If you think your customer reference program is alive and well, think again.
It’s dying a slow death because buyers don’t trust a reference process controlled by you.
After all, you present a review of your choice from a customer you select to convince a lead or prospect to purchase something you’re steering them toward. It’s completely self-serving and rigged in your favor. And buyers see right through it.
To help you grasp this reality, consider these scenarios:
After weeks of research, you go to a local electronics store to buy a flat-panel TV. You’ve discussed your options with a tech-geek friend of yours, read lots of reviews online and compared prices at a few stores.
You head for the model you’ve decided on, but a salesperson intercepts you and directs you to a more expensive model. He offers to connect you with someone who just purchased it.
Would you take the sales rep on the offer?
How about this: You’re seated in a restaurant, ready to order an entrée that was highly recommended by a friend. The server comes to your table and suggests a dish from the daily specials menu. To fully convince you, she shows you a single Yelp review and says she can put you in touch with that customer to answer your questions before you make a decision.
Think these examples seem far-fetched?
If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize they closely they match your customer reference program. Prospects get in touch with your company and your sales reps suggest they speak with a hand-picked list of customers who are sure to speak glowingly about your company and product.
Why should buyers trust these references? What value do they get speaking to someone who may only present a one-sided, biased perspective?
Even when prospects take your references into consideration, they have likely already narrowed down their list of potential vendors and solutions. In those cases, customer references may help seal the deal, but they don’t play a part in getting you on the short list.
Customer references are disappointing
It’s no wonder prospects are placing less and less emphasis on vendor-provided references. And the unfortunate by-product is that the thousands – and in some cases millions – of dollars that companies like yours spend on customer reference programs is not paying off, according to Forrester Research.
We live in a Yelpified world. And that means self-empowered buyers don’t wait for a salesperson to introduce them to a reference.
Instead, they sift through online reviews and seek out opinions and experiences from their network of peers, whether on a community site such as LinkedIn, or in person.
In bypassing the self-serving gatekeeper of old, buyers gather information directly from trusted sources.
Open the floodgates of advocacy
What should your company do in the face of this new reality? How can you continue harnessing the power of satisfied customers? The answer is to focus on customer advocacy.
That doesn’t mean your sales reps should blast out case studies and testimonials via social media channels. Buyers expect to be engaged in dialogue, not be on the receiving end of a one-way “conversation.”
Instead you should find ways to engage prospective buyers in influential conversations throughout the buying process. Ideally your happiest, most enthusiastic customers will be the ones advocating on your behalf via social media, over the phone, on Q&A sites, and in person.
As your buyers ignore a buying funnel carefully engineered by marketing and sales, they turn instead to their knowledgeable peers who are often considered experts of the product or business area in question.
As enthusiastic advocates, these peers can guide buyers through the selection process by advising on questions to ask, the price they can expect to pay and more. Because prospects engage with advocates early in the buying process, they take these opinions and experiences into consideration as they narrow down their options.
In fact, the most important influence on any B2B purchase decision made five years from now – more important than an analyst, salesperson, pricing or anything else – will be another prospective buyer or customer.
The choice is yours: Continue with the status quo and be increasingly overlooked by prospective buyers. Or empower your advocates to engage in social selling on your behalf, and boost the likelihood of making the short list of potential vendors.
Not sure where to begin? Stay tuned for a series of blog posts with insights from eight customer success, marketing and sales thought leaders who are transforming the way their companies harness relationships with loyal customers.
See the latest research on customer reference programs
This new report recommends adjusting from collecting static customer case studies to developing more agile, digital, advocacy programs.
Time to upgrade your customer reference program to advocate marketing?