Surveys show that customer references are the most influential marketing tool around. Your customers can advocate for your business with a level of credibility that you simply can’t achieve on your own. Yet most marketing people will say that capturing customer advocacy through a reference programme is one of the hardest activities they manage. So what can you do to produce more quality references without breaking the bankor adding to your count of grey hairs?

First, let’s look at why customer reference programmes are such hard work. In our experience of working with a wide range of companies we’ve found the same issues keep cropping up:

  • Generating or identifying quality leads.
  • Getting approval from the customer for using their words.
  • Getting approval from your own company, particularly legal.

We believe that the underlying causes of these issues are two-fold: too great a focus on signing up big-name, famous customers, and obsession with making all your customer engagements look like the perfect fairytale.

Biggest isn’t always best

The appeal of big brands is easy to understand. There’s definitely value in being associated with a big name. But pursuing big brands for your reference programme gives you a host of problems:

  • It might not be as impressive as you think: In over ten years working client-side, I never saw an agency whose pitch didn’t reference Sony as a customer. It became a running joke. Sometimes I’d ask what they’d done for Sony; this often flummoxed them, or if they could answer, it normally turned out that they’d done a one-off mail campaign a few years back.
  • Approvals get a whole lot harder: Big companies understand the value of their brand and have a sizeable legal department. They can halt your case study or event appearance with paperwork.
  • You alienate many of your prospects: If you tell me that you work for Sony, Wal-Mart and IBM, your smaller prospects might question how much attention, service and commitment they’ll get from you.
  • You leave yourself with very few leads: A good reference programme has new content appearing regularly. If you only pursue your biggest clients, you’ll find your pipeline runs dry pretty quickly.

Obsession with perfection

Take a look around at a few vendor websites and you’ll find a recurring theme: every case study, video or speech details a perfect process where the vendor selection was clear-cut and every installation trouble-free. You and I both know that projects don’t work like that.

A year or two ago a client asked me to interview the head of IT at a large global company. We had a fascinating discussion, and he was clearly a huge fan of my client, an IT services provider. His company had just undergone a major IT transformation carried out from India. The transformation involved switching off the company’s core systems for almost a week. The provider had run pilots and tested extensively, and everything went smoothly for the first three or four days. Then it all went wrong. A major piece of new hardware that the customer had bought directly from a hardware vendor failed. It was clear that this had been a painful experience, but my interviewee was grinning as he told this story. The hardware vendor wasn’t able to help, but my client stepped in and overnight sourced a replacement and got the project back on track. It was a joy to edit and I was delighted with the result: it had drama and a very happy endingmy client was the hero, and the interviewee had said so on film. The only problem? My client didn’t want to mention the crisis at all, even though it wasn’t their fault. All the compelling content about overcoming adversity and saving the day had to be cut.

When this happens, you’re not only left with a bland and generic story you may even give yourself a more difficult approval process, because customers are reluctant to sign off a story that they don’t think reflects the reality of the project.

So what’s the solution?

That’s the problem in a nutshell: two mistakes alone can turn a great groundswell of customer advocacy into a few neutered case studies. What’s the solution? Find out in part 2 of this article, coming soon.

Posted by John on 18 December 2010