There is growing interest in, and evidence of, the value of developing strong emotional bonds with customers. Gone is the notion that customers - even B2B customers - buy primarily for rational reasons. Much more important than giving them logical reasons to buy is engaging with them on an emotional level.
In a series of studies, the Gallup organization has found that businesses that optimize such customer engagement outperform their competitors by 26% in gross margin and 85% in sales growth. Their customers buy more, spend more, return more often, and stay longer.
Reference programs are in an excellent position to help build those emotional bonds. Often the "relationship owner" is an sales or account management (AM), who gives their closest attention to customers when they want to sell them something. Reference managers, on the other hand, have an interest in keeping customers engaged and connected consistently - it's in your interest. What we're learning is that this will not only be good for your program, but also for your firm's growth and profitability.
Here are some tips for keeping customer references emotionally engaged:
Avoid obvious turn offs
Examples are asking for reference commitments up front upon signing the contract (the only exception here is to tie reference commitments to performance goals), engaging with customers only when you want references, relying on rewards and gifts to keep references happy (not to be confused with thoughtful, appropriate gifts to show appreciation, while relying on performance to keep them happy).
Learn and care about their issues and problems
Former Motorola CIO Patty Morrison calls this one of the first tests she applies in deciding whether to build a relationship with a vendor representative - including the reference manager. Think this is outside the scope of your responsibility? See how SumTotal Systems' Kathryn Perkins used that approach to build her refererence program and raise its visibility and importance both within the firm and with customers.
Tie customer reference deliverables to regular performance reviews
Someone such as the customer's AM engages in regular performance reviews to make sure that the customer is receiving the value promised. That's the time to discuss references because it tells the customer you care, and the reference activities that naturally flow from such discussions can be exciting. In areas where delivery excels, for example, suggest doing a white paper or case study that would prominently feature the customer's role in the success. In areas where delivery is falling short, AMs are sometimes negligent in getting the problem corrected. Offer to step into the breach (as Kathryn did at SumTotal.)
Understand the customer reference's emotional drivers
What's her personality type? Is she a Driver? Analytical? Expressive? Amiable? Different types respond to different approaches and have different emotional triggers. Here's a useful checklist. An Expressive, for example, loves the spotlight and will likely be excited about getting up on stage or in the media with his success story. A Driver may be ambitious to raise her professional stature, which can guide you in developing reference opportunities that will excite her.
Integrate references with other customer engagement programs
This will allow you to provide more options to customers - not just referencing, but other activities such as advisory boards, customer communities, user groups, customer events, etc. Such integration clearly creates better opportunities to leverage key customers. But, it also deepens emotional ties to your firm. SAS Canada's Wally Thiessen, who heads up customer programs, has taken this approach. Customer engagement at SAS Canada is 50% higher than a comparable region that has not been able to achieve significant integration. And it's leading to improved business performance, as the Gallup studies suggest: customer retention rates - once a strong point for SAS Canada that began falling off earlier in the decade, have risen steadily since Wally and his team began integrating key customer engagement programs.