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In Europe, Customers Do the Selling

Posted by Bill Lee on October 27, 2006 at 06:50 AM

We just finished our first Customer Reference Forum Europe, in London on October 23-24. What an engaged, passionate group! As in the states, several of the world's top technology firms sent representatives -- including SAP, Hewlett-Packard, EMC, IBM, Dell, Intel, Microsoft, Business Objects, Lucent Technologies, SAS, Hyperion and other major firms -- thus confirming the growing importance of references to sales and marketing efforts in EMEA.

Takeaways? People left with a lot of specific ideas to implement. I saw pads of paper filled with lists of strategies for tackling tough issues.

Here's what my newest UK buddy and Metia CEO Steve Ellis took from the event.

Here are some highlights and pics.

Here's my take. For comments by participants, please stay tuned and see below.

Get validation.
That sounds like something you’d find on Oprah (and let’s not pooh-pooh the psychological boost one gets from knowing we're not alone in our struggles). But validation is also a powerful tool in getting what you need from senior management. One participant is going to ask her head of sales to require sales people to support the reference program, complete with clear objectives that get reviewed and enforced. And she’ll have more than the usual arguments for this. Now she’ll be able to show that top firms like SAP are doing it. That gives credibility. I can vouch for that, because I know of other reference managers who’ve gotten action after one of our events by telling senior execs that "we should do X" because 1) it makes sense and 2) SAP or HP or Intel or EMC or other respected companies are doing it.

Consider a reference book.
Why not just pick out your leading, most strategic references – based on solid input from sales – and publish it in a book? SAP did it and it became the most popular downloaded item on its entire website.

Engage Net Promoters
If you don't know what Net Promoter Score (NPS) is, learn. NPS is the strategic underpinning for your program. It says, in effect, that the company with the highest percentage of enthusiastic references wins. Your senior executives are likely reading Fred Reichheld's best-selling book on the subject. Research from the London School of Economics verifies Reichheld's thesis in the UK, as Metia's visionary Steve Ellis pointed out. Perhaps the most advanced reference program out there, SAP's, is implementing NPS through its reference program. Learn what NPS is about. Educate your senior executives if they don't already know. Start proposing ways in which your reference program can leverage this concept. You'll be glad you did.

No more throwing it up on a wall and seeing what sticks.
Effective reference programs are well beyond the phase of going for quantity in the number of references they can land and success stories they can write. That’s too expensive and often a waste. The clear emphasis is on quality and getting engaged in the sales process. Which means:

  • Select references who provide a genuine sales and strategic boost.
  • Learn what references activities work best at which point in the sales cycle. Every firm is different, but it’s likely that your sales people don’t close with a success story, for example. Instead they need a live interview or site visit (or at least a recorded reference that answers the prospects questions). That's pretty obvious. As Point of Reference COO Darren Smith points out, advanced programs are digging into the details of what works and when throughout the sales process.
  • Develop training to show your sales people how and where to use references. Don’t assume they know this! And make sure they take the training, by getting sales management to require it.

    Stop begging:)
    OK, that’s a little harsh, but leading reference programs are moving beyond the point of regarding reference activities as a favor you ask of customers. Instead, approach customers as an expert consultative sales person would. You’re learning their needs, and providing value that meets them. Presenting at an event raises their professional profile. Same for getting quoted by the press. Talking to buyers increases their knowledge of what’s going on in their industry.

    Tap the power of internal collaboration.
    Why not use the same consultative sales approach inside your firm? Reference programs have little formal power. But on-point references can provide great value to lots of groups in your company. So sell your program. Communicate its benefits to groups like sales, marketing, professional services, product development. It wouldn't hurt to grab a copy of Neil Rackhams legendary book on consultative sales. And by providing value to other internal groups, they in turn can provide lots of value (including new sources of references) to you.

    Gain control of your program.
    Have too much to do and worry about? You can’t do everything and please everyone, so stop trying. Here’s a couple of ideas for gaining control: (1) Segment your customers. Pick the most strategic and go after them. Ignore the ones who aren’t being used by sales or marketing. (2) Acquire a reference champion and enlist his/ her active support every step of the way. One motivated senior exec who can get things done is worth hours of persuasion and politicking. (3) Pick your targets. Focus on activities that result in highly visible deliverables.

  • Reference Community Comments

    Dear Bill,
    it was good to meet with you and all the other folks at the forum.
    Beside the great experience of meeting people so interesting,  it was very valuable to share our brains on this subject, that still is not mastered perfectly by anyone yet.
    So let me share through your blog some of the points I write down on my tablet during my late flight back home on Tuesday:
    - No matter the size of the company it’s always a battle to showcase internally the benefits of References
    - Smaller organization with few resources tend to have a very efficient programs based on passionate personalized approaches.
    - Bigger organizations tend to structure the programs technologically, with high risk of reducing efficiency of personal touch.
    - I feel I’m in good shape with my program for HP Services and I got few good inputs for next steps.
    So overall was a good investment of time to be there and we will certainly meet again.
    Stefano Burbui
    Client Credentials Manager
    Marketing And Strategy
    HP Services EMEA

    I've just looked through the evaluations from the event and thought share what people liked about the event, and what changes they'd like to see going forward.

    What did people LIKE about Customer Reference Forum Europe?

    That's easy. In a word: NETWORKING. The vast majority of respondents liked the chance to collaborate with their peers in the profession -- people they wouldn't otherwise get a chance to meet and exchange ideas with.

    As one participant put it: "It was absolutely great to hear what our peers (and also competitors) are doing in terms of their reference program. It gave me great ideas on how we could improve the reference program and systems at [my firm]. I appreciated how frank all of the presenters were about down-sides in their program because it made me feel relieved to see, that we aren´t the only ones with various problems. Also, it was great to have the opportunity to speak to them before or after their presentations."

    What do people want to see at the NEXT Customer Reference Forum Europe?

    A lot of things!

    - "more (stronger) coffee to be served ... was a great event, thanks!"

    - More interactive workshops.

    - More detail, more specifics on topics.

    - The conference could have gone 2 full days with more workshops.

    - Not such an early start on day 2!

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