Official blog of Customer Reference Forum®. Learn from our community of reference pracitioners

« June 2013 | Main | August 2013 »

July 2013 Archives

Anthony Weiner Withdrawal Speech

Posted by Bill Lee on July 28, 2013 at 06:46 PM

Since the Anthony Weiner campaign for mayor of New York is tied up at the moment with massive damage control and no campaign manager, I thought I'd help out with a little speech writing. Hey, I did some writing for the Bush 41 campaign back in '88, so you can be sure this will be good stuff (definitely better than what we've been hearing from the WC).

So here you go Carlos. Say it with a straight face--just like you always do!

Ladies and Gentlemen, members of the Press Corp and above all to the voters of NYC. OK, 'ya got me. I realize that now. Not because of anything I've done of course (why ever would that matter?). However, yesterday I called my top 10 supporters who've-stuck-with-me-through-thick-and-thin, to start planning my "Comeback Kid" (Phase Two) of the campaign. But everyone of them had changed their phone numbers. Every… single … one. 

Wusses. Couldn't take the heat. One of them did send me a great pic "for old times sake" from her new unlisted number. I got a little teary eyed, I have to tell you. 

I will always love the Big Apple, but at the moment, I have no more to give. Nada. I've devoted my entire life to serving the people of this great city. I've served. And served. And served some more. But for the moment, it's time for me to gracefully recede into the background. You know, like Churchill did, who, after all, saved his people from the Nazis! And look at the thanks he got!!

By the way, just an aside to the nitpickers who've carped that I've had more or less no legislative accomplishments as your Congressman for 12 years. Accomplishments?? Friggin' amateurs! You really do not understand politics, do you? 

To my faithful wife, Huma. What can I say that hasn't already been said about her? Yes she's hot. And yes she's got class. What did you expect from my wife?? Here's looking at you kid. You come from a land in which a woman stands by her man--no matter what! Thick and thin, baby!! Are you taking notes, New York??

Will I be back. Of course not. You can quote me: "New York, you won't have me to kick around any more!" Recognize that quote? That's what NIxon said when he told off California. (He was back in the game in no time, btw.)

What will I do during my "wilderness years"? I figure two weeks of therapy somewhere should do the trick, like that guy in San Diego is doing. I like his style. (Oops, better make that "intensive" therapy for two weeks.)

Well, goodbye NY. You know where to reach me!

The Right Way to Hire Your Customers

Posted by Bill Lee on July 24, 2013 at 09:45 AM

Suppose I told you that you have access to a resource that is more empathetic, more interesting, and more persuasive to potential buyers of your products and services than even your best sales or marketing people. A resource that can do a significant amount of the marketing work that you're spending lots of dollars on, and can do so for free. A resource that can get you to the leading edge of innovation in your industry much faster than internal product developers — and at the same time, can show you how to forego superfluous services or product features that you thought were essential but that in fact, no one would miss.

I'm talking, of course, about your customers. It's astonishing to see companies that lavish so much time and attention (and money) on selecting just the right employees, but show little discernment in selecting their customers beyond making sure their check will clear.

Companies that are pickier about their customers reap major rewards for doing so, particularly in today's economy where customers are not only better able to do the activities described above, but are very often willing to execute them on behalf of the companies they do business with.

So what traits and capabilities should you look for in the customers you want to hire?

They're profitable.

This is not always obvious. Enterprise software firms were famous for signing big contracts generating lots of revenue with customers who turned out to cost more — due to demanding big discounts or excessive service levels — than the revenues they generated. Firms that failed to track the profitability of customers would have no clue there was a problem, until rapid growth stalled and costs caught up with revenues. A supposedly thriving, fast growth firm would suddenly find itself in danger of bankruptcy. Know which of your customers are profitable. For those who aren't, figure out how to make them so, or drop them.

Once you have a handle on their profitability, then look for additional ways they can contribute to your marketing, sales, and innovation efforts, and even help improve your operations.

They derive exceptional value in return.

An excellent, objective way to determine this is to ask customers the Net Promoter question in customer surveys: how likely would they be to recommend you to a colleague or friend. Customers who are highly likely to do so are not only more likely to remain loyal, but also have a positive story to tell to their network. Remember, your buyers find customers more persuasive than any sales rep and you need to put this to work. Even companies with a relatively low Net Promoter Score will still have a core of 25%-30% of their customers identify themselves as promoters. Allowing such a resource to lie fallow is a waste. "Hire" your promoters and help them to advocate for you

They like to affiliate with other customers and buyers.

