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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)
Twitter (follow me)
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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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LinkedIn Community (connect with other reference professionals)

Reference Point I How To Create A Killer Rock Star Value Proposition

Posted by Bill Lee on October 16, 2013 at 04:46 PM
How do you move customer references and advocates to the level of "Rock Stars" -- those rare advocates who can have a major impact on your business? The short answer is: take the same approach top sales people do

First, position your advocacy program as something that provides tremendous value to your advocates -- as opposed to asking for favors, or quid pro quo arrangements ("we'll do X for you if you give us a testimonial"). Then create an irresistible value proposition that entices potential Rock Stars to participate. Here are the main elements.

Develop a Powerful Rock Star Value Proposition (RSVP) ...
... similar to a traditional customer value proposition for your products and services.

No sales person worth her salt would ask a potential buyer of her products or services to purchase them as a favor. Great sales people don't really on monetary incentives either, a sign of weakness or even desperation. Rather, great sales people emphasize value - "here's what using our solution can do in terms of improving your business and making you better at your job." 

Great advocacy pros take the same approach with potential advocates. BUT, they keep in mind one critical difference: when you sell value to a buyer of your products and services, the relationship is governed by market norms. A strong advocacy relationship, on the other hand, is governed by social norms.

While your sales people are fine by emphasizing monetary value (such as ROI, reduced costs greater efficiencies), as a customer advocacy professional, you should emphasize social value. Your opportunity, and it's a big one since most companies don't get this, is to help your advocates build social capital. And unlike your products and services, which will appeal only to a small share of your market, social capital appeals universally to the vast majority of people. In a phrase, it's an easy sale.

Create a needs or "opportunities" assessment. 
This is similar to what sales people use to quickly identify potential buyers. You can use something similar as you get to know your potential Rock Stars -- a good needs assessment tool will guide you in WHAT you want to get to know about them. 
Specifically, your sales people have a list of customer needs or opportunities that your products and services can meet.Their customers might need access to mobile devices, faster data processing, point of sale information, and so forth. Salespeople use this to quickly determine if a prospect would be interested in their offerings.

Your team can create a similar needs or opportunities assessment. Our research has shown five main types of social capital that are particularly appealing to potential Rock Stars:

1. Expand your affiliation networks.

2. Help you learn and grow.

3. Build your reputation.

4. Establish a higher status.

5. Have a say in your products and services. 

 By offering to help a potential Rock Star to increase any of these, you help him derive greater value from his peer and other support networks. Helping him increase his reputation, for example, makes him more visible to the rest of his network. Helping him learn important information makes him a person of greater interest to his peer group -- much like your neighbor who knows the best contractors and handymen in the area.

Use this information to create exceptional value for your Rock Star advocates. 

Now as you build your relationship with potential Rock Stars, your needs assessment can guide you into having conversations like these with potential Rock Stars:

YOU:  "I've noticed that you're active in a number of peer or professional groups. What do you get out of those?"   
PRS (POTENTIAL ROCK STAR): "I really enjoy spending time with my professional peers. I like to help them, and they help me."
YOU: "Would you be interested in expanding your peer affiliations?" (#1, above)
There's a high likelihood she'll say yes, making her open to participating in your customer community or advisory board.
YOU: "I notice you do a good deal of blogging, and seem to have great access to information that your peers really value. You seem to like to learn, and to make your 'insider' knowledge available to others." (#2, above)
PRS: "Yes, I love being in-the-know and have cultivated a lot of sources."
YOU: "It might make sense for us to give you an early heads up when we issue new releases."
Chances are excellent he'll say yes to that, and blog or post about it your early releases to his audience.

You get the idea. For PRS's who enjoy building their reputation among their peers, it might make sense to offer to line up interviews with the media or speaking arrangements. For those who want to have a say, you might want to give them access to your product teams. And so forth.
To sum up: to land Rock Star customer advocates, there's no need to rely on legal requirements, monetary or other "market-based" incentives, asking for a favor, or crafting quid pro quo arrangements. These are, at best, boring and can undermine the very credulity of someone you want as a spokesperson and advocate. Offer the something much more exciting and valuable: a stage, a platform, insider access, an audience.Offer to help build their social capital.
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)
LinkedIn (connect with me)
LinkedIn Community (connect with other reference professionals)

How Apple Stores Can Keep From Turning Sour

Posted by Bill Lee on August 13, 2013 at 09:28 PM
From Bill’s post on Harvard Business Review Blog Network

What follows is a customer experience cautionary tale, illustrating the kind of lapse that can happen even at a company with a global reputation for being customer-centric. I suppose if it can happen at Apple Stores — meant to be a beacon of customer service — it can happen anywhere. But take note: beyond the caution is a tremendous opportunity, for Apple and other retailers.

I recently set up a Genius Bar appointment at my local Apple Store, for 9am sharp (when the store opens). I was the second person to take a seat at the Bar. While waiting — and waiting — for my Genius to show up (about 15 minutes) two or three groups of Geniuses came to the bar, looked intently at some device together, discussed, looked some more — but never said a word to me. When the Genius helping the first customer got done, he began tapping on his iPad. I was just a few feet away from him. After a few moments, I announced, "My man, I'm feeling invisible." The Genius, with a wry smile and hardly looking up from his iPad, assured me someone would be with me shortly. At that early hour, the store had many more blue shirts hanging around than customers. Yet at no time did anyone say, "Are you being helped?"

Since then I've mentioned the episode to two friends who themselves are avid Apple users. Instead of responding with, "Wow, that's never happened to me," they immediately related their own "Bad Apple" story.

Coincidentally, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal reports, among other things, that the last head of Apple Stores (post Ron Johnson) had changed the emphasis from customer service to sales and cost cutting. That's an old story in the business world, that typically doesn't end well — and one you don't expect a firm like Apple to illustrate. Sure enough, it's resulted in declining customer satisfaction, and Apple Stores' famous per square foot sales (the highest in retail) has declined this year.

Apple is now looking for someone to head up its retail operations, but some candidates have expressed wariness, saying that the company's top brass lack clear plans for the stores. Here are some suggestions to help Apple Stores fulfill their original promise, and get beyond it to a new kind of relationship with customers:

Build Real Community
I'm not talking about a social media effort of some sort. I'm talking about the real thing, live and in person. Apple now has more than 400 stores worldwide, an unmatched level of penetration into local communities. Those local communities, of course, contain legions of passionate Apple customers who are doing amazing things with Apple products. The stores, together with these customers, are potentially a customer community-building resource that could dwarf anything that Starbucks is doing.

Find Your Local Rock Star Customers
Instead of pushing the blue shirts to sell, push the stores to attract local "Rock Star" customers, who will in turn, introduce new life, and new motivated buyers into the Stores. In particular, find the customers who are doing amazing things with movies, gaming, workflow productivity, design, blogging, presentations — whatever your customers are most interested in. Find ones who are articulate, who like helping others, are appealing in appearance and demeanor. No doubt many of these folks already like to affiliate — perhaps they're blogging and drawing strong audiences. Get ready to deploy these customers using your Stores as a base. And don't worry about the cost of finding and engaging such folks. First, they won't be hard to find — these natural advocates have a way of making themselves known. They're always interested to build their "social capital." Second, when you invite them into your community building events, you'll find that they'll do amazing things to draw audiences and customers, and they won't cost you a thing.

Organize Live Presentations by Your Rock Stars
The Apple Store in my neighborhood is open from 9am to 9pm Monday through Saturday. That leaves wasted time and space. Why not try a morning commute presentation at 7am on "Seven Ways to Dramatically Increase Your Productivity." A Genius might be able to make such a presentation, but much more effective would be a local Rock Star entrepreneur — an impressive "peer" of other creative and successful customers — presenting cool things he's doing to improve his productivity using his iPad and iPhone. Then many more local entrepreneurs and business people would likely show up. Or try a "Late Show" (9 pm) by a local Rock Star developer showing how he's created amazing Apple-worthy Apps. You get the idea. And by the way, you can be sure that as soon as a high-profile customer knows he's been invited to present at an Apple Store, he's going to let all his friends know.

About Those Video Screens
During my extended wait time, I couldn't help but be struck by all the screens behind the bar containing staid looking Apple content that I had no interest in. Another wasted opportunity. Perhaps the most attention-grabbing business communications today are videos by customers showing how they're using new products they've purchased: Teenage girls on a shopping spree. Skateboarders showing their moves. Researchers showing how they conducted the experiment. And of course, Apple users showing the cool things they're doing with their iPhones, iPads or Macbooks.

Why didn't I see any of this during my recent visit? Also, if Apple were to start having interesting events in its stores, it could get fabulous video of those, too. Show customers who come into your store that it's not just a store, it's a community gathering place with all kinds of interesting things going on. Such activities will get local customers to sign up for your email lists so as not to miss out.

Orient the Customer Experience Around What Customers Can Accomplish
When the first Apple Stores were opened, they were organized around the firm's product lines as well as the things customers would want to do with the products — such as importing and editing movies. I don't see this in today's Apple stores. They look more like product displays you'd see in an ordinary retail store — iPads here, Macbooks there, iPhones to the left. I should see something that shows me how to Photoshop pics on my iPad; or how to configure Apple products for my kids; or the top 10 things I can do with my Mac/ iPad / iPhone to organize my life. There could be a couple of community tables in the store, with daytime presentations on these topics.

Such measures would, of course, require experimentation. But the results could be well worth it. There are three areas of huge, latent wealth that the Stores could play a central role in tapping: First, all of the capabilities and expertise that we Apple customers are carrying around. Second, going beyond the use of the physical Stores as mere ABS (always be selling) machines to build them into hubs for customer communities. And third, activating and leveraging the hundreds if not thousands of local Rock Star Apple customers who would jump at the chance to get involved, and to help build such communities. When this potential is unlocked, the devices would almost sell themselves.

