In my previous blog post in this series on customer references in technology marketing, I took a look at how you can identify the best customer reference for your needs. In this post, I’ll outline some techniques that can actually get that customer to say YES to your ask.
If you are considering approaching your customers to participate in sales, marketing or PR initiatives, your success will depend on your strategy. Companies that depend on the sales team to secure customer participation, and/or don’t have forethought to consider and merchandise the benefits the customer will receive from participating, likely won’t be wildly successful. In our experience there are generally two major barriers to building a customer reference and marketing program: WHO is doing the asking, and HOW they are asking.
Too frequently the sales team is tasked with asking customers to help marketing. Often the sales team has long-standing relationships with customers and has a sense for a customer’s attitude towards these types of opportunities. However, even with bonuses and incentives that more sophisticated companies offer to their sales team, the clever salesperson knows they can make more money focusing on sales instead of marketing. Unless they are inclined to see the bigger picture of corporate growth, requiring the sales team to do the asking and the follow up is not a scalable strategy that will consistently deliver great customer advocates for marketing.
Many forward-thinking companies have created a role specifically to work with existing customers over the last few years: the (1) Chief Customer Officer. This role is defined as the person responsible for the “total relationship” with an organization’s customers. In other words, this person has an overview of what the customers have purchased; how much support they have received; their tone when they requested help or support; and the way customers participate in helping the company with marketing (which may include product development councils such as a customer advocate in a marketing initiative). In the event your company doesn’t have this level of executive, you may have a customer experience professional or manager. In the absence of that, a well-placed person in marketing who has a strong understanding of your customers and their challenges and/or a consulting organization with this specific expertise is recommended. Simply put, you want the person(s) responsible for building your customer advocates to be measured on this specific activity – thus ensuring focus and a greater likelihood of success.
Eight out of 10 companies we talk to approach customers with marketing and PR opportunities in the following way: “Can you do me a favor – we have a journalist with eWEEK who would like to interview one of our customers, and we’d appreciate it if you could make time to take that interview. Can you participate this week?” Your most satisfied and happiest customers may agree to take that call. And, if the particular person you are asking is ambitious and strategic enough to realize that getting media attention for his or her leadership is a smart thing to do to advance their career, then perhaps you will get a yes. However, all too often that proves to be a difficult ask for a number of reasons. Just put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Consider the fact that they have already technically done you the favor of buying your product, service or solution – not to mention that they are likely busy trying to implement your solution for their organization and make it work properly. What’s even more daunting for them is that they know they will likely need to get corporate approval to participate in any kind of interview or speaking opportunity that will be accessible to the public, and that’s never easy.
Sometimes clever marketing professionals think they have the solution to the problem by offering the contact a discount or additional support credits. That approach is great for a person responsible for the budget, but it sometimes doesn’t do your contact a whole lot of good. An old acronym comes to mind: WIFM – What’s in it for Me? That’s what your customer really wants to know.
Think Differently About Asking Customers to Become Marketing Advocates
The best customer advocates are those who feel they have a solid relationship, built on trust, with your company. They trust you because you have demonstrated that you understand their situation, which includes knowing what they can and cannot do for you. These customers also believe that you consider their best interests and preferences before making requests of them. Let’s consider broadly the motivation for people to participate in your marketing, sales and PR programs. Here are a few of the reasons people consider participating:
- To build credibility in the industry
- To develop influence in the industry
- To develop influence with your company and help set product direction or strategy
- To help others in the industry by sharing their experiences
- For individual or group recognition (they want to be famous!)
- For career advancement
- For personal benefits – such as gifts, trips or other perks from a company
- For the benefit of the company – such as a discount, especially if the person is a key stakeholder
Everyone is different, so understanding what is motivating each customer is a great strategy for building a successful relationship. Depending on your contact, here are just a few approaches that don’t involve a “favor.”
Anyone who either appreciates recognition, is interested in career advancement, or wants to build credibility in the industry will respond well to industry awards. Coveted industry awards (and we’re not talking about the kind that are pay-to-play!) are irresistible to many customers – after all, they validate their work and deliver a third-party seal of approval. Industry awards are typically focused on the customer’s implementation, but also oftentimes provide latitude for the key vendors to be called out. What’s more, vendors can market their customer’s award win, congratulating the person and company – leaving audiences to believe they were involved in the solution.
Customer Advisory Councils and Boards
Customers who are highly invested in their work appreciate the opportunity to participate in advisory councils of the companies that are central to their work. The opportunity to influence the direction of a product or product strategy is very rewarding, and some customers find it downright exhilarating. Some companies initiate a “council” as the process for getting permission to join is less arduous. Sometimes Boards carry more weight with the customer – but also often carry bigger commitments. Therefore, status seekers are attracted to the customer advisory council or board. Most well-organized advisory groups include contract clauses that stipulate the members will participate in a certain number of sales, marketing and PR activities. 10Fold recommends carefully reviewing the (2) Customer Advisory Board Organization website for best practices and strong templates for developing a council.
Thought Leadership Articles
Ambitious customers and those looking to build industry influence appreciate the opportunity to publish an opinion piece in a top-tier industry trade publication or a business magazine. With the ever declining number of journalists, content is at a premium and publications are more than willing to publish thoughtful perspectives on the future of a particular industry. Don’t misread this as an opportunity for free advertising – the publishing guidelines are very strict. Your customer will be able to talk about what they are doing (and with who, namely you) and why this will enable advancement or what their vision is for advancement in the future. Even if your company gets a mere mention in the article, you can market this to prospects with a congratulations to your customer contact and let everyone know you appreciate being a part of this customer’s strategic vision.
Expert Status Titles and Opportunities
Smart companies recognize and reward their most successful customers with titles and recognition. DevOps-focused companies have this strategy finely honed. For example, the more applications an individual builds with your solution, the higher their status goes with your company, and the more they are entitled to as a preferred customer. Entitlements include being advertised as among the elite developers, the right to publish blogs on the company website, and the opportunity to compete to receive company awards. This clever gamification is particularly successful with individual contributors.
Ultimately, thinking through the variety of ways to entice a customer to help with marketing, sales and PR initiatives will ensure you have a stronger close rate in customer participants! And remember, everyone is different, and tailoring the programs to their personality will yield better results.
Speaking of results, in my next article (which will conclude this series on customer references in technology marketing) I’ll take a look at some of the systems that you can use to monitor the success of your program, and the pros and cons of each. Keep an eye out!