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Posted by Bill Lee on February 11, 2014 at 03:49 PM
If you want to reach and influence buyers today, you have to educate them. They can increasingly avoid traditional marketing and sales approaches that pitch, spin, manipulate, or try to control the conversation. Marketing and sales need to respond to this reality, and no one in your firm is better able to help them do so than customer advocacy and reference programs. Why? Because you have access to and relationships with the one resource buyers want most to hear from: their peers (your customers).
Here are some ideas on how to do leverage customer advocates to give buyers what they're demanding: education:
* Develop authentic customer stories.
Encourage customer references and advocates to provide more balanced stories, rather than "everything about your product and service is perfect." Of course, show how it played a critical role in your advocates' success. But also encourage the advocate to talk about the context--what factors make your solution ideal, and in what context your solution wouldn't be a good fit. Aim for authenticity, not spin. Your buyers know the difference.
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* Keep abreast with how your buyer's are purchasing.
In many industries, including yours very likely,  buyers' "decision journeys" are dramatically changing. Don't assume they're going through the same process they were a year, or six months ago. There are all kinds of tools out there to help you with this, but a good way to do so is just ask them. One firm (I can't mention the name) did this and found that a significant number of buyers--about 16%--relied solely or at least mainly on a few specific product review sites. When they crunched the numbers, this translated into $30-40 M in sales generated by these sites. You can bet they got their customer advocates providing reviews on them.


* Expand your horizons to the entire buyer's decision journey.
The days when references are just called in to close deals are long over. Buyers who increasingly demand to be educated are doing so in all stages of the decision journey, starting with "awareness" --and that means they're receptive to hearing from your customer advocates sooner. Sirius Decisions' Megan Heuer will share the latest research on what customer content they're interested in and when, at the 2014 Summit later this month..


* Get your advocates engaged with relevant 3rd party "educators." 
These include analyst firms as well as your industry's equivalent of Yelp-type firms. In the IT world, for example, Yelp-type firms include IT Central Station, G2Crowd, Credii, Trust Radius and others. These firms build communities of IT users to create and exchange information about various IT solutions--often it's surprisingly in-depth. Traditional analyst firms, meanwhile, responding to this trend, are often bringing in client customers into advisory boards and forums. Find the ones relevant to your buyers (see second tip above), and encourage your advocates to participate in these.


* Create events where advocates can educate buyers.
That is, instead of talking about your firm's products and services, host events (or have your advocates host events--I know of at least one company who's advocates have done so) where the topic is a compelling issue that your buyers are facing in their jobs and businesses. That will draw an audience. As your advocates show how they've addressed the issue successfully, your buyers will get the idea that your products and services helped. Fast-growth Apptio is focused on creating a "movement" in its market, and central to that effort is the Technology Business Management Council it formed a few years ago that focuses not on Apptio's offerings, but on helping CIOs and other CXOs to "identify and promote best practices for running technology organizations like a business." That compelling educational component draws elite members. The Council has expanded in the past two years from just over 200 members to more than a thousand, and includes senior technology executives from many of the top firms in the world, including Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Univision, Cisco, Time Warner, etc. Btw, Apptio's Maria Galindo will present on this at the 2014 Summit.
* Make liberal use of the most powerful relationship-building technology!
And note, it's not social media (which isn't even social, but I digress). The most powerful technology for building relationships is F2F (face-to-face). Marc Benioff--who invented cloud computing, and who you think would have built his firm using fancy analytics--relied most heavily on old fashioned F2F. He found that when he did live events with prospects and buyers, 80% of the prospects became customers themselves. Some of his sharper sales people began requesting budget to host prospect & customer events at local bars. These were very low budget, and included no presentations from SFDC people--just casual conversations between prospects and buyers. Result: 80% of those prospects became customers too.
Increasingly buyers demand to be educated. That's the new reality your marketing and sales departments are facing. You hold the keys to this new kingdom--the one resource your buyers most want to hear from. Resist the temptations to turn these into traditional marketing and sales pitch men and women. Turn them into genuine educators for your buyers.
All the best,
Bill Lee, President  
Customer Reference Forum  
Author of 
The Hidden Wealth of Customers (June 2012, Harvard Business Review Press)
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Posted by Bill Lee on December 11, 2013 at 10:08 AM

From the December 2013 issue of Reference Point.

I hope you're set to enjoy the holiday season (if you're stressed out, here's a quick tip--take the 2 things you're most stressed about and resolve to stop worrying about them. How? Just remember that most people in the world have much harder lives than we can even imagine). 
As we prepare to move into the New Year, here are 7 important trends that will help you frame and position your customer reference or advocacy program in the coming year, in ways that will get support and resources from senior management, and buy-in from important stakeholders"
1. The "Yelpification" of Everything  
"Yelpification" has now entered the business lexicon: even famed strategy guru Clayton Christensen is using it. "Yelpification" happens, of course, when buyers increasingly look to customers-rather than marketing or sales initiatives-to learn about products or services. 
In communicating the value of customer advocacy to your firm, it's a concept that will help you quickly establish rapport with your senior management--very likely, they've used customer reviews on Yelp to pick a restaurant or shop a local store--or on Travel Advisor to plan a vacation, or an Amazon to buy a book, or ... you get the idea. Yelp is a perfect metaphor for the increasing tendency of buyers--in most industries, including yours--to check you out through their peers who are already using your product or service. When your industry is being "Yelpified" it's imperative you get your customer advocates into those conversations. Which of course, is what you do. As easily understood language and metaphors like this become more common, it will become easier to establish the value of what you do.