Customers Are Not Your Friends

Posted by Bill Lee on October 20, 2010 at 02:16 PM

How's that for a provocative statement? But stay with me on this. I hear a lot of smart business professionals talk about how they often regard customers as good friends, even close friends--that indeed, they make it a personal goal to build such a relationship with some customers.

I say, be very very wary.

Great customer relationships are built on achieving a rich exchange of mutual value. Economic value. Both sides have a responsibility to keep it that way--and it's a solemn resonsiblty to your investors, employees, management, and yes, to your customers. That's not friendship. The danger if you start mixing the two up is that you start doing things for each other--favors, special deals, and the like--that make no business sense. Not good.

Some years ago when I was consulting for a commercial developer in Dallas, I found that project managers in his ' construction division had gotten a little too cozy with subcontractors. How? Because one of them got outraged at me when I insisted that a subcontracting bid be awarded to the lowest priced qualified bidder. (What a concept!) The offended (losing) sub was buddies with the project manager on the job, and as a result of their friendship had gotten used to submitting bids with little competition, and when his bids weren't low, he expected to get a heads up so he could  lower his bid. 

That wasn't good for the project manager's boss (and my client)--not for his bottom line, and not for his goal of building a more price competitive construction division. And by the way, it wasn't good for the preferred sub: relying on such "friendships" and cush deals in business dulls your competitive edge and also tarnishes your ethical compass. In business, those are liabilities.

So whatever action or arrangement you're contemplating with a customer, it's a good idea to stop and ask, are we doing this because it makes economic sense for both our businesses? Or is it to further some misguided sense of "friendship." 


Tips for Implementing Significant Changes to your Reference Program

Posted by Bill Lee on March 15, 2010 at 05:51 AM

Reference programs are changing rapidly. The internet and social media in particular are changing the landscape, and opening up both big risks and big opportunities for your firm's sales and marketing efforts. How can you make the changes your reference program needs to stay abreast? Here are some tips to think about:

1. Avoid the strategic vs. tactical pitfall.
Start by taking your list of things you want to change and asking, which of these are strategic and which are tactical? Strategic items are the "what" you want to accomplish, tactical items are the "how" you'll get to the what. For example, "our team needs to build better and closer relationships with our references is strategic" On the other hand, "we need to host more face-to-face events for our references" is tactical. One of the best ways to derail a change initiative is to mix those two up. Start with getting clarity on the strategic items you want to implement. Then put together a tactical plan.

2. Put your strategic items to the test.
Just because you think they're great ideas, doesn't mean your boss or key stakeholders will. You'll need to open or re-open dialogue with them on your program's strategic goals, and the best place to start is by getting clear on what their goals are, first.

3. Work with your boss to identify key stakeholders to enlist.
They might include the head of global sales, your head of demand generation, social media programs, PR, AR, and/ or product marketing. Who can likely most benefit from new tools, processes, ideas in reference management that you've learned about?

4. Don't ask stakeholders what they want from your program.
Well, you can ask the question and you might get lucky with a specific and well thought out answer. But be prepared for a blank look or a very general and unhelpful answer. In any case, don't start the conversation with "we have this great new idea for our reference program that I want to tell you about." Trust me, it will get you nowhere. You have to prepare the ground first.

5. Do ask stakeholders what their priorities are.
For example, if one of your key stakeholders is the SVP of Global Sales, you need to get clarity on what her primary goals are--what she wakes up thinking about every day--that your reference program can have an impact on. This isn't as easy as it sounds, by the way. Once you're as clear as possible on her goals and those of other key stakeholders, then it makes sense to put together a first draft of your program's new strategic goals, to make sure they support those of your stakeholders.

6. Don't bite off more than you can chew.
Before finalizing on new strategic goals
to pursue, prioritize. Which will make the biggest impact, quickly, and with a clear impact on objectives that are important to your key stakeholders and to the business. Start with just one or two of these. As uber strategy consultant Alan Weiss says, don't move a hundred things an inch, move 2 or 3 things a mile.

7. Now you're ready for tactics, the "how's," to get you there.
And a critical part of this discussion should be "what things can we stop doing?" For many of you, it will be important to get away from "butler" services for your sales and marketing people--that is, taking phone calls and chasing down references for them at the last minute. It's time wasting, inefficient, and not the best and highest use of your talents.

How Cisco WebEx Creates Compelling Customer Content thru Video

Posted by Bill Lee on January 13, 2010 at 04:26 PM

An interview with Diane Davidson, Manager, Customer Success Programs, Collaboration Software Group, WebEx, Cisco Systems

Below is a preview of the workshop that Diane will be presenting at the 2010 Customer Reference Forum, March 2-3 in Santa Clara, CA on the Nuts and Bolts of Using Video to Create Compelling Customer Content. It includes several links to terrific customer videos on Cisco's website.

LEE: Diane, tell us a bit about yourself and your customer success programs at Cisco WebEx.

DAVIDSON: The evolution in the computer and associated industries over the last 30+ years has been stunning.  Most of my work in high tech has been in enterprise type business models but since 2003, I have been very involved with internet software and SaaS subscription models. 

During the last 20 years, the world of customer references has changed as much (thank goodness) as the world of computing at large.  Of course everything is digital.  And of course, since the iPod was introduced in 2001, the speed of change has only accelerated.  In the mid 90s we still did everything in hardcopy, with binders of references for our sales teams.  Now our assets are all digital, on our website, in repositories, on iTunes, on YouTube, etc. Publishing has a whole new meaning.

Big changes.  But some of the underlying struggles remain – finding customers who can get clearance to talk is, by far, the biggest challenge.  Story content is also important as we try to look for fresh messages and great metrics.   And, after creating these ‘customer assets’, finding ways to ‘push’ them to lots of folks is also a challenge.

Historically case studies and references were created mostly to help close sales transactions or substantiate a launch.  These days they are so much more.  They are about getting the light bulb to turn on in a prospect’s or customer’s mind so he or she says “Oh, I can use WebEx to do…”  I know this may sound silly, but it is such fun to listen to an enthusiastic customer talk about what they have accomplished using a product or service.   

LEE: Why and how do you see the move away from traditional customer content (written or audio case studies) to video?

DAVIDSON:  It’s not really an ‘either – or’ situation.  What we think about is what kind of content do we need?  What are we using it for and what is the best medium?  In many situations we have a written and audio version of our customer reference story and we add the video. 

Video is compelling.  You get to see and hear the person which helps you get a feeling about the authenticity of the message.  Written content is the hardest to get this feeling. Audio is better than written and video is the best. Body language is so important and you can see that in the video. 

I learned something from the transition to blended learning back in the late 90s.  When folks were engaged in the transition from instructor-led training to eLearning or blended learning, we discussed when to use which medium – instructor led F2F, Instructor led distance learning, and eLearning.  Depending on the content, the criticality of the information, and other factors like affordability, you chose the delivery vehicle. Additionally, you tried to create all the content once, in ‘chunks’, store it in a repository, and deploy it many times in many types of training modules.  ‘Chunking’ the information was the basic concept.  Get it into easily consumable pieces. 

References are very similar.  One makes use of quotes, written, audio, and video case studies, etc.  In one instance you might need a complete story.  In another you might need a powerful video segment that drives home a point.  We first realized this in our written stories – lots of good content but hard to find what you were looking for.  So we extracted key messages, quotes, and other details to make it easy for folks (Sales, Marcom, PR, etc.) to find what they need. 

Now we are focusing on our video content and ‘chunking’ that content into very pithy 30 second chunks, each chunk focusing on a key message.  These ‘voice of the customer’ chunks can be used in lots of ways –  presentations, leadgen pieces, websites, marketing collateral, pass along emails,  etc.

We also have lots of types of videos.  We have a range from relatively inexpensive (done with a Flip camera and edited) all the way up to high production videos, and everything in between.

LEE: Your CEO John Chambers is quite visionary, and in particular has himself placed a great deal of emphasis on video collaboration. How do you see your program as fitting in with his strategy?

DAVIDSON:  Well, as you can imagine, I fully support that statement that John Chambers is an incredible visionary.  He ‘walks the talk’.   Actually I was not so thrilled about the video idea when I started down the path. Relative to the written case study and the audio podcast, quite expensive and logistically more complicated. 

However, after we did our first one, and I found a moderately priced method, I was sold.  When I looked at the result, it wowed me.  Here’s a little example.  We had a customer we were recording on a Flip camera.  So we are on a WebEx with him, seeing him via WebEx video, and he has his Flip camera filming him at his desk.  We asked a simple question,  “What motivated you to move to WebEx”? His response:  ‘Before we had WebEx, our main collaboration tool was the airplane.’  Totally unscripted.  You put that in written form and it does not pop.  When you watch the guy say that on the film, you just go ‘wow’.  Every video has a couple of these simply incredible sound bites where the customer comes up with his own way of saying something that ‘just works’. 

So video is the next best thing to being there in person. It removes distance and feels much more personal.  I love WebEx.  It’s made my life a lot easier in so many ways.  But video makes it a lot better, more human, more intimate, more real.

LEE: Tell us about your “Five to Thrive” program.

DAVIDSON:  When the economy took the very deep dive in October of 2008, John Chambers and team developed what he and they believed to be business fundamentals for the recession.  Some of the steps are just sound business (or even personal) fundamentals and some pertain to the new collaboration tools (hardware and software) available to companies.  The overall idea is to get your house in order so you are positioned to win when the ‘turn around’ commences.  We have been very public with this in our marketing materials, blogs, and an interactive tool that we created that takes you through the concepts and uses customer case studies in various formats to support the key points.  The basics of Five to Thrive are :
1.   Save to Invest

2.   Unlock Employee Potential
3.   Drive true customer intimacy
4.   Outpace the competition
5.   Transition to a borderless enterprise

LEE: Can you give us an overview of the video options that you use, and how and when you use them?

