldn’t want to be on something narrow at three feet, so at 13 thousand feet it’s crazy. I ended up stopping. I decided that it was enough for me—I didn’t need to go the last 200 feet.

Being prepared—referral style

To translate that over to referrals, let’s talk about how to be prepared. That way, when you go and make that referral ask, you’re not trying to figure out what to do with your customers.

Just a quick note about Blackbaud: we serve non-profit organizations, which is really fun for me because it’s a marketer’s dream. Our customers are doing amazing things in the world, and they’re also very passionate about what they do. Hopefully your customers are also excited and passionate about what they’re doing, or about how your product has helped them in their professional development. That helps a lot in advocacy.

Our successful advocacy program is not all about us. It starts with having customers who are really passionate about what they do, which is non-profit organizations. Think about that with advocacy. What are your customers passionate about? How can you connect with them on that level?

The name of our program is Blackbaud Champions. It’s not terribly creative—I didn’t come up with it, I just stepped in to operationalize the program—so I’d like to think that if I were there at the start, we may have been a little more creative. Regardless, it’s worked well for us.

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Let’s get on the ground level and talk tactics. I’m just going to outline what’s worked well for us over the past couple years.

The backstory over the last three years is that in 2014, the first year we launched our advocate program, we signed up for a goal to drive two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in referral pipeline. We scienced the shit out of this. I encourage you to do the same with your advocate program and referral program. Be very creative, but science the shit out of it. This is what justifies our program and allows us to do a lot of fun stuff.

In 2014, the first year that we launched our program, we told Mary Pat Donnellon, our VP of marketing, that we we were going to drive that much in referral pipeline. With the help of Influitive, and the help of a great team at Blackbaud, we were able to reach that goal.

The next year, we doubled that. Success begets higher goals. Our goal last year was $500k in pipeline. That keeps me up at night, because I felt like a sales rep with a quota…but we were able to achieve it. This year, we’re going for $750k.

How to build referral pipeline

To achieve this, we do three main things:

1. A cadence of referral campaigns. We get a lot of great ideas from Truman Tang, the Customer Marketer at Influitive. I’d like to think it’s not stealing, it’s more sharing. We do a cadence for our referral campaigns that are goal-oriented, time-sensitive and appealing. For example, right now it’s March, so you could do something short around March Madness.
2. An inbound referral program. Think about your top one percent of super advocates. They don’t need the time-sensitive campaign. They’re just going to a coffee shop and talking about us in their network of non-profits. We just want it to be top of mind that they can go back to their house and give us a referral. We want to see that inbound traffic throughout the year.
3. Internal promotions. We have a pretty large sales team who are oftentimes the relationship owners of our customers. We want them to be evangelising about our referral program when they’re talking to customers.

If referrals are the summit you’re trying to reach, these are some of the things that have worked well for us:

Consistent engagement

We used to have a traditional reference program, and we saw our references once a year at our annual conference. Maybe at a user group too, but we didn’t really see them much outside of that. Really ramping up consistent engagement through our AdvocateHub has helped a lot because we’re building relationships with them on a weekly basis. We’re getting to know them and we’re getting invested in their lives.

Customer delight

Do a challenge to get the birthday of your advocates, and then at the start of their birthday month, give them a five-dollar Starbucks gift card. That also helps reengage folks into your program.

Another time, one of our advocates tweeted that she got engaged, so we sent her flowers. Little acts of kindness and generosity are important because her company heard about it and she tweeted about it. It’s amazing what generosity does. Really listen to things going on in your customers’ lives and then act on that.

Really trying to get to know them goes so far. She’s ended up doing webinars and speaking engagements for us. We’re not doing this act of kindness so that she will do these things. We’re doing it because we love our customers and want them to get more involved. The end result of you doing those things is going to be tenfold.

Genuine partnership

This is something that Truman has taught me a lot about. Think about how you can develop your advocates professionally. Is it through certification offerings? Is it through thought leadership and speaking engagements? Really become a partner in helping your customers in their professional development.