2. Hottest New Trend: F2F  
The stratospheric hype surrounding big data will come back to earth in 2014, much like it's doing for social media in 2013. These are not panaceas. Companies don't need social media or big data "strategies." These are just tools that are sometimes useful and sometimes not. But the strategy for marketing is simply this: understand how our prospects are buying (see "Yelpification," above) and get your customers into those conversations. And to excel at this, businesses who cultivate (or re-cultivate) their ability to create personal interactions--between your employees and customers, your management and customers, and between customers and prospects--will excel far more than those looking to technologies like social media and big data to product magic bullets.

Speaking of which ... 
3. CXO: Meet Your Customers  
The C-suite, including your CEO, needs to spend significant, quality time talking to customers-in person when possible, or at least on the phone. No CEO today who delegates the process of getting to know customers to underlings can successfully run a business. I'm not talking about aimless, "how's the wife and kids" conversations-although they do involve establishing a genuine, human connection. But they are also structured, intentional conversations that help a CEO understand how her customers use your products and services, and how they think and (even more important) feel about them. These don't need to take up inordinate amounts of a CEO's valuable time. My colleague Alex Goldfayn who works with variety of consumer electronics firm estimates that-even if you have hundreds of thousands of customers-30 to 50 half hour or so conversations per year will do the trick. After that, the information starts to repeat itself. 25 hours a year. That's less than half a workweek for most executives. What else can CEO do for half a week next year that would be more valuable?

4. Hiring Customers   
Customers can do a lot of things better than your internal employees-and companies will continue to find new ways to "hire" and deploy them in areas traditional reserved for internal employees. As you know, they're generally much more persuasive to your buyers than your sales or traditional marcoms are. But that's not all. They can also play pivotal roles in helping you build a customer community. They can provide invaluable feedback on new product betas. (Microsoft estimates that 28% of actionable feedback on new releases come from its MVP customers, who comprise less than 1% of its customer base.) They can often provide much better service to each other than your internal (or outsourced) service people. They can help guide product innovation. You get the picture. And in each of these areas, they're a lot less expensive than hiring internal employees (or free).  

5. Coalescing Marketing Around Business Objectives  
A huge problem, particularly in larger organizations, is adapting marketing to the realities of today's "Yelpified" world. Most marketing organizations are optimized for their specific functions, but they're not very good at collaboration horizontally. A typical scenario: dollars will flow from a business unit around a new product launch into the central marketing organization, which has a media team, advertising team, sponsorship team, web team, social team, data team and so forth. Who gets the money? Advertising. Because they always got the money. How motivated are they to partner with the web team and the social team and truly make it an integrated campaign? Not at all, because they're measured according to traditional advertising metrics-not business outcomes. 

That's changing, and a key driver of this will be changing the way marketing organizations are measured around business outcomes relevant to a Yelpified world. Are you trying to generate word of mouth, customer acquisition, greater web-self service, and the like? Senior managements that insist on changing the metrics, and coalescing the various marketing organizations around them rather than their traditional measures, will put their firms in a great position for 2014. 

6. The Next Level of Advocate: Customer Defender  
We've moved from loyal customer, to customers who are promoters (that is, who say they're willing to refer you to a peer), to advocate (a customer who is actively doing so, often with your support and guidance). In 2014, firms will move increasingly to customer defenders who proactively advocate for you as well asproactively defend your brand from assaults or misrepresentations.
7. From Marketing to Building Movements  
Marketing as traditional practiced tries to hoe a very long row in today's world: agencies and sales people who aren't customers, don't live or operate in their world and aren't perceived as peers, try to persuade prospective customers to do something that involves parting with their money. Yeah, right. This, in a nutshell, is why marketing is so hard--particularly in a Yelpified world where prospects can easily bypass marketing and sales.
Companies that are successfully adapting to this new world are moving from "marketing" to creating peer-based movements, an old and well-understood social phenomenon. (You'll be learning how one impressive new firm, Apptio, is doing just that, at the 2014 Summit on Customer Engagement). The core competence firms need in order to create movements in their marketplace is skill at building, nurturing and expanding customer communities. That skill and expertise will be perhaps the most important driver of success in our emerging Yelpified world.
All the best,
Bill Lee, President  
Customer Reference Forum  
Author of 
The Hidden Wealth of Customers (June 2012, Harvard Business Review Press)
Twitter (follow me)
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