DAVIDSON:  I’d like to save this for the workshop but suffice it to say that we use everything from casual Flip videos to highly produced more polished videos.  We also find value in shooting special customer videos that we use inside the company for training purposes.  Perhaps a customer will not let you use something publically, but they have some great things to say that are good for training your sales force or motivating your team.  We capture those and use them internally.

LEE: You’ve been experimenting with having customers record their own videos, using a Flip camcorder. How is that working?

DAVIDSON:  Yes we have achieved some solid results using this approach.  Of course it’s a different look and feel than a highly produced video, but it works.  We are also intermixing video.  For example, we may go onsite to shoot the HQ location and our key interviewee but there are other folks in quite remote locations that can add power, key messages, perspective, etc.  We will have them record their pieces via Flip and cut those into the final film.  It can be quite powerful.

LEE: Can you share some samples of customer videos you’ve developed? 

DAVIDSON: Well I’d prefer to save our link to the interactive tool around “Five to Thrive” that I mentioned—I’ll unveil and demo that at the 2010 Forum.  But here are some other useful ones I’m happy to share. 

- Cisco Video of one of our customers,  Kroma. I particularly love this one – high end video, shot onsite with lots of b-roll, music, high production costs.  Great video.

- This one is about our customer,  Cabelas.  This was done onsite.  Medium priced.

-  One of my personal favorites – done onsite at Kohn Pedersen Fox, a global architectural firm in NYC, still medium costs

- This is The Food Group – this was done with one of a Flip Camcorder – great video.  Low end, least expensive, but still takes editing time to put it together.

Tips for Reference Managers on Setting and Achieving Goals for the New Year

Posted by Bill Lee on December 14, 2009 at 10:59 AM

What are you planning for next year? This is the month to get serious about setting the stage to build and improve your customer reference program. Effective goal setting is critical to hitting the ground running and making it a great year. Here are some tips for you.


1. What did I do well this past year? Where did our customer reference program do well?

2. What strengths emerged (both personal and the reference program) that we can build on? What do I need to get better at?

3. What can I STOP doing because it's a waste of time or resources? What can I DELEGATE to someone else (employee, vendor, another group) in order to focus on more critical goals?

4.  What are my goals for 2010?

Thinking through these, and participating in our community discussion, will sharpen and expand your thinking on these issues. You'll come away with some powerful goals.

The second step is making your goals for 2010 happen. Here are some tips on that:


How good are you good at setting, and achieving goals? Most people aren't. If you can get good at it, you'll be miles ahead of the game. Here are some tips to help you:

Goals should be:

1. Written down, and always visible.

This is the most important key to achieving goals: Writing them down, and keeping them in front of you are powerful motivators. Writing them down and filing them away, on the other hand, is a waste of time. Put them in your calendar (and make sure you look at them daily or at least several times a week). Or put them on your office wall, where they'll be constantly visible. These will be your rudder during the storms of busyness or competing demands.

2. Specific.

"We're going to improve our social media efforts" or "explore video testimonials" are not specific.  

3. Measurable.

How else will you know you've achieved your goal?  Measures are sometimes guess work, but don't shy away from this step.

4. Actionable

"We're going to make 100% of our customers referenceable this year" may be biting off a bit too much. Where do you start? For a firm that has only 15% of its customers in its reference program, what you've got is an aspiration, not a goal. See the next tip.

5. Realistic.

Stretch goals are great and thinking big, reaching for the stars-all of these are great. But then divide them into realistic steps. I can't step out of my door and go climb Mount Kilimanjaro. But I can pretty quickly find out how to get there, what it would cost, when I could go there, and what would be required to climb it. I can do that in the next couple of days. Then I can plan how to address these issues and figure out the best options, in another few days or a week at most. Then I can . . . you get the picture.

6. Time Based

"We're going to start developing YouTube style customer testimonials sometime in 2010" is not a goal. (not specific, not time based)  "We're going to create 3 YouTube style customer testimonials by January 31" is a goal.

Back to our aspiration of "building our reference pipeline in 2010." How might it be reformulated as a series of powerful goals? Perhaps something like this:

"We're going to meet with the following managers and executives--x, y, z, w--to identify who our most strategic customers are by January 31. We're then going to have meetings/ appointments with 10 such customers by February 28 in order to learn what it would take to develop a more powerful value proposition to attract them and other strategic customers into our reference program,. We'll then roll this out to all strategic customers by March 31. Our initial objective is to attract 50% of strategic customers into our reference program by April 30. We'll also do follow-up analysis my May 31 with those customers who won't participate in the program, and develop a gap analysis showing clearly why they aren't doing so."

2010 Forum Update: Workshop on Creating Compelling Customer Video

Posted by Bill Lee on December 9, 2009 at 02:43 PM
This just in as we add to our lineup for the March Customer Reference Forum. With the rise of social media--and the decline of attention spans!--video is becoming an increasingly important tool for disseminating customer content. 

Diane Davidson with Cisco WebEx will lead a workshop on showing how to make a rapid and  successful move into video production, at the 2010 Customer Reference Forum, March 2-3 in Santa Clara, CA.

Attendees at the workshop will learn:

  • how to think through the issue of when video is likely to be more effective than traditional written and/or audio customer case studies.
  • how to think through nuts and bolts information such as development, costs, tools to use (from Flip cameras to high end), and much more  
  • How to analyze the options for video creation such as appropriate length (90 seconds, 3-4 minutes, 5-7 minutes, or longer)?
  • What production styles are appropriate and when (from Flip camera to high end)?
  • How do you manage factors such as costs, and video shelf life?
  • How do you determine what customers are good video candidates?    
  • Where do you publish your video beyond your corporate website?   
  • How do you justify the costs and get a reasonable to excellent return on your video investments?  

Diane will also demo an interactive tool that utilizes all types of customer assets (written, video, and audio) to educate and stimulate interest from prospects and customers. 

How Research Helps Red Hat Create Collateral that Sells

Posted by Bill Lee on December 4, 2009 at 07:21 AM

Ever wonder how your reference collateral is actually perceived, and used, by the technology purchasers you want to target?  How is this dynamic changing with the rise of social networking? From written case studies to customer testimonial podcasts and videos, reference collateral is a major expense and is undergoing serious transformation. Red Hat's Kathryn Poole and Eccolo Media's Lorie Loe have teamed up to get research based-answers to these questions and more. They'll be presenting at the 2010 Customer Reference Forum on March 2-3. Meanwhile, here are some of the insights they'll be sharing:

White papers are still the most influential collateral to buyers making purchasing decisions (84% said they were moderately to extremely influential), and the most frequently shared (89% had passed a white paper along to others).

 - Video is on the rise. Rapidly!: the number of buyers who watched a video to prepare for making a purchae decision jumped from 28% in 2008 to 49% in 2009.

 - Collateral is highly viral: prospective buyers share it. In addition to the 89% of buyers saying they shared white papers, 85% share case studies, and nearly as many share brochures/ data sheets, podcasts and videos.

 - Digitial is king, but printed collateral stll has a place: 80% of buyers prefer to read written content online rather than printing it out. But that means 20% still prefer old fashioned printed.

 - Quality matters: 51% of buyers said that high-quality writing is either very or extremely influential (another 35% said it as moderately so).  In fact, while objective third party collateral is generally preferred, buyers say they prefer good writing from a vendor over mediocre writing from a third party.

 - Collateral is yoru calling card: A significant majority of tech buyers consume collateral before they issue an RFP or talk to vendors.

 - Decision makers and influcencers: Not surprisingly, decision makers consume more of each type of collateral than influencers, but influencers are big sharers: they pass it on more often and to more people than the DMs.

The ROI of B2B Customer Engagement: Takeaways from the 2009 Summit

Posted by Bill Lee on October 26, 2009 at 12:51 PM

The 2009 Summit on Customer Engagement was the most intense 2 days I’ve seen yet at one of our events.

There’s no way to provide a list of takeaways and do the content flowing from the  Summit justice. So over the next few weeks I’ll post a series of takeaways as we continue to compile information from the presentations, Executive Forum, peer exchange, panel and fireside chat.

First up is the ROI from Customer Engagement Efforts. There’s a growing body of evidence – evidence that’s persuasive to CFOs – that customer engagement efforts drive growth. Customer engagement includes customer reference programs, advisory boards, communities and customer social network efforts.

 Here’s a few examples from last week’s Summit.

 From co-keynoter and thought leader Sean Geehan:

- Customer programs that engage decision-making customers create measurable ROI vs. those that have little or no engagement with decision makers. In particular, such customer engagement efforts triple account growth rates (from 4% to 12%), more than triple referenceability (94% vs. 28%), and increase retention by 25% (90% vs. 72%).

- Such results impress finance executives. “Our executive customer programs have proven to be the most effective way to positively impact top and bottom line results.” Jeff Garrity, CFO, Services, NCR.

 - Oracle, which has substantially outperformed its industry - as measured by the Dow Jones Software index as well as the overall DJIA - gives great credit to its executive customer programs. “Our executive customer programs have driven the Oracle transformation. The pay-off has been tremendous.” Charles Phillips, COO, Oracle.

From co-keynoter Tim Thorsteinson, retiring President, Harris Broadcast, on the superior performance of Harris relative to its market and competitors.

- Harris has excelled by rapidly revamping its product line: 50% of its current line was developed in the last 24 months. This wouldn’t have been possible without engagement with key executives at its most important customers through its Executive Advisory Board – who drove 16% of the firm’s revenue last year.