Companies that build businesses in markets where buyers like to affiliate — or would like to do so if someone made this easy — can develop a whole new set of valuable customer "hires." Book readers, for example, love to form discussion groups. When a couple of bright entrepreneurs launched a vibrant, online community in 2007 to allow book readers from around the world to connect and talk about their favorite books — called Goodreads — the result became an 18 million-member community in just six and a half years. Jeff Bezos "hired" those customers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, according to estimates.

Savvy firms such as SAS Institute working for government agencies have noticed the same thing. Conventional wisdom suggests it's impossible to get such customers to help in marketing and sales efforts due to legal restrictions against endorsing vendors. But government employees love to affiliate with each other, exchange ideas and contribute to the greater good that they collectively strive to represent. And the fact that they don't compete with each other removes a significant barrier to such sharing. So SAS and other companies help their best government customers do so by simply telling their story — "the good, the bad and the ugly" — to their colleagues in other government agencies. Such transparency often results in a more effective customer reference than you see in businesses who coach their references on what to say. That approach has allowed SAS institute over the past decade to win references from the US Departments of Treasury and Commerce, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard, and dozens of other prominent state and local government agencies.

They're on the leading edge of their industry.

Business customers who are pushing boundaries, and perhaps disrupting, their own industries are highly attractive "hires." They'll push you to help keep them at the leading edge. And such customers are also more likely to let the world know what they're doing to stay on the leading edge — especially if they're striving for recognition against an entrenched competitor, which means they're more likely to talk about how you're helping them do so. Cisco, for example, was well known for doing this as it was building a position of dominance in the 1990s. Find such customers in your industry — and hire them.

Also look for individual customers who are on the leading edge and who, impatient for the functionality that they need from suppliers, are making their own modifications to your products. Most industries have such customers, and using straightforward networking tools they can fairly readily be found. Indeed, in today's connected world where an increasing number of products have software, it's even easier as hackers will get into the software to make modifications. Even Apple — notoriously closed to any independent vendors wanting to modify their platform — has embraced this trend by allowing apps on its devices today. (These now number in the hundreds of thousands. Try to imagine an iPhone without them.) In your industry, find such "lead user" customers who are making modifications, and hire them.

They want to perform services for your other customers.

Companies are unlocking tremendous new value from customers by, in effect, turning over the jobs they once assumed they had to do (and pay for) to their customers (who do them for free). This includes software firms whose more knowledgeable customers provide support services to other users, or technology firms whose "hacker" customers modify the products they buy, make them substantially better, and share their work with other customers and potential buyers.

This is an area of great creativity, as Frances Frei and Anne Morriss have shown. The "car sharing" firm, Zipcar, for example, is mounting an impressive challenge to the rental car industry. By having customers return cars to an agreed location, gassed up and clean, they eliminate the hassle of having to go to a car rental location, wait in line, and deal with hidden charges. All the next customer has to do is show up with his Zipcar card, swipe it across the windshield, and the door opens ready for him to drive it off.

These days, if all your customers are doing to build your business is paying you money, you're leaving a lot of value on the table.

Winning the Elusive Marquee-Brand Customer Advocate

Posted by Bill Lee on July 9, 2013 at 03:01 PM

published on the HBR Blog Network:

The marketing head of an ambitious technology firm recently shared with me a vexing problem: Apple was one of their customers. But the executive and her team could essentially tell no one. The restrictions that Apple placed on them were that airtight.

It's one of the sweetest moments a business can have: landing a marquee-brand customer like Apple or Coca-Cola, Walmart or Boeing. The value goes beyond the revenue and profit such a customer can potentially generate — it's the awareness and credibility such a customer brings, along with enough new business to keep things humming for the foreseeable future. Dreams arise of having the marquee customer interviewed by industry publications, speaking about your great offerings at conferences, featured in case studies and success stories, providing references that close multiple deals, participating in your customer communities.

Then reality strikes. Your new customer's legal and PR departments place so many restrictions on you that this great source of value and proof of your credibility is known only to you.

