from my post on the HBR Blog Network
Who sells your products or services? This may seem like a silly question, the answer being of course, the sales & marketing team. But increasingly, the most important person selling what you're offering is — your customer.
More specifically, your customer advocates. And, as buyers increasingly expect to learn about products and services from their peers who are using them, companies are getting more creative at putting their happy customers in front of those buyers. The forms that this kind of community marketing can take are varied, and might include straightforward references and referrals, customer blogging or video (an area of exceptional creativity), participating in communities, associations or consortiums, speaking at industry events...it's a growing list.
One predictable result of this activity has been increasing demand from marketing and sales leaders to find more such advocates to showcase, in some cases creating a "beast that needs to be fed" similar to what you see in traditional media channels — like sports or the entertainment industry — that experience rapid growth in popularity.
To incent or not to incent
So the question becomes: in order to keep the advocate pipeline filled, should you incent customers with rewards, discounts, even payments of some sort? My strong suggestion — based on actual experiences from companies who are not incenting customers to advocate — is to avoid this slippery slope. It's not good for them, or for your business.
So then, how do you make this happen? How do you create the conditions that generate not only happy customers, but true customer advocates? Here are some key elements for creating an overarching value proposition that fosters customer advocates and preserves the integrity of their advocacy:
Deliver what you promise and promptly fix what goes wrong. The obvious starting point, which everyone knows, but many firms lose sight of this over time. Marketing that's based on customer advocacy and influence must keep this basic truth front and center. These frontline actions are what underlie any genuine enthusiasm from a customer. You can't create or enlist a customer advocate or build a customer-based sales force without the solid foundation of an ongoing, responsive delivery and service relationship.
Know your customers' problems. "The most important thing you can bring to a dialogue with me is knowing my problems," says Patty Morrison, CIO of Cardinal Health. "And it's really not that hard." She suggests that reference program managers invest in, or otherwise get access to, their firm's market research about key-customer references. "If you want to develop a customer as a reference, know everything you can about them. And then know everything you can about your important prospects too."
Put your customer references together with their peers. Your firm is in a great position to connect your customers to their peers — other executives and managers like themselves who deal with similar issues. And those connections are highly valued. But where do you find them? Among your other customers, of course. Find ways to bring them together — live events, in teleconferences, on the Internet — so that they can exchange ideas and learn from each other.
Market and sell your customers. Tout your customers' achievements as much, if not more than, your own in that white paper or case study. Remember, that (and not a bunch of information about how wonderful your firm and its offerings are) is what prospects care about.
Provide your customer references with opportunities for growth. Often your most dynamic customer references are eager for personal and professional development. Provide these in the form of speaking opportunities, interviews with the media, and the like, where customers can demonstrate thought leadership.
Remember, you have leverage. If your firm is a smaller supplier or brand new, your customers want to help you. "Helping my smaller vendors grow and get established is in my interest," notes Morrison. "So I'm willing to do what I can to help you grow your customer base. On the other hand, if you're larger and better established, you can help me reward my team by letting them go to conferences and present papers. It's great career development for them."
Tie referencing to performance. For larger relationship accounts, some reference programs try inserting an agreement to provide references up front in the customer's contract — a major and obvious turnoff. Yet many companies persist in doing this, or trying to. A better, value-based approach is to initiate a quarterly review process to, first, review performance metrics; next, identify how your solutions are benefiting the customer and document it; then (and only then), when you and the customer are feeling good about the relationship, turn to talking about your prospects faciging similar issues. Almost always, the customer will be ready to share contact lists and talk to prospects on your behalf.
Align your PR messaging with your customer's. "If you want a customer to publicly reference for you," notes Morrison, "you need to understand what message their PR is trying to get out to the world about their company. And then ask, how might our message tie into theirs?" When she was CIO at Motorola, for example, the firm wanted to talk about things like mobility, devices, and public safety. So, if you're doing business with Motorola, how can you tie your messaging to theirs? "If my PR person comes into my office with you and you both say, 'Here's the message we think benefits our companies together,' then I see a win-win."
Offer other customer-engagement possibilities. This is particularly important for your higher-level key customers, who may very well want to provide input into product or solutions development, or even your strategic direction. Offer such customers positions on your advisory boards or executive forums. Or they may want to engage with your other customers or other peers in community efforts.
Succeed. Finally, remember that a customer who's taken the risk of putting her eggs in your basket wants you to succeed for obvious reasons — if yours is a small company, you're more likely to survive. If you're a large firm, you're more likely to invest research and product development dollars improving the solutions you're providing. And that's true even if your customer is a large or even marquee customer. Don't be intimidated about asking for appropriate reference support.
Getting customers to advocate for you is a lot different from getting them to buy yur products and services. It should come as no surprise that it requires a new value proposition. Once you embrace this, you'll find that customers can help you grow your business in remarkable ways.