At Harris, customer engagement efforts drive:

     - Improved margins, predictability, sustainability (increase in sales)

     - Confidence in the business trajectory and forecasts

      - Market alignment, higher stakeholder returns

From Intel's Rhett Livengood, the firm's social media efforts – which are now well advanced in integrating customer reference and customer advisory board programs at Intel - are driving lead generation and branding. Here’s how Intel measures social media, and the current numbers showing its impact:

- Lead Generation (% of new customers coming from social media efforts)

     Goal: 10%  Current: 3%

- Brand Impact (measured by comment ratio on blog)

     Goal: 1:1   Current: 1:.87

- Community Driven (conversations driven by community members vs. Intel)

     Goal: 90/10   Current: 70/30


More to come . . . . 

Developing Emotional Connections with Customer References

Posted by Bill Lee on October 13, 2009 at 12:24 PM

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.

Persuading a CIO to Reference, Persuading a CIO to Buy

Posted by Bill Lee on August 13, 2009 at 05:35 PM

How do you engage a senior executive to reference for you? How do you persuade her to buy? Following are some tips from one of the most dynamic CIOs in our industry, Patty Morrison, former CIO at Motorola, GE Industrial Systems, Office Depot and other marquee firms.  We’re putting final touches on a pdf report of Patty’s “fireside chat” with me at the 2009 Customer Reference Forum – perhaps the major highlight at the event. I urge you to read the full report (just email me and I’ll send you the full copy when it’s ready in a week or so).

Why reference programs are important

“I was very impressed this morning, listening to the amount of metrics that customer reference managers have developed that actually show your direct contribution to revenue generation. The more that you can make that correlation; the more you are going to stay relevant.  And frankly, relative to other marketing spend -- like print, advertising or other media or Internet ads or whatever – reference programs are easier to quantify.” 

“Another one of the most important things you can do with referencing today is to build confidence in your company. And one of the biggest confidence boosters you can provide to a CIO is not just your financial performance, but who are you signing up as customers.”

 Persuading Me to Reference

”Don’t just fly in and out with a reference request. Or a media request. Offer me the full range of opportunities to engage with you. Give me the chance to improve your service to me, measure the value you’re delivering, develop best practices together, partner with you, engage in marketing withy you, and interact with my peers. And then make referencing a part of the ongoing discussion between the account manager and the person they’re selling to at the senior level. That’s what a strategic customer reference program does. You’ll probably get a lot more traction at the senior level. ” 

”If you want a customer to publicly reference for you, 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? . . . If the 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. I’m there. ” 

”The most important thing you can bring to a dialogue with me is knowing my problems, and it’s really not that hard. You guys are doing customer references, right? Are you investing in market research about those customers? 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.” 

Why It’s in My Interest to Reference For You

If you’re a smaller supplier or brand new, and I’m meeting with your account manager all the time and building that relationship, I want to help that firm grow and get established. It’s in my interest. 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.

Persuading Me to Buy

For me as a CIO and a buyer, I’m looking for investments that pay for themselves, in hard savings, in the first year. Can you demonstrate to me that your other customers get that kind of immediate value? . . And don’t be afraid of saving just $5,000, $10,000, and $50,000. Even at a company like Motorola, I was interested in that kind of money because budgets are very tight. 

Case studies from your own IT department using your technology are absolutely persuasive. I work with a lot of hi-tech CIO’s, from IT shop to IT shop. Nobody color codes it, nobody puts ‘lipstick on a pig,’ as they say. Really, I mean, it’s a professional courtesy thing. 

How a Reference Program Can Improve Customer Satisfaction

The opportunity is substantial for customer reference programs to build relationships with customers when times are tough. And building those kinds of relationships really does make a lasting impression on the senior people. Because what I look for is: do I have a partner? Someone who’s going to be with me in good times and in bad times.

Always remember, the most important thing is to be delivering. If you’re not delivering it’s kind of irrelevant to talk about references. 

Getting Support from Sales

You ought to build for yourself a metric showing the ‘successful reference ratio ‘of your sales people. They match prospects with good references. They interact well with reference customers. They develop excellent relationships. They cultivate referrals and leads from their customers. Identify these stars, and cultivate them. Find ways to reward them and give them visibility. You’ll likely get much better results than trying to spread your efforts across thousands of sales people, right? 

Portrait of a Superb Customer Reference Relationship

An account manager from one of my larger vendors – I met with this AM quarterly -- told me that one of the new metrics for their quota was going to be references, and asked If I’d be willing to help them out. I said yes, as that was part of that ongoing dialogue that I mentioned earlier. That is, we’d meet every quarter, we’d would go over all of their performance metrics and how they were doing as a supplier and I would go through all of the things that were going really well and we would identify the things that I thought were best practices. And for me, that opens the door to referencing. So if we were doing something really well with this vendor – something that in my career as a CIO I believed was unique and exceptional -- we would identify those kinds of things and get them documented. 

This arrangement would work with other suppliers too where, let’s say, they had a newer program that we chose to implement, and we regarded it as an emerging best practice. And we would work with that supplier and then I’d work with my team to write it up, showing what worked, what didn’t, keeping it as realistic as possible. It really helps the supplier with their marketing and sales and, frankly, it helps us a lot too because we learn from it. So part of it was this documentation of best practices.

 The second part of our arrangement was to systematically review what prospects they were talking to. That was a great opportunity to match a best practice to potential prospects. Or, we’d have a conversation about, ‘Who do you know on this list, where would you feel comfortable having a discussion?’

 A lot of times I end up delegating those kinds of things. I don’t do the references myself, but I might call up someone on my staff and say. ‘Hey I want you to have a meeting with this company and talk to them about what we’ve done with this supplier. Be honest. Say what’s good and what’s not good.’ So it wasn’t always me, but because I had that conversation all the time with the account manager, and that relationship, we did a lot of references. And by the way, that is a supplier for Motorola and they just won an award for being the most referenced account in their company. So that program is really working for them.

Hot Tips

I’m not likely to pull information about a vendor. I’m more likely to have it pushed. One of the more creative ways I’ve seen of pushing data is through other vendors. For example, if HP is mobility solutions, they could bring me a RIM case study showing how a particular mobility solution saves office rent and improves productivity at a company like mine.

You should also ask yourself, do you know who the CIO is connected with, who they’re going to trust, who they’re going to listen to? If it’s a CIO in Chicago, it’s likely we all know each other. If it’s other groups, you know I worked at Proctor & Gamble, GE, Office Depot, Motorola, and PepsiCo, which is Quaker Oats -- a lot of companies. So, learn something about my company, me, my network. It shows you’ve invested in understanding me before you walk in my office, understanding my situation – as opposed to the worst thing you can do: walking in my office and expecting me to spend an hour telling your everything about what my problems are. That doesn’t leave a good impression with me. 

Pitfalls to Avoid

I think generally one of the worst things a vendor can do is to a press release when you sign a contract. I really hated doing that because I believe very strongly that it’s the implementation of the technology that determines what value is created.

 By the way, I have a thought on ratings systems. I love to cook; I go to the and look at recipes and I read the ratings on the recipes. If, say 9 of them are positive and 1 is negative, I’m really surprised how influenced I am by that 1 negative. I think you need to be really careful with that.

The Joys of Integration

Posted by Bill Lee on July 14, 2009 at 05:14 AM

How integrated is you reference program? Here’s a quick diagnostic: 

- Your social media and online community teams are starved for content. You’ve got lots of that. Are you regularly providing relevant, usable and if necessary, re-purposed content (from success stories, case studies, and other reference materials) to your online communities?
- How effective are you at getting your customer references to engage appropriately in online conversations about your firm?
- How well do you work with your account managers to initiate reference requests? There is great room for creativity here. For example, you might work with your AMs to initiate quarterly reviews with your top 10 strategic references that include, 1) a review of your firm’s performance (making sure it’s up to speed), followed by 2), a review of the list of the prospects that sales is talking to, asking the reference, “Who do you know on this list that you’d be comfortable talking to?” A much better approach than just calling the customer when you need a reference.
- How well do you integrate with Sales, another area full of opportunity? For example, why not work with sales to create a “Reference Success Ratio” metric that identifies and rewards sales people who develop great references, deepen the relationships, and match references well with buyers? Identify the stars, recognize and reward them.
- Are you recruiting references from your Customer Advisory Boards (CABs)?  Are you offering CAB memberships to qualified references who might be intenerated?
- If you have a
Net Promoter Score (NPS) program, are you recruiting the “promoters” identified in your NPS surveys into your reference program?
- At the same time, are you sure that your references would identify themselves as “promoters” in an NPS survey? (Don’t laugh. One highly respected company
found (see above link) that the customers most likely to promote them weren’t in their reference program – AND that the customers who were in the reference program weren’t all that excited about promoting them!)
- How often do you work with your PR group AND your references’ PR groups to develop messaging that promotes BOTH firms?
And the ultimate test on how well your program is integrated with other key-customer engagement programs in your firm:
- How good is your firm at providing your top customers a complete "customer engagement" value proposition? That includes: access to your other customers and their peers; access to your senior executives; influence over strategic direction; influence over product development; opportunities for professional development (such as speaking at industry events); opportunities to partner in marketing efforts; opportunities to help develop their own staffs (such as through conference attendance)?

New Forrester Research: The (Important) Role of Reference Programs in B2B Community Marketing

Posted by Bill Lee on June 10, 2009 at 02:02 PM

Customer reference programs have just received a second stamp of approval from venerable Forrester Research. According to Laura Ramos in the just published Forrester report, Effective Customer Reference Management Anchors B2B Community Marketing Efforts, "Customer reference management has moved from the sidelines to the mainstream of corporate marketing activity."

