Here are some major opportunities for customer reference programs in the new world (we'll explore these more at the upcoming Summit in March). You'll notice that most of these involve important roles reference programs can play by collaborating with other customer engagement programs.
1. Building referrals
"Referrals" may seem like a horse and buggy concept in the age of social media, but think again. Customers who provide referrals are bringing in warn prospects, often from outside your network and with whom you have no relationshp. What could be more valuable than that? Companies who sell to mass markets can dramatically improve their advertising campaigns by identifying who there best referring customers are (and they're necessarily your biggest purchasers). Companies who sell to higher levels or the C-suite can dramtically grow their businesses with just a few prime referral connections. Remarkably, I see few reference programs that are building structured referral programs. It's a major missed opportunity.
2. Building communities
"We're already doing that" you say? Many companies think they are but confuse their "social media strategy" with a "community building strategy." Social media--Facebook, Twitter, LInkedIn, YouTube and the like--are one set of tools (among many) that are useful to the customer community building process. But they aren't community. Vibrant communities require opportunities to build peer relationships with regular, ongoing affiliation, including live interaction. You don't get these on Facebook. They also require opportunities to learn, to build social capital, status and reputation all in the context of shared goals and common behavioral values. They meet very human needs. Customer reference programs can bring a lot to the table in these efforts by 1) keeping your community team focused on the human/ relationship side of things when your community builders get lost in the social media tools, 2) providing thought leadership from as well as affiliation with your customer references.
3. Getting to the C-level
The doors to the C-suite are opening for many technology firms: CEOs increasingly see technology as a competitive advantage for dealing with an increasingly complex world. Reference programs can help a firm that's used to selling to mid-level people move upstairs in two ways: 1) you have the relationships with these mid-level customers, and among them will be customers who see the strategic value of your offerings and have connections to senior executives that can open their doors, plus 2) the reference program has expertise in creating case studies, which it can apply now to start creating higher level business impact case studies with the help of your more visionary mid-level customers.
4. Creating new ways for customers to contribute.
Most marketing departments think only in terms of "what can we do for the customer?" They miss a major opportunity with customers who are just itching to do things for your firm! Customers would love to learn from each other--and many of your customer references would be happy to share their experiences. Customers would like to affiliate and even form communities with each other if you can come up with something more than a Facebook page (see #2 above). Communities, once formed, can develop information of great value to the community AND to your firm. Salesforce.com, Dell, Starbucks,Citrix System and others have used communities to tackle this issue: what features and functionality should we add to existing products and services?
Your customer reference program has relationships with your most passionate customers. Salesforce.com and Hitachi Data Systems among others have shown that such customers can be among your most powerful tools for brand building. They do this by throwing such customer evangelists together with prospects, often at live events along with journalists, bloggers and analysts, at which great buzz gets created and high percentages of prospects are turned into customers.