B2B marketers focused on high value solutions know that customer evidence is like gold. Great products may sell themselves based on features or price. But when you're asking business buyers to invest serious money in a complex solution, typically involving a customized mix of products and services, they need to know you've done it before and that other customers have derived real business benefits.
Not surprisingly, sales people selling solutions say that customer references are their most valuable tool. ITSMA has found this repeatedly in sales studies. Similarly, a recent internal study by a very large technology solutions provider found that their sales people said customer references were absolutely essential for selling new strategic solutions.
The growth of formalized reference programs in recent years reflects a growing understanding that documenting and promoting customer evidence is too important to leave to ad hoc initiatives in PR or sales. The success of the Customer Reference Forum in building a broad-based community of reference managers is another sign of a maturing discipline.
Too often, though, reference programs remain short-staffed, disconnected from other key marketing programs, and overly reliant on the kindness of individual sales people to provide access to satisfied customers. Indeed, many formal reference programs continue to vie for marketing and sales attention with the parallel existence of informal, fragmented reference initiatives across the organization.
As a result, many reference programs remain stuck in tactical, reactive mode. They crank out case studies and testimonials to support marketing launches and events but have relatively little impact in accelerating strategic sales or deepening loyalty with the most important customers.
Benchmarking the Best
Over the past six months I've had the opportunity to work with several large B2B firms to improve their customer reference programs. Along the way, I've been able to review a number other programs with companies widely acknowledged as reference management leaders while also review industry data and talking with a batch of vendors, consultants, and program managers.
Comparing the best with the rest, six programmatic building blocks are particularly important for programs that provide substantial business impact.
- Strategic Alignment: The best programs are tightly wired into the company's growth strategy and priorities to make sure they focus on developing the references and success story content that matter most to the rest of marketing and sales. Often this means having a broad-based leadership board or council to help set program direction and to make sure that the rest of marketing and sales understand the strategic value of the program. It also means having a senior-enough program director with the experience and clout to work on an equal footing with the heads of other key groups.
- Team Integration: Reference programs rely heavily on support from other groups to identify the right customers, document the right information, and make the best use of the resulting references and content. The best programs have formalized team integration with a three-tiered approach to staffing and support:
- A central team, typically within corporate marketing, responsible for program leadership, cross-organizational collaboration, and global systems, processes, tools, and metrics
- Field-based staff, reporting to the central team but working on a daily basis with field marketing and sales on customer reference acquisition, activities, and relationships
- An "extended team" of designated representatives from other marketing and sales teams, not reporting to the central team but with defined responsibilities for helping coordinate reference needs and activities, reaching out to customers, documenting success information, and championing program resources and guidelines
- Comprehensive Approach: Many reference programs focus on producing a few types of success story content, such as case studies, testimonial videos, and profile slides. These certainly can be useful but they represent only a fraction of the ways that customer evidence can support solutions marketing and sales throughout the customer lifecycle. The best programs take a comprehensive approach with strong emphasis on three types of program activities:
- Live references, including customer-to-customer discussions, event presentations, media interviews, analyst briefings, and advisory group meetings
- Success story content, including not only case studies, videos, and profiles but, increasingly, social media content, in-depth ROI presentations, internal "how we got the win" selling stories, and integration into thought leadership publications
- Relationship development, including focused efforts to support and provide real value to customer advocates through market visibility, executive access, peer networking, customer community, and other special programs (this is where tight integration with sales and other customer relationship programs is especially important)
- Information Management: Improving information systems is a priority for many programs and the best programs take a broad view of effective information management. Whether they build their own system or contract with an outside vendor the best programs emphasize:
- Maintenance of an authoritative, comprehensive and regularly updated repository of reference data, content, and activity
- Easy, self-service access and usability for other parts of marketing and sales
- Tracking and reporting on reference activity and content usage
- Integration with other essential marketing and sales systems, such as CRM and web content management
- Program Communication and Education: Many program teams are stretched so thin that simply keeping up with basic production leaves little or no time to help make sure the customer spokespeople or content are actually used. The best programs invest substantial time and energy communicating the value and the assets of the program as well as training other teams on how to support the program and use the system and tools. Having an extended team in place, as noted above, provides an especially helpful group for developing and implementing the necessary communication and education.
- Business Accountability: As with many marketing programs, measuring the actual business value delivered by reference programs is not easy. Indeed, many programs struggle even to measure usage of their assets, relying instead on the most basic measures of output, such as how many case studies and testimonials they have produced each year. The best programs zero in on business impact around marketing and sales priorities. Specific measure typically involve around revenue contribution in strategic growth areas, sales pipeline acceleration, and satisfaction and loyalty of participating customers.
Constructing the six building blocks is no simple matter. Talk to the heads of the best programs and you'll hear about years of work, substantial investment, and constant attention to internal as well as customer relationships. But you'll also hear about serious business benefits like direct contribution to $ millions (or hundreds of $ millions) in revenue, critical support for new solution offerings, and measurable improvements in key customer relationships. The investments, in short, are well worth it.
Active use of compelling customer evidence is far from the only determinant of solutions marketing success. But having a well developed program that provides a steady stream of customer advocates and credible content certainly makes it easier. If you're looking for ways to create a stronger foundation for customer evidence-based marketing and a more effective reference program, the six building blocks are a great place to start.
Do you agree with the list? What's working and what's most challenging for your program?