Laura makes several additional and important points about reference programs, social media, and the need to pursue a strategy of "Community Marketing." She keynoted at our last Customer Reference Forum in February. The report is based on the joint study conducted earlier this year by Customer Reference Forum, Forrester, and Point of Reference:

Among the additional points Laura makes:


- Despite the growing prominence of their programs, now is not the time for customer reference managers to rest on their laurels.

- Customer reference professionals need to tune up their Web 2.0 skills and take a more active role in setting social strategy because technology customers are a socially active group. This will be a challenge, since less than 1/2 of survey respondents in the report use social approaches in programs.

Laura's recommendations:

Step 1: Create more opportunity for customers to engage socially, with each other and with your prospects.

Step 2: Help references tell their stories in virtual venues. According to the study, less than 30% of reference managers do so.

Step 3: Use metrics that focus on engagement, not just activity. So far, less than 10% of respondents are creating new leads or enlisting participants through social media tools, making use of such tools hardly worth the efforts.

I'd add a couple of thoughts:

The Forrester theme of Community Marketing fits the approach recommended by former Motorola CIO Patty Morrison: Reference managers should broaden the scope of their offerings to key customers; don't just ask them to become references.

Understand what your customers' needs and aspirations are. Your key customers may want to have an impact on your strategy and product development, to engage with their peers, to develop personally and get recognition professionally. They want you to understand and respond to such needs.

This means working with other internal customer engagement programs such as advisory boards, executive forums, customer communities, executive briefing centers, Net Promoter programs, etc.  As Patty suggests, offer customers the full range of opportunities to engage with you. Then work with these other customer engagement programs, as required, to meet their needs by participating in your marketing programs, events and speaking opportunities, customer communities (online and in person), new product development, strategy formulation, etc.

It's not about technology or tools, social media or otherwise. It's about developing a value proposition that will entice key-customers into more fully engaging with you, your market and your prospects.

See Laura's blog post here:

Access the full report (fee is $795) here:

Customer Reference Forum Initiatives

Posted by Bill Lee on May 12, 2009 at 08:21 AM

Customer Reference Forum is now well into its 5th year, and we have some new initiatives to announce that reflect your changing needs as well as the changing nature of the reference profession.  I’m featuring these in this blog because we’re looking for your input.


We’re going to formally survey our entire community to get a better understanding of your current needs in areas such as:

- Research: What benchmark information do you need to help budget and build your reference program, and to guide you in adopting new technologies like Web 2.0?

- Vendor Services. How can we help you find and select the right vendors to help you with your program? 

- Fall Workshop: We'll invite your input here as well. 

- What else? We'll also give you an opportunity to let us know about other needs you have we may not be aware of. 

 In the past, we’ve relied on input from our Advisory Board and anecdotal input from members of our community. Time to make this a formal process that includes everyone.

For more information or to participatte in the survey, please drop me an email (upper right corner). 


We’re forming an umbrella organization, the Customer Strategy Group, intended for senior marketing executives focused on key-customer engagement efforts – that is, their purview includes customer reference programs, advisory boards, executive forums, customer communities, Net Promoter Score programs, and related efforts. CSG will give both you and the executives you report to critically needed research and benchmarking information on how to realize the strategic value of these programs. 

What does this have to do with reference professionals like yourself? By themselves, reference programs are important but hardly top-of-mind to most senior marketing executives. But positioned as an important component of a broader, key-customer engagement effort, they are part of something seen as increasingly critical. This sequence of charts, developed by myself and a group of about a dozen leading reference pros at last February's Forum, makes the point:


2009 Customer Reference Forum Takeaways

Posted by Bill Lee on March 11, 2009 at 12:12 PM

Despite the economy, we had strong representation again at last month’s 2009 Customer Reference Forum. Most of the world’s leading reference programs attended, including Microsoft, Oracle, EMC, Intel, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, SAS Institute, Hitachi Data Systems, Siemens, Sun Microsystems, Genesys, Teradata, Qwest Communications, Research in Motion,, Alcatel-Lucent, Red Hat, National Instruments and dozens of other great firms.

click here for a recap, including information about our President’s Award Winners for top presentations: Craig Frampton, Leslie Vaughan, Kerry O'Shea and Elizabeth Stack SAS Institute;  Laura Ramos, Forrester Research; Cynthia Hester, Hewlett-Packard.

Here is the major takeaway that emerged in presentations and discussion throughout the Forum - from the fireside chat with ex-Motorola CIO Patty Morrison, the keynote by Forrester Research’s Laura Ramos, the discussion in our Peer Exchange session with experienced reference pros, and other discussions:

Reference Programs can, and should,  increase their visibility with senior management. They are well positioned to do so – particularly in this economy. And we define “increased visibility” with senior management to mean that Reference Programs get the budget they need to make the contribution they’re capable of, along with ongoing attention and involvement of senior management.

  • Ex-Motorola CIO Patty Morrison described how reference managers can play a key role in building close relationships with senior decision makers at your customers. Particularly if you offer such customers the full gamut of what might be called “Customer Engagement” opportunities - including referencing, advisory board and community participation with their peers. This allows your customers to engage with their peers in a meaningful way, which they value highly, and it gives them direct contact with senior decision makers at your firm, as well as input into your firm’s strategy, which they also value highly - provided their input translates into action on your part. In addition, it lets them partner with you in promoting not only your business but theirs as well.

  • Forrester’s Laura Ramos described a larger vision of “Community Marketing” that can include customer decision makers. Laura believes that Reference Programs can and should play a key role in such efforts - "their time has come" as she put it. One of the most compelling findings in Forrester's research is - contrary to come conventional wisdom - the growing propensity of decision makers to use social media in business decision making/ adoption activity.   

  • At our Peer Exchange session, experienced reference pros identified a key need: raising their visibility with senior management. As Patty and Laura pointed out, they are well positioned to achieve this.   
  • As several other presenters mentioned throughout the Forum, senior management understands  that references are even more critical in a downturn, as buyers become increasingly cautious and therefore increasingly dependent on “proof points” -- the most credible of which are references.

What are the implications of this for you professionally and for your program? Stay tuned! We’ll look at those in the next post.

New Initiatives in the Reference Community

Posted by Bill Lee on February 11, 2009 at 03:24 PM

I thought I'd give you a heads-up on new initiatives underway for the community, including introduction of a Membership option for Customer Reference Forum, a new Vendor Match Service to help you keep abreast of vendor solutions, an initiative to make the incredible content from the upcoming 2009 Customer Reference Forum available to those who can't attend, a possible 2nd conference this year on the East Coast, and more.

New Initiatives for Customer Reference Forum

Membership Model

We'll be moving Customer Reference Forum to a Membership Model soon. Membership will be entirely optional of course, but we'll structure it so that the Membership fee will more than pay for itself by including valuable reports and surveys, discounts on the yearly conference, access to our vendor service, an expanded jobs service, and more. Plus, it will raise the visibility and the profile of our organization, its members, and our profession as a whole.

Vendor Service

We'll be kicking off a Vendor Service for reference managers in the next couple of months. This is at the request of a couple of our Advisory Board members, who'd like to have one location where they can keep abreast of which vendors provide what solutions and services, as well as info about emerging vendors in this space. Details are being worked out as I write this, but some obvious things we'll want to include would be educational materials to help you understand new solutions coming along; vendor reference information and perhaps other due diligence information, help to save you time in sorting through vendor options, and the like.

2nd Event This Year?

I've had many people, particularly on the East Coast and in Europe, ask if we'll be holding an event on the East Coast. We'll be sending out a survey to gauge interest in that soon.

Access to Content from the 2009 Forum

Also, for folks who can't make it to upcoming 2009 Forum, we're looking for practical ways to get the content to you, perhaps in a series of Webinars from some of our presenters. Of course, nothing replaces being there in person to exchange ideas and nurture your professional relationships with your peers. But the content at this year's Forum is too strong to miss - from Forrester Research's take on the importance of References; to our hands-on Web 2.0 workshop; to insights from high-profile CIO Patty Morrison; to new ways to establish the value of your program; strategies for dealing with the economic downturn, and more. I'm constantly amazed at how dynamic our profession is.

How 3PAR Uses Social Media to Recruit Customers Who Haven't Referenced

Posted by Bill Lee on January 28, 2009 at 04:16 PM

This week I had a chance to interview Craig Nunes, VP of Marketing, 3PAR about how they are engaging previously 'unreferencable' customers - or "the other 90%" - through a remarkable application of Social Media and web-based survey tools. Craig will be a presenter at the  2009 Customer Reference Forum

Craig's presentation at this year's event will describe how he and his Reference Team developed this capability, and how it's significantly improving public awareness of the firm's value propositions, as well as helping to recruit new references from "the other 90%" previously considered unreferencable. Enjoy a preview below:

Q. Craig, tell us a bit about yourself, your firm 3PAR, and the role you play there.

A. I have been with 3PAR since 2000 and am Vice President of Marketing. 3PAR

provides a highly virtualized storage array for virtual (utility) data centers within medium to large enterprises, cloud service providers, Internet and Web 2.0 companies, and government agencies. We were founded in 1999 by the engineers and architects who developed the core of the Sun Server products back in the '90s. 3PAR is headquartered in Fremont, California and has offices across the US, Europe and Asia. The company is also publicly traded on the NYSE Big Board under the ticker symbol 'PAR.' Gartner has positioned us in the enterprise disk array market as leading in vision for 5 straight years and has recognized the company as #2 in the US Hosting market.

