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8 Important Trends in Customer Advocacy & Reference Programs

Posted by Bill Lee on November 14, 2011 at 08:00 AM

From the November issue of Reference Point:

I'm often asked where I see the future of customer advocacy and reference programs heading--I just spent about 40 minutes yesterday visiting with an executive and reference program manager about this--so I thought I'd share my thoughts in this month's issue.

 The topic is becoming increasingly important, because customer advocacy will be key to corporate growth in the next 5 to 10 years. In a phrase, leading firms are graduating from selling to prospects to building organizations whose customers sell for them. Here's how this is evolving.  

- Prospects will be able to engage with your customer advocates earlier in the sales cycle. 

This means integrating advocacy throughout the marketing process starting with awareness building--in branding and lead generation efforts, and beyond to inbound marketing, in live and virtual events, even telesales, etc.  

- Companies will make it increasingly easy for prospects to engage with customers.

A corollary of the above: companies will make it increasingly easy for prospects to engage with customers. Websites, for example, will "match" prospects who identify what their needs are with relevant customers who have the same need, while making it easy as well as valuable for customers to make themselves available for such interactions. This capability will in turn make it easier for companies to move more of their sales into online channels.

- Reference programs will play an increasingly central role--IF they adapt.  

Social media provides a variety of possibilities for connecting customers to your market, but social media can only help establish and maintain relationships, not build them. Reference managers are the experts in building live human relationships with advocates, which will prove the critical piece in effective advocacy efforts provided they bring social media tools successfully into the relationship building process.  

- Companies will continue expanding the roles customer advocates can play.

Far beyond just providing testimonials, case studies and sales references, advocates today are helping launch new products, build customer communities, organize live events that help bolster retention, support thought leadership efforts, provide access to their C-suites, and more.

- Advocacy will increasingly become a C-suite issue.

That's because in today's hyper connected world, customer advocacy is the key to growth. Having a growing base of customers who are excited about working with you and willing to tout that experience is essential--but only the price of entry. Studies have shown that advocacy doesn't happen on its own no matter how much your customers love you. Leading firms such as are creating dynamic programs and processes that help customers advocate. That requires senior executive attention, support and involvement.

- Advocacy programs will increasingly be organized holistically around customers.

It won't work to have separate and poorly coordinated reference, advisory board, community, social media and other customer programs. The most effective customer engagement and advocacy programs provide a full range of options allowing potential "rockstar" customers advocates to engage with you in all the ways they want to, seamlessly.  

-- Companies with strong customer advocacy programs will harvest multiples of value from such customers beyond their purchasing.

Firms with leading advocacy programs are finding that purchasing is just one way, and often not the most lucrative way, that customers create value. Let's say that as a buyer, a small business customer generates economic profits of $1500 per year. But as one of your top advocates with support from your vibrant advocacy program, she provides three referrals who become customers this year, supports and provides guidance to three existing customers in your community who decide to renew with you as a result, generates 20 leads as a result of her blogging about her experience with you, two of whom become customers, speaks at a couple of local events that generated additional leads and another three customers, and gets interviewed for an article in your industry publication that drives yet more leads and another three customers. The amount of value from such advocacy efforts dwarfs her value as a purchaser--in this example, $21,000 or 14x her value as a purchaser.   

-- In turn, companies with the strongest customer advocacy programs will develop increasingly difficult-to-match customer value propositions.

The traditional customer value proposition provides products and services that help a customer get the job done--and have a good experience in the process. But look at the value, including powerful emotional value, that a great advocacy program can add to that. Great advocacy programs help customers build relationships with their peers, gain access to the media, build their professional and personal reputations, gain status in their industry, learn and grow, and in some cases even find a job.

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