Customer Reference Programs: Going Social?

Lauraramos [Posted by Laura Ramos]

Great customer references fuel great B2B marketing. But getting customers to testify or submit case studies is challenging. Good references require investment. But how do you keep customers from feeling like shills for their vendor firms? By involving them in communities of like-minded advocates! That is one hypothesis I plan to explore further in 2009 -- investigating the connection between social activity and greater customer advocacy.

Toward this end, my long-time Forrester colleague, Merv Adrian, and I have teamed up with the Customer Reference Forum to sponsor a survey (this link works!!) about the latest trends in customer reference management. Besides the typical questions about organizational structure, size, budget, and structure of the programs, we will explore whether social media is making an impact on how marketers engage with referenceable customers. We will present these findings, and our preditions and advice, at the Customer Reference Forum conference, February 18, 2009 in Berkeley California. If you'd like to particpate in the research, click through here.

As the economy heads towards a recession, many B2B firms find their existing customer base remains on of the best sources of continued growth. It is also less costly to retain an existing customer than to acquire a new one. Both facts point to growing interest in customer loyalty and reference management. I thought I would share Merv's comments on this subject -- which we also discussed with the Boston chapter of the Customer Reference Forum last Friday.  Read it and let me know your thoughts about using customer testimonial to support sales and marketing.  Take it away, Merv:

"Effective management of the Customer Reference (CR) management function – in some cases, simply the creation of a formal organization to manage these important assets – is on the critical path to both sustained business from the base and growth in new accounts. Sales uses references to nail deals down, Marketing develops reference stories for campaigns and events, and Analyst Relations uses them to support information requests from influencers.

That conclusion is no mystery to the firms that participated in the Customer Reference Forum event in February 2008 at California’s Claremontresort. And the list of attendees read like a who’s-who of the industry’s leaders. They have created, staffed, and begun to measure teams that manage their sourcing, development and distribution of customer references in a way that has begin to reap substantial benefits. They have improved their sourcing development of referenceable accounts, made better use of them for selling and marketing, reduced redundant and often conflicting programs, and grown a cadre of professionals who are learning to measure and mange the delivery of substantial value from their programs.

Forrester found the customer reference professionals at the event to be a highly motivated, increasingly well funded, and thoughtful group who were often seeking more visibility, support and resources despite their early successes. We were struck by the growth of an industry of products and services to support the CR professional: creative services, hosting, management tools and full consultative outsourcing were all in evidence.

The Customer Reference Forum event is a valuable gathering place for those involved in CR programs who seek to learn about best practices and share with their peers. It has also served as a focal point for an ongoing survey designed to document common practice in the industry, and the sponsors of the survey have several years of data tracking the emergence and growth of CR management as a discipline. They have learned that successful teams usually result from a Sales-Marketing partnership, with agreements forged to use references wisely, manage conflicts about ownership and overuse, and assure a steady stream of fresh stories to support corporate goals.

Forrester is excited to be partnering with the Forum team on the 2008 survey, developing some new avenues of investigation, and sustaining the existing data elements, which document team size, reporting relationships, management styles, and more. We’ll be joining in the 2009 conference, delivering a keynote address that will include data from the survey as well as other ongoing Forrester research. Since our discussions of this important corporate function with our clients began following the 2008 event, we’ve had a steady stream of inquiries and discussions with them that will provide us with additional ideas to share. And our ongoing research onto the effective uses of social computing supplements and extends this work. We look forward to networking with the pioneers and the new arrivals alike – we hope to see you there!"

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re: Customer Reference Programs: Going Social?

LauraI really think you are on to something with this angle!I used to think about more from the community angle - such as - why start a community from scratch when you can jump start them with your customer reference programBut looking at it just from the customer reference program and how that can benefit the company is a much stronger angleI cant wait to hear how the research bears outalso I would be happy to participate in the research but the link wasnt active on your blogshoot me an email ...p

re: Customer Reference Programs: Going Social?

Laura, great post (email me the link to the survey and I will participate, seems there is no hot link within your post).My firm is working hard on leveraging peer-to-peer consulting between our customers (and prospects) as a mechanism to create value for our market, generate new leads and inspire customer references.We have not formalized a CR process and probably should.In my present and past life I have seen first hand the power of peer-to-peer consulting via community, and the dividends it pays for the vendor (aka organizer of the community).See my recent posts: in touch!- EG

re: Customer Reference Programs: Going Social?

Paul and Eric -- my apologies for the bum link. I updated it and this one should work. Let me know if you run into problems.You both bring up separate points that I think will prove worth exploring in the research. Participating as a reference becomes more valuable to the reference-giver when they can connect with a community of other customers and share war stories and insights.I also think that customer communities in B2B will be more episodic. Business people are too busy to join a pile of communities and hang out. But they will invest when community participation is well-defined and time bounded.Looking forward to seeing where this goes.

re: Customer Reference Programs: Going Social?

Hi Laura - Great topic that impacts just about every busines! I wanted to participate in the survey, but see that it's already closed. Is this the case (only one day after your initial blog post#. If not, please send me the correct link via email or Twitter #@petergorman).Looking forward to seeing the reults of your research on this topic!Thanks,Peter

re: Customer Reference Programs: Going Social?

Totally agree on customer references and going back to existing customers.We’re finding that farming our installed base (existing customers) is working much better than new customer acquisition right now, because most customers are hyper-risk-averse right now.They fear doing anything that’s the least bit risky (more so than usual), so concentrating on existing customers, where you have built up trust and a good relationship is paying off big.Another thing that helps is finding ways to give more value - either through a simple discount or by offering some extra (that’s of real value) to customers. Right now, people want and expect to get a good deal, so give it to them and many more of them will let loose of their hard-earned dollars that way.