Q. Can you also give us a quick overview of the Reference Program at 3PAR.

A. Until recently, our customer reference program was very conventional, aimed at the following:

·    Customer success stories or win announcement published via a press release and pitched to targeted journalists

·    Supporting product launch activities with customer quotes

·    Placing customers in speaking opportunities at large storage events

I would characterize our efforts as blocking and tackling, but not making the most of an awesome customer base and viral enthusiasm.

Q. What led you to implement the Social Media/ Web-based survey platform you're using? What problem were you trying to solve? Also, what do you call the platform?

A. We have been selling our products into the social media space - to firms such as MySpace and Facebook - and have watched with interest as these and other Web 2.0 companies have revolutionized communication. Our customer base is very passionate about our solutions, and about 10% ALREADY are publicly vocal about them. We were looking for a social media strategy that fit our B2B application, specifically finding a way to engage the OTHER 90% who weren't able for a variety of reasons to publicly reference for us. That's when we ran across TechValidate.

Q. Tell us a bit about how the platform you set up at 3PAR, and how it functions. How difficult and costly was it to implement?

A. We turned to TechValidate which is a web-based software service that allows us to engage our customer base in a very natural way, pose questions to them, and derive "certified" value statements that can be used on our website and in our public announcements. Set up was very simple. We developed a couple of simple questionnaires and an email list of targeted 3PAR customers. If you like immediate gratification, you will love applying social media to your customer base -- responses to the survey arrive in real-time with nuggets of pure gold.

Q. Can you describe for us some of the more important results your Reference Program has achieved using the platform?

Once our surveys were closed, after about two weeks, we were able to perform quick and simple analysis with the tools provided by TechValidate's website. This led to a new type of reference. Previously, 3PAR customers like Credit Suisse or Deutsche Bank, large financial services firms, were very strict about what could be publicly referenced. However with this new platform, we are now able to reference what might be called "aggregated testimonials" like these non-market specific statistics called "Tech Facts:"

"50% of 3PAR customers surveyed say they have saved at least $50K of Capital Expenditures (CAPEX) costs over the past 12 months with 3PAR Thin Provisioning."

Or this:

"32% of 3PAR customers say they have reduced physical capacity requirements by at least 10 TBs over the last 12 months with 3PAR Utility Storage"

These could have just as easily been done by market or by application type, depending upon your preferred segmentation.

Once results are distilled into useable conclusions (Tech Facts), they are certified by TechValidate. We have now leveraged these results into content for a couple of press releases and webpages - and we just started in November! And I can tell you that when we issue the releases with third-party certified statistics such as these, the media is much quicker to pick them up and use them in their articles. Our Tech Facts possess an inherent credibility versus the traditional vendor claims in a press release. 

Another important result: we're picking up additional new references from this platform as well. That is, we're converting about 10-20% of that 90% who weren't referencing in the traditional way, and converting them into traditional references. I'll be describing how that works at the Forum

Q. What are your plans for expanding and building upon this platform, going forward. What do you see as it's ultimate potential?

A. We are just scratching the surface in this area and have more learning to do. We are also interested in how we can take information from this tool and publish it within our BoulderLogic customer database so that our sales team can not only view the traditional information we capture about a given customer, but also details about a customer that may surface from a TechValidate survey.

Taking your Reference Program Online

Posted by Bill Lee on January 20, 2009 at 01:45 PM

The 2009 Customer Reference Forum is just a few weeks away and this week I had the chance to chat with Intel's Rhett Livengood and Umang Shah, formerly of Xerox and VMware about a fabulous workshop they're planning.   

The workshop will be a 90 minute "bring-your-laptop-and-get-your-hands-dirty" event showing how to move your reference program online. When you leave, you'll have a Web 2.0 strategy, together with the tools and knowledge you need to implement it as painlessly as possible. 

Q. Rhett and Umang, can you give us a quick overview of your Customer Reference programs and the role you play in them?

RHETT: I manage Intel's Worldwide Customer Reference Program and Enterprise Customer Reference Board (CRB).

UMANG: I have managed worldwide Sales and Customer Reference programs for Xerox, BEA and VMware.

Q. How is the current downturn affecting your reference programs?

A. The day-to-day management of our reference pipeline hasn't changed but we're seeing many organizational changes in our customer base.  Executive sponsorship of our program is strong with pressure to control spending and make the most of our existing reference customers.  There is a greater focus on one-to-many events wherever possible.

Q. The workshop you're planning is called "Get Your Hands Dirty in Web 2.0: Bringing Your Reference Program Online in an Hour and a Half."  If attendees bring their laptops and some reference content, you'll get their reference program online right there during the workshop. And when they leave, they'll have a Web 2.0 strategy, together with the tools and knowledge they'll need to implement it as painlessly as possible. How will you pull this off?

A. With today's Web 2.0 tools and the knowledge on how to use them, anyone can get started on moving their reference program online. This session is designed to be a "kick start" using real references data and content from Customer Reference Forum® attendees. The session will be a "master class" with industry experts telling you the "answers".

Q. Tell us a bit about the strides your own reference programs are making in leveraging social media tools?

Rhett: We moved our entire reference program online in 2008. In 2009, the challenge is to continue to "go where our customers are online" and refine our processes in developing online content.

Umang: Our focus at Xerox was mutli-pronged. We minimized traditional case study development and took advantage of multimedia (podcasts, webinars), blogs, LinkedIn, and even Twitter to push our content out to our customers. Furthermore, we took advantage of 3rd party sites that our customers tended to visit.

Q. Where are you finding that Web 2.0 is making the biggest, measurable impact on your reference programs? Where is it helping your reference programs make the biggest impact on sales and marketing?

A. The communities that we foster and others that develop on their own allow our customers to interact with each other more easily and share feedback with us directly and quickly. Additionally, our reference content is getting so much more exposure than ever before. For example, Rhett has increased exposure for his reference summaries by 100X over his standard reference library.

Q. How is Web 2.0 helping you to cut reference program costs and streamline operations?

A. We are able to cut reference program costs by reducing the number of new, expensive case studies we create. Social media lets us do this by leveraging our existing content, optimizing it for the web, and then syndicate that content to get the most traction out of it.

How SAS' Reference Program Stays Relevant in the Current Economy

Posted by Bill Lee on January 14, 2009 at 11:56 AM

This week I had the chance to chat with SAS Institute's' Director or Marketing, Craig Frampton, who along with several members of his reference team will moderate a panel at this year's Customer Reference Forum on how they are redefining - and expanding - the role of their program in the current economy. 

This will be one of several presentations showing how reference programs are not only cost cutting or streamlining in this economy, but are finding ways to provide important new strategic value. 

Q. Craig, Many reference managers are talking about cost cuts, layoffs, scaling back, "hunkering down,"etc. But you're finding opportunities for your reference program. Let's explore those. Why don't you start by telling us where senior management is seeing new opportunities for SAS' business in this turbulent environment?

A. We believe that in the midst of turmoil stands opportunity. Like many technology firms today, we recognize that our software and services can help companies navigate today's challenges and also create new opportunities - by helping them make the right decisions, helping them leverage better integrated information across the enterprise, and so forth. In fact, we have some compelling value propositions. For example, organizations that are prepared during rough times can seize the moment and perhaps leap ahead of the competition. At the least, a turbulent environment represents a burning platform to get things done in order to survive.

As a result, from a customer reference standpoint, the only way that SAS can definitively understand what our customers need in this environment is to listen to them. As reference professionals, creating a community of conversation for our customers to share not only what they are currently doing with SAS solutions, but what their emergent business challenges are, is a critical component in growing our overall business. My team plays a crucial role in that chain of understanding. In turn, senior management sees customer referencing as an extremely high priority function. Without new references being added to the program and without existing references to help drive ongoing value, we lose an important piece of a very customer-centric puzzle at SAS.

Q. What are some of the more important ways that the SAS Reference Team is providing value in this economy?

A. For one thing, we play a key role - among several stakeholders at SAS - in refining our products and services. The reason we can play such a role is that we're the ones talking to customers about how they actually use - and benefit - from our offerings. As we all know, these often differ from the ways that planners, product development and sales people think customers will use and benefit from our solutions. Getting that information into the feedback loop is therefore critical, and it's why we play a key role in the process.


As a result, we're now able to play an important role in developing solutions that will meet the needs of customers - such as Financial Services firms, for example - in this very tumultuous economy. We'll be developing and refining lots of solutions, rapidly. It's critical to have a robust feedback loop to refine these solutions, and it must obviously include customer input. That's why we'll continue to play a vital role in this environment.

Q. Are there new areas in which your Reference Team is providing value to SAS business goals?

A. Yes. One of the things we're focusing on as a company in this economy is to dive deeper into the needs of our biggest customers. Often these are huge, global firms that, in this environment, may well be growing through acquisition - such as healthy banks acquiring faltering banks.


By taking a deeper dive into these customers' needs, SAS can provide better value. Obviously our Reference Program can help in the process of understanding these needs.


In addition, SAS is working very hard to focus on the solutions providing the most essential value to customers at a critical time. Our Reference Team is playing a key role in sharpening this focus. Once priority solutions are identified, we make sure that we're developing marketing resources - references, case studies videos, industry event speakers and the like - for these solutions. I'd suggest that any Reference Program make very sure that you're not working on reference resources for solutions that were popular five year ago. Your program priorities need to be up-to-the-minute in sync with current business initiatives.


At the 2009 Forum, we'll talk more about the process we're a part of that implements this tight focus on key products and solutions.

Q. Where does your team focus its time and efforts currently?

A. We spend a lot of time focused on cross-functional collaboration.  Across sales, professional services, product marketing, field marketing, media relations, analyst relations, research and development, the list goes on and on, we all have valuable interactions with and intelligence about customers. The trick is to have just enough process, structure, and technology in place to not be overly burdensome but actually create value for the company. As you extend the reach across geographic regions, this quickly becomes a fairly complex organizational scenario. But it's worth it because we're able to complete and benefit from a collective customer picture in a global economy.

