Recruiting Top-Tier Customer References: a Consultative Sales Approach
Stephanie Porter is the Director, Customer Programs at Amdocs. What's interesting about Stef is that she has a considerable background in sales and sales management, as do the members of her team. She brings that sensibility -- consultative sales -- to her reference program, and it makes a big difference in Amdoc's ability to recruit customer references. I'm happy to say that Stef will be presenting at our upcoming Spring 2007 Customer Reference Forum. Here, she shares some thoughts on how to acquire and keep references.
Q. Why do you suppose so many reference programs have trouble convincing customers to join?
A. In most cases, there’s not enough in it to be worth the customer’s effort. Having a strong value proposition is critical. Sometimes there’s an issue with joining an official program with rules and commitments – so don’t make it complex.
Q. How has your -- and your team's - background in sales, helped you with
customer reference recruitment?
A. In sales, the goal is to find a win/win situation, and it’s still all about relationships. We take that philosophy into recruiting references. We identify who we want to go after and understand their needs, put a proposal together that meets those needs – and ours – and off we go. We don’t try to fit our reference partners into a mass-market program.
Q. The big push today is to sign up "top-tier" customer references (typically, Fortune 100 firms with global brands who are traditionally reluctant to reference). How are you making headway in this area?
A. With a few exceptions, all the clients in our program would be considered “top tier”. While these may be harder to get at first, they are also worth the additional effort for many reasons. Again, the key is determining the right value proposition for them, both on an individual and corporate level. I’ll explain more on this at the conference.
Q. Some reference managers would blanch at the thought of taking a more sales-oriented approach to reference recruitment. Is it true that selling means cold calls, applying pressure, and engaging in constant spin?:) Or is that just Hollywood's version (Glengarry Glen Ross, for example) of what
sales is all about?
A. While selling can mean cold calls and such, references are customers – people we know. If we, or the account team, don’t know them, they shouldn’t be targeted as a reference until we do. It still requires basic sales 101:
- Do your homework to determine who you want to target.
- Learn what is important to them and understand their needs in this area.
- Get an understanding of what they can and cannot do.
- Develop a value proposition unique to their specific needs and discuss it with them.
- Confirm that it meets their needs and adjust as needed.
It is certainly more work than simply saying “here’s our program, do you want to join it”, but the rewards we get from our high-impact references are worth every bit of effort we put into this. Applying pressure and engaging in constant spin? Absolutely not. A client backed into a corner isn’t going to give a good reference so why go there? Further, we want our reference partners to understand what is involved since the overall reference experience depends on setting expectations and, ideally, exceeding them. We cannot afford to recruit clients into the program who are “oversold”. It would kill the credibility and trust that we work so hard to build.
Q. A couple of years ago, CIO magazine ran a story -- that is still widely
cited -- which was critical of rewarding customers for participating in reference programs. How do you feel about rewarding customers? Where do you draw the line between appropriate rewards and inappropriate?
A. First and foremost, never include product or services discounts – to me, those seems like a bribe. We also don’t get the account teams involved with making requests (once we’ve earned the right to manage the reference relationship ourselves), as that is when inappropriate and quid pro quo requests often occur. We never use the term “reward” – we show appreciation instead. Yes, it’s a euphemism to a degree, but there is a difference between the two. We try to focus on things that are of value to the reference partner that they could not otherwise get. This is unique for each of our high-impact references and might include involvement in an advisory board or focus group, networking events that are social and/or project-related, employee recognition assistance, personal exposure, marketing their projects internally, the helping to reach additional areas with their corporate messaging. We shy away from gifts or anything that might conflict with a company’s ethical guidelines, and we would never want a customer to be less than truthful.