Customer reference programs are generally part of a larger effort to engage with new or returning customers. References or advocates can influence prospects to do everything from attend marketing events, to participate in forums, join customer communities or help close deals. In doing so, you'll often be part of some larger engagement initiative.
Here are some common pitfalls that one sees in corporate efforts to engage with customers these days. Reference professionals who have experience working with customers in marketing initiatives are in an excellent position to influence cross- functional teams to avoid these pitfalls.
1) Organizing around your brand.
Building customer communities has huge appeal, and can be quite effective to building awareness and fostering growth. But it also risks becoming a fad because a lot of firms try to organize communities around their BRAND, a terrible idea (unless you're someone like Apple of Harley Davidson). Prospects and even customers probably aren't particularly moved by your brand. But they very likely are interested in associating with their PEERS.
A lot of customer engagement efforts suffer from too much information. You see this on Web sites loaded with tons of technical information that customers don't care about. This is often a symptom of a deeper problem--a firm that isn't sure that specific value their product or service provides to customers--so they tell prospects everything. Reference professionals who've been developing case studies and testimonials for years are well suited to help engagement teams understand exactly what customers really do value about your product or service--and what they don't care about.
3) All about me!
You see this on a lot of corporate engagement efforts, starting with the company website: lots of information about the company--press releases, latest and greatest products, awards won, etc. The corporate equivalent of narcissism. Customers who visit your site have to dig around to find something that meets their needs (and they're not going to do this for long, if at all). The marketing firm Eloqua, on the other hand, has experimented with a visitor interface on its website that asks a few quick questions (and they're fun) to understand what the visitors need is first, and THEN guides her to appropriate resources. And as every reference professional knows, the most useful information is often from other customers.
My personal feeling it that company websites should have two things: 1) Customer testimonials in various, user friendly forms, and 2) Customer results, based on objective, verifiable data. Everything else that goes up on your site should be put on trial for its life.
4) Pushing advocacy rather than trustworthy advice.
Marketers in particular can go overboard in trying to drive engagement by driving customers to be relentless cheerleaders--not a good move. A better approach is to encourage trustworthy advice--which is their natural inclination. In the B2C world, Disney has done this with its Moms World Panel, in which Disney World veterans answer questions from mothers who are thinking about going on a family vacation there. Questions can get as detailed as where are the best places to view a parade if you have two small children. Invariably, perfectly tailored responses come back from customer-moms who've been there, done that before.
Customer engagement is entering a mature phase where companies are sometimes losing sight of what makes it valuable in the first place. These tips will help you and your customer engagement team members avoid the pitfalls.