Q. How do you see the role of the SAS reference program changing as we move forward?

A. The recent and continued proliferation of information and the ability to participate in networking virtual communities on the web changes the way that referencing will be done into the future. I believe the reference evolution that is underway is moving us closer toward what looks like a "community of open conversation" between customers, prospects, and the general marketplace - obviously within reason.  Essentially, we need to facilitate or create an environment for those interactions. I'm not sure that anyone truly knows what that will look like, but considering the convergence of referencing, influencers in a buying decision, and social networking, it is a fundamental topic at SAS. It will require testing things over time, but the reality is that if we do not create a community that customers see as valuable, they will seek interaction with one another through alternate avenues.

Q. Let's look at a couple of particularly interesting markets for SAS as well as other technology firms, and the role your Reference Program is playing there. Let's start with the  Financial Services market. What opportunities is SAS seeing there?

A. Certainly, consolidation activity, government support, and a shrinking number of overall companies is a reality. However, for those companies that remain, now more than ever there is a need to manage their operations and serve and protect consumers more effectively. SAS is very active in this space, in areas of operational and credit risk, fraud, customer intelligence, data intelligence, and anti-money laundering, among other core areas. Current market conditions will create the need for more and more of the solutions that SAS offers today. In addition, as we listen to our customers in banking and insurance, for example, new business challenges will emerge and we will be able to apply analytics as a solution and value driver.

Q. What specific challenges - and opportunities - is your Reference Team finding in the Financial Services market?

A. Traditionally, the hypercompetitive and regulated Financial Services industry presents a referencing challenge - they tend to be less willing to speak publicly. We've had great success at getting customers to speak in a more controlled and structured environment. It is amazing, but one to one sales opportunities or confidential analyst community interactions have been well-received and, often, direct competitors will talk to one another. In certain instances, even before the current changes to the industry, some customers truly see the value of gaining visibility in the marketplace and are intrigued at the thought of being positioned as a thought leader.

As the market changes and the crisis continues, we're finding some interesting opportunities. First, companies that are having success, in the face of so much failure, are increasingly willing to talk about positive things. It creates a mechanism to cut through the noise of the crisis and showcase how they are differentiating from the companies that are struggling. Second, we're seeing a real spike in interest in the mid-market and regional sector. Some of the mid-size players have not seen the same level of consequence from the meltdown, and are really working to raise their profile in a shrinking space. Our Financial Services Reference Managers are working to navigate the daily changes and create opportunities for customers to express their successes and also share their challenges. This is about as volatile a market as anyone could have ever imagined, and we are working to help our customers stabilize and identify truly valuable silver linings to an ever-changing cloud of activity. At the Customer Reference Forum, we will spend some time during our panel discussion talking about the current state of affairs and how the industry is both an ongoing challenge and growing opportunity.

Q. Elizabeth Stack has described in her interview how she's managed to build a particularly robust Federal Government reference program - another key market in this economy. Are you seeing additional opportunities to expand the value of this particular reference program?

A. Elizabeth has done a fantastic job working in building Federal and also State & Local Government references. We've built an extremely tight partnership with our Government group and have a great approach to engaging Government customers.  As Elizabeth described in her recent interview and will describe in more detail at the Forum, we have established a win-win situation for Government customers; building lasting relationships, and working within the construct of the way Government agencies do business.

Assessing the current state, it appears that a solid approach to Government referencing will pay great dividends. Prevailing thinking, given challenges in so many industries, is that Government will need the ability to dive into industries, diagnose and fix problems based on analysis, and get things back on track. Looking at Financial Services or the Auto industry, for example, the Government is taking a great deal more control of the marketplace. In turn, the Government will logically grow. With an established pool of Government references and a track record of large-scale success, SAS is excited to support the efforts of agencies and find ways to highlight successes in appropriate and relevant ways. 

Positioning Your Reference Program for 2009

Posted by Bill Lee on January 13, 2009 at 09:00 AM

We all know that cutting costs and streamlining reference programs are important in our current environment. But they aren't ALL you should focus. In all likelihood, your senior management is looking beyond cost cutting and streamlining.  Technology CEOs in particular are hot on the trail of exciting new opportunities in this tumultuous, historic economy.  

Key Question for 2009: Is your reference program positioned to be a player - to provide robust support - for your senior management's 2009 strategic initiatives? 

Here's a suggested test:

1. Are you aligned with your firm's efforts to GROW revenue in this economy?

Yes, I said "grow revenue." In this economy. Trust me, senior management at every technology firm in the world is looking for markets with growth potential.  There is huge opportunity out there - in markets such as the Federal Government, Financial Services (the entire industry is undergoing radical restructuring), Health Care, and others. There are huge opportunities in markets with entrenched market leaders. There are huge opportunities in helping companies - in any industry - cut costs and streamline operations.

At Hewlett-Packard for example, Mark Hurd is planning to challenge Cisco's core business. He's also planning to place strong emphasis on services that help customers streamline their technology infrastructures and business processes. Those are just two.

Are you aware of and is your reference program aligned with all of your firm's goals for growing revenues in 2009? 

2. Has your CRP team thought through what it can do - what it must do - to support revenue growth initiatives?

New value propositions from your firm will require new case studies and success stories. New customers and new markets will require fresh new pipelines of customer references. And in a recessions, buyers will demand more references - more proof points - not less. Do you have the budget and staff to support these efforts?

3. Has your CRP team thought through what new value it can provide in this environment?

SAS Institute's reference team, for example, is increasingly playing a key role, not in just creating and managing references, but also in helping product developers refine the new value propositions SAS is developing in this economy. Reference programs are ideally situated to provide significant help with this.  (The SAS US Reference team will be showing how, at the 2009 Forum). Is your CRP looking for such new areas to provide value?

Or take Intel and Xerox, who are finding creative ways to integrate references into their social media efforts, dramatically improving the measurable visibility of their reference material, while cutting costs of content production - a two-fer. (They'll be leading our social media workshop at the 2009 Forum).

4. Do you have clear criteria for being adequately staffed and funded to help your firm pursue these new opportunities - criteria that will get rapid buy-in from senior management?

Let me suggest one: you are properly funded if no salesperson in the field will have to spend one single hour hunting down a reference. As Infor's Abby Atkinson will show at the 2009 Customer Reference Forum, every dollar your CRP saves by not being able to fulfill reference requests will cost your firm $2 in sales salaries and benefits, plus $5 in lost revenue. All these numbers are conservative, and easily calculated using numbers probably already known to HR and Sales. In fact, she and Mainstay's Amir Hartman, who run our Metrics Special Interest Group, will provide an ROI Calculator to help you assess the impact on your own firm of underfunding your own program.

Keeping your Reference Program Relevant in the Recession

Posted by Bill Lee on January 6, 2009 at 10:44 AM

I thought I'd summarize in one place the resources we'll provide at this year's Customer Reference Forum to help your program thrive in the recession. Indeed, many reference pros are finding ways to provide important new, strategic value in this economy.


Peer Exchange Workshop

"How to Manage Through the Meltdown" will be the lead topic in our Peer Exchange Workshop. We'll have a room full of experienced professionals from many of the leading reference programs in the world sharing ideas, processes, best practices on how they are keeping their reference programs vital and relevant during the downturn. Whatever question you have about dealing with the downturn, we'll have the best available answers.

Chat with Patty Morrison, former CIO of Motorola, GE Industrial Systems and other leading firms

In addition to her presentation to the full group, you'll be able to sign up for individual chats with Patty. She'll provide a senior executive's view of how to persuade CIO's to reference in this economy, as well as how to persuade them to buy. Sign ups for these 1-1 sessions will be limited.

Panel: "How to Keep Your Program Relevant in a Downturn"

Craig Frampton, Director, Marketing, Customer Knowledge Center, SAS Institute, and his reference team will share their experiences in three areas particularly relevant to this economy: the federal government (the one market sure to grow - and yes you can get government agencies to reference); financial services (learn how Craig's team has expanded its traditional role to help SAS uncover new business opportunities in this tumultuous industry); and pharmaceuticals (learn how to persuade these notoriously secretive firms to reference).

Social Media Workshop for Reference Professionals

Rhett Livengood  Director, Worldwide Sales Development, Enterprise Solution Sales,Intel will lead a 90 minute interactive workshop, along with  reference managers from other programs who are also on the leading edge of social media integration. When you leave, you'll be up to speed on how to establish and build your reference social media program. What does this have to do with the recession? As Rhett and the workshop team will show, social media creates dramatic cost savings as well as marketing leverage for your reference program.

New Reference Program ROI Calculator

Presented by the Customer Reference Forum Metrics SIG, and based on the work of Infor's Abby Atkinson in turning a requested program budget decrease into a 64% increase for FY2009. In addition, the Metrics SIG will provide results for our first compensative survey of reference program metrics.


Breakout Session: "The Inside Track: Evaluating Reference Management System Vendors"

Technology purchases are famously tricky. Buyers who rush the process, or skimp on the details can suffer great pain afterwards in fixing a messy situation. Reference systems are no different. In a remarkably frank peek behind the curtain, David Sroka and Darren Smith from Point of Reference will present a systematic guide showing how buyers can dramatically improve the cost-benefit ratio of their reference software purchases, their odds of getting the system right the first time out, and their overall satisfaction with the result. This is essential knowledge for buyers, particularly in a time of tight budgets. 