This is one of the most frustrating problems that ambitious businesses, deserving wider recognition in their industry, can run into. But it is not insoluble. Here are some tips and approaches — gleaned from veteran customer marketing professionals I've worked with over the years — that you can use to navigate the inevitable PR and legal barriers thrown down by their marquee customers. 

What does "marquee" mean to your buyers?

First, don't get too fixated on (or distracted by) big names like those mentioned above. Just because a salesman says he needs a reference from Boeing to close a deal doesn't mean that he really does, or that some lesser known brand might not furnish a more powerful proof point. As Michael Stephenson, a key leader in global customer programs at Oracle puts it, his firm has various business units that focus on specific industries. "Often, the key customers in these areas aren't the everyday brand names. However, they are well-known and their brand carries cache in their respective niches." And they can be much more accessible and open to advocating than the Coca-Cola's of the world.

Indeed, it's a good idea to get clarity and agreement within your firm on who your marquee-customer targets really are, which can force such useful thinking on the subject.

Make sure you know the marquee customer's brand positioning and strategy.

You'll get further by aligning any proposed advocacy or co-marketing efforts with those of the marquee customer. Intel, for example, has enjoyed great success by initially approaching marquee customers, not by asking them to endorse their chips but rather, to collaborate on a cause or philanthropic affiliation important to both firms. These might include such issues as education or sustainability. When "going green" came to the forefront of corporate missions and branding strategies some years ago, Intel was able to collaborate with a number of marquee firms on the issue, which initiated a relationship and eventually led to advocacy.

These can lead to long term relationships in which advocacy naturally flows. "We'll develop joint multi-year marketing programs with the 'big brand' customer that might include references, joint marketing, philanthropic events, etc," says Rhett Livengood, director of worldwide sales development at Intel. "The key for the customer is to see a clear win in working with you as a benefit to them." 

Avoid people whose job is to say no (e.g., legal or PR).

Cultivate "yes" people at your marquee customer's firm — starting with the buyer who said "yes" to doing business with you. After she's achieved some success with your product or service, instead of asking for a reference or testimonial, suggest collaborating on a case study or ROI report that's about her success (using your product or service) rather than all about how great your firm is. Once you've made her look good to her peers and colleagues at work, she'll be open to further efforts that can begin to include advocacy. Indeed, such customers can provide a great advantage as you work to overcome a marquee customer's legal or PR bias against advocating.

Marquee brand executives are people, too.

If you position advocacy efforts skillfully — so that it's about your customer's success rather than you — this can go a long way in cultivating your internal allies, particularly among what I call potential "rock star" advocates within the marquee-brand customer. These are customers who are achieving success with the help of your solutions, and who are (or could be) prominent figures within their industry, who enjoy sharing useful information with and gaining recognition from their peers.

 For example, all sorts of relevant trade journals and entities have awards programs. So you can identify appropriate ones for your industry and begin submitting applications featuring your marquee customers (with their prior approval of course). You can also create awards that come from your company, and award the winners in front of their peers at your annual customer conference. 

Marquee is good, a perfect match is better.

As Michael Stephenson points out, "Sales reps come to us all the time saying things like, 'I want General Motors to come talk to this prospective customer.'" So he probes, asking what GM is doing that's relevant to the prospect, and what in particular they might talk about. Very often, it turns out that the prospect and GM have very little in common, and that another, lower-key customer would be far more persuasive to the prospect.

Such an approach is better for your relationship with your marquee customer. "By showing your marquee-brand customer that you use them only in highly appropriate scenarios, you'll earn their respect and trust," says Michael. 

Pitch "private" opportunities to customers from firms that disallow public advocacy.

For example, smaller, moderated sessions at your customer conferences, with no video or other record. If you have the right audience at such events — especially decision-makers or powerful influencers at prospective customer-firms — this can be every bit as powerful as a public display of affection.

Use LinkedIn.

Let's say you're trying to recruit the CIO of a very large brand. You go to their LinkedIn page and notice that they're linked to executives at your own company, either as friends or as business partners. Then you contact your executive colleague to pave the way to a "warm" contact from you. Not only is warm more comfortable than cold, it's more effective, as well.

 After the thrill of acquiring marquee customers subsides, persuading them to let you tell the world about their relationship with you can be a daunting challenge. But it's not impossible — as these proven approaches show.