This is where we saw an opportunity. We did a challenge in our AdvocateHub that said we needed to do market research about referrals from our clients and we asked them, “Have you told somebody to look into Blackbaud?” because we know that nonprofits talk to each other a lot. Out of the 230 customer advocates who responded, 192 said that they’d told someone to look into Blackbaud, which is great… but 161 of those said they hadn’t shared it with us.

As a marketer, that sucks. I can’t track that. If I was going to justify my job or having an advocate program, we needed to start tracking them and giving incentives to ramp that up a lot. We needed to have a portal for our clients to share those conversations and really mobilize them.

Humanizing your brand

I believe that authenticity begets advocacy, so I want to talk about a campaign that I did last year called 30 for 30. Any sports fans out who have seen ESPN 30 for 30? Hopefully there aren’t any ESPN execs in the room. I turned 30 last June, and I did a 30 day challenge that said, this is a milestone birthday. I would love to get 30 referrals in 30 days because I like what I do and I want to be successful. Let’s do this as a team.

We ended up getting 30 referrals in the first 6 days of the month. It was really an experiment. I had no idea if it was going to work or not, but it did.

What I learned about that is, trying to hit a goal as a team can be extremely effective, even for something like referrals. Don’t be afraid. Even though it’s referrals for your company, your advocates are still going to want to hit that goal.

Your advocates are willing to do a lot more than you think. We all want to get to this goal together. Set a goal and say, let’s do this together as a team. And if we do get to that summit, let’s celebrate it together. Do a video or something of you being silly, dancing or celebrating. Just be excited about it.

This was a great case study for us. It worked out. That’s why we’ve started adding quarterly campaigns that are very time-sensitive. We also add some extra incentives, like whoever puts in the most referrals that become a marketing qualified lead gets an Apple Watch, or something like that.

We also humanized it. I was transparent about turning 30. Your advocates are going to appreciate you humanizing your brand a bit.

The importance of education

We also educated on what to refer. Blackbaud has a lot of products, and some of the market research we did showed that a lot of our customers use only one product. We had to educate our clients on how to refer some of our other products, so we had product marketers do short videos on our other products.

We really educated our advocates on how to make referrals. Think about how you can educate your clients. Don’t assume they know how to speak to all your products and value propositions.

Referrals and relationship-building

How many of you guys have moved recently? All throughout your 20s, you never hire a moving company because they’re expensive. You just rally your friends to do it. It’s really hard and it usually takes the whole day. You get all sweaty. The only silver lining is that at the end of the day you can crack a beer with the people who were helping you move.

If you don’t lay the groundwork with your friends—hanging out with them, going to see a movie, grabbing a beer with them—they wouldn’t really be a friend. If you ask them to help you move but you haven’t spent time with them, they’re probably not going to want to help you move.

Referrals are exactly the same way. The more time you spend building relationships before you do a referral campaign is better, because if you just jump out of the gate and you do a referral campaign without doing some fun stuff or without getting to know your advocates, it’s not going to be successful.  Your advocates are going to feel used. They’re going to feel like you’re asking for help moving when you haven’t gotten a beer with them. Get to know them and let them get to know you before you make the referral ask. Your truly committed advocates will surface with referrals.

Celebrate victory together when you get to the summit. When you see the US geographical marker at the top of the summit, celebrate that with your advocates. I think that’ll help the next campaign and the one after that because you’re really doing it as a team effort.

Referrals are a big metric for us. That’s how we get buy-in from our executive team. To try some creative things, we track referrals. Revenue influenced by references is a big one for us.

Really think about how you can science the shit out of your advocate program. That doesn’t take away from creativity, but it’s going to get executive buy-in to do some of the more creative things and make an impact on all the company.

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One Response to Why High-Quality Relationships Precede High-Quality Referrals

  1. Jayden William says:

    Thanks for sharing this ultimate post regarding high quality referrals. Actually, high quality referrals are very helpful in getting more clients for business growth. Through high referral program, anyone can get the chance to refer or get the best referrals.

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