Best Practices for Maintaining an Effective Customer Reference System

In my previous article in this series on building customer references for technology marketing, I described some of the most effective ways to ask your customers to be a part of your program – distinguishing the all too typical “can you do me a favor” request from requests that demonstrate the advantages for the customer to participate in your program. In this post, I’ll outline some systems and software that allow you to track the progress of your program and ensure your company delivers a united front.

Once you have confirmed customers that will participate in sales, marketing or PR initiatives, your long-term success will depend on the system, policies, and communication you put in place. After all, companies that depend on a single person to track customer participation and/or don’t have a system that allows the information to be shared are destined to struggle with the program. And just like with other organization-wide activities, the best systems and software for your customer reference program allow collaboration and are intuitive and easy to update.

Policies and Systems

A customer reference program requires a well thought out system that will work in your organization’s structure. Your system, and your policies that support the system, must contribute to each step in your customer reference program, including consideration for who in your organization is involved and who in the organization needs to be notified as things progress with each customer. Likely most critical to the success of the system is deciding who needs access to the information in your organization and who should be allowed to change the status of a customer.

10Fold recommends a system based on a database that allows anyone to apply search terms or filters to identify viable customers for each opportunity by geography, product deployment, sales status and even by customer satisfaction status (updated by the customer service group).

From a policy and setup perspective, the 10Fold best practice is to be inclusive with the information collected for your customer reference program. Usually individuals in the sales, customer service, and marketing organizations have vested interests in the reference program. By sharing and collaborating with this broad group, you can ensure that your company provides a consistent and united front with all of your customers. If everyone in the organization contributes information, you can also prevent mishaps that might jeopardize a contract that the sales organization has in process with an existing customer or avoid asking a customer that is experiencing technical challenges to speak publicly.

The best way to design a system is to start by asking all the groups involved in the customer reference program to nominate or approve the customers that are approached for the program. By doing this, each group involved has the opportunity to provide their thoughts on the viability of each customer considered for the program. And, once a customer enters the program, each group can check and update the status of that customer. That means that marketing, sales and customer service teams all have veto power to use customers in the program.

If a salesperson flags a customer reference record with a pending status, then marketing can hold off contacting that customer until the new contract in negotiation is completed by sales. Similarly, if a customer’s satisfaction status has changed, the customer service organization can ensure the customer is listed as pending until the technical challenges are eliminated. If a marketing team vets a customer and concludes that they simply are not consistently positive about their experiences, marketing may veto a customer to ensure colleagues in marketing and sales don’t get an unexpected result.

Another important policy to establish is when and how to say thank you to active customer references.  Although you have already designed win/win opportunities for your customers, a thank you is a classy way to acknowledge your customers’ contributions. A thank you may simply be an email from a prominent company executive (perhaps the CEO) or it may be a clever gourmet food basket, gift certificate, or tickets to a popular event. Be especially careful about sending alcohol, cigars, or other gifts that may require a special interest – as the gift can backfire or offend. Whichever approach you choose, 10Fold recommends incorporating thank you gestures into your system to ensure that each customer participating is regularly recognized.

Software Options

In the best of all worlds, you can extend your CRM or sales or marketing system to incorporate customer reference fields. This allows you to ensure you are not keeping duplicate data (in separate software solutions that become silos) that can get out of synch with master systems. Don’t be confused by the referral program software – which is another platform that encourages your customers to directly make recommendations.

Of course, your organization may not have the time, money and/or resources required to modify your core CRM, sales or marketing systems. If that’s the case, consider applications such as CustomerWinHQ, a SaaS solution that makes tracking customers as simple as possible. It allows you to create a list of all of your customers in the program and it gives you opportunities to capture separate statuses for every category, by customer. It also offers easy sharing with clients and colleagues. Starting at a base price of $50/month, CustomerWinHQ charges customers based on the amount of data they store, not the number of users in the organization.

Strong Systems Ensure a Healthy Customer Reference Program

There is no doubt that a thoughtful, repeatable system that is supported by flexible database software is a great foundation for a healthy customer reference program. Most importantly, be sure to develop a system that supports information sharing and collaboration with everyone in the organization who has a vested interest. Use the system to inform your requests of these customers and to remind you to recognize active customers that may need a special thank you.

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