How Genesys is Taming the Reference Data Beast

Posted by Bill Lee on December 17, 2008 at 02:56 PM
When Becky Roberts took over Genesys' global reference program, she found a collection of programs covering a wide and daunting variety of product lines with information scattered all over. Genesys had over 4,000 customers but no reference database or even an accurate record of which customers were references. Further complicating the challenge, Becky had to address the challenge of the lack of organization without a great deal of support from the internal tech team, which was focused on different priorities. 

See my interview with Becky, below. She'll present at the 2009 Customer Reference Forum, showing how she gained control of the Genesys reference database making information easily accessible to critical stakeholders such as sales and marketing. She'll also show how she integrated the reference database as part of her larger mandate to unify Genesys' entire global reference program.

For more information about the 2009 Forum, including other presenters.

To register for the Forum.


An interview with  Becky Roberts, Sr. Customer Reference Program Manager, Genesys, an Alcatel-Lucent Company

Q. When you took over the Genesys reference program, you found that the reference database was pretty chaotic. Can you  describe what you found?

A. Actually, when I took over the program, we had no reference database. There had been an attempt in the past to integrate reference information in our CRM tool, but the information there was dated and not searchable. For the most part, each region had their own process with no insight into what was going on in the other regions. We also had an ad hoc spam email system for Sales to request references from one another.

Q. In addressing the data issue, you didn't have much support from your internal tech team, due to their focus on other priorities, correct? How did you  deal  with this?

A. I don't think that we are unusual. Our internal tech team was overburdened with other priorities. Our tech folks decided that the vendor we selected for a reference database could provide project resources. We were fortunate to select a vendor who provided technical resources and strong project management. A good partnership with the database vendor is a necessity when going through this type of project.

Even with a great partnership with our vendor, there were still times when I really needed internal IT support or direction. Fortunately, I have implemented several web portals for Genesys and have good relationships with our IT folks. So, I guess I would say that my approach was to work the relationships to find the information that I needed and to get some basic direction. I don't like to escalate to management unless the path forward is absolutely blocked. I've found that building positive relationships with individuals usually opens doors and that often individuals will go out of their way to be of help, even when they are officially not working on a project. It was also important to keep my boss informed of what was going on and to have management support for those times when there was a need to escalate.

Q. Can you tell us how your reference database is now organized and configured?

A. Our database is hosted by our vendor and accessible through two different interfaces, depending on the user. Our Sales staff in most regions uses, so we are providing an integration through SFDC for Sales. Our decision early on was that we wanted SFDC information to be current with customer information in the reference database, so SFDC is actually the primary point of entry for information to flow into the reference database. We also make the reference database available to non-SFDC users from a link in our intranet. The look of the database when accessed from the intranet link is slightly different from the SFDC interface, but regardless of how it's accessed, the reference database has the same data and functionality.

The information in the database combines SFDC account data, Siebel licensing information and SAP purchasing information. It's pretty universally acknowledged at Genesys that our data isn't as clean as we would like, and this data issue was considered the biggest risk for the reference database project. In fact, at the same time that the reference database was under development, there were several data cleanup projects also underway. Coordination and communication were definitely critical to stay on top of this data cleansing.

Q. As a reference stakeholder, such as sales, what are the biggest differences I'd notice in the reference database?

A. The biggest differences that stakeholders experience with the roll out of the reference database is that now there is a global view of reference customers. It's relatively easy to find lists of customers who have certain products. Also, because Sales was so involved in the development of the reference database they are able to see the ideas they contributed that have been implemented, which helps with overall buy in and usage. A good example is that we have implemented a self-service recording application where account owners call in and tell us about their reference customers. This idea came from Sales and has proven to be very popular. Within the first two weeks that this application was launched, we had about 75 recordings. This is giving us some great information about our customers.

Q. Your work in "taming the data beast" is being done in the larger context of unifying what was a pretty disparate program there at Genesys, and transforming it into a unified global program. Apart from the database issue, what other challenges did you find when you came onboard, and what goals did you set to meet them?

A. As a company, Genesys operates with three different regions: EMEA, APAC and the Americas. When I came on board, the challenge was to get these three regions to operate cohesively by setting the same standards for references while still meeting regional needs. We also had a  challenge of redefining the reference program value proposition moving from a points-based rewards system to value-based rewards such as individual recognition and increased exposure to Genesys executives. Goals to meet these objectives included individual performance goals and also goals for the Marketing organization, for example goals for recruiting new reference customers and creating new customer collateral. Regularly reporting on these team goals and tracking results enabled success that far exceeded the numbers that were set.

Q. What support did you have from senior management, and how critical was it?

A. Senior management support was essential for the success of the reference database and for the revitalization of the reference program. References was in the top three of strategic initiatives for the company for 2008 and was actively supported by the CEO.

Q. How did you enlist buy-in and ownership of Sales?

A. The Senior Vice President of Sales made a Sales Vice President in each region responsible to work directly with me to build the database and develop program guidelines. Every Sales meeting for the past year has included an update on the database project and reference progress. This consistent commitment from the C-level communicated downward along with regional reference managers from our reference core team pushing information upward to the Sales teams they work with has been quite effective.

Q. With an engineering background, you come at references from an interesting perspective. If you would, tell us a bit about your background.

A. When I was asked to take ownership of the global reference program, I really had no previous exposure to references or to the Sales process. While I've worked for enterprise software companies for over 20 years, most of that time has been on the product development side, most recently managing technical writing teams. My undergraduate degree was in public relations, so I also have a good mix of writing in my background.

A few years ago as the internet was gaining momentum and the global economy was becoming a reality, I went back to school and got an engineering degree in technical communications management with an emphasis in international communications. While working on the engineering degree, I also worked full-time managing multimedia development and the corporate website for a Fortune 500 company. I have a passionate interest is technology and in bringing order to chaos. I think those two traits provide a good background for managing a reference program. It really helps that I know Genesys software pretty well, even though it's been a learning process to get to know about our customers. And, the writing background really helps in project management and process development.

Should Reference Programs Ask for More Budget?

Posted by Bill Lee on December 17, 2008 at 01:54 PM

The recently appointed manager of the customer reference program for a major global technology firm gives a thoughtful response to my recent comments. Please see below – I love informed debate!

She responds to my argument that reference managers shouldn’t accept travel restrictions, budget cuts and possible layoffs passively, because their programs can play a strategic role in helping their firms both deal with the downturn and position themselves for recovery.  In particular, they should consider asking for budget increases (as Infor’s Abby Atkinson has done, successfully).

They can also make a strong case for budget exemptions to attend the February Customer Reference Forum as a way, among other things, to gain rapid exposure from multiple reference programs to best practices in this dynamic field. Much of the program we’re putting together is geared precisely to showing how reference programs are making themselves strategically important to their firms during the downturn – which is why firms like Microsoft, Intel, SAS, Research in Motion and others are sending
multiple members of their reference teams.

Here’s her case for not doing so. (She wishes to remain anonymous).

In [our firm] we are currently ‘battening down the hatches’ in preparation for what might be ahead through the course of the next year. As a result budgets have been scrutinized both at a program and OPEX level. . . . Our travel budgets have been cut dramatically; therefore, I cannot support attendance at the forum. This isn’t about ‘passively’ accepting these cuts, or being afraid to ‘rock the boat’ – this is about a wider appreciation of the strategic decisions that the leaders of our company are making in order for the company to keep performing at the levels our shareholders and the Street demand of us.
Let me put this in context for you: I . . .  have been managing the team now for approx. 6 weeks. If I had travel budget I would be using it to visit my team and see them face-to-face.
This isn’t about not appreciating our reference program either, far from it; our reference program in **** has got more visibility now than it’s ever had before.

Bill – I hope you understand our position on this. I wish you all the best for your forum and hope that I will be able to attend one in the future.

I wrote back that of course I understood and respect her decision, and in fact will be responding to it. In future posts, I’ll flesh out my (and others’) arguments a bit more for why reference programs often can and should play an important role in furthering “the wider . . . . strategic decisions that the leaders of [your] firm are making”  in this economy. 

How Infor Protects its Reference Budget in a Downturn

Posted by Bill Lee on December 3, 2008 at 12:53 PM

Following is the most powerful justification I’ve seen for protecting a reference program’s budget and headcount during a downturn. Infor’s Abby Atkinson – who’ll be presenting at the 2009 Customer Reference Forum - used it to reverse a request that she cut discretionary spending by 10%, and instead received a 64% increase in funding for her program.

She did this by answering two critical questions, using both internal research,  and external research from other reference programs:

1. What is the impact and cost of having a sales rep hunt for his or her own reference?  That is, what would it cost to have no reference program, or an underfunded one?

2. What does it cost to have her reference program fulfill such a reference request?

Abby showed how much time each reference request fulfilled by her reference program saved a sales rep – time better spent out selling (especially precious in a downturn) rather than digging for references. Multiplying that by the number of Infor reps worldwide, Abby showed that freeing up that amount of time would result in $3 million in extra sales using conservative and well accepted  assumptions.

As a result, the request that she cut discretionary spending in her program by 10% was withdrawn, and instead she won a 64% increase in funding for her program.

Abby will present at the 2009 Customer Reference Forum (February 18-19). See my interview with her, below.


Abby's been working in marketing for high tech companies throughout her career, and has helped evaluate and initially develop reference programs with previous employers. 

Infor makes business software better by acquiring and improving proven, functionally-rich software backed by domain experts. Infor improves it via continuous innovation, faster implementation options, global enablement, and flexible buying options. In a few short years, Infor has become one of the top 3 leading providers of ERP business software. Infor's revenue is $2.2B and it has over 70,000 customers and 125 direct offices.


Q. In the face of proposed budget cuts to your reference program, you developed an analysis showing cost of a dedicated reference team vs. having sales people hunt for their own references. Can you flesh that out for us?


A. While we were developing our fiscal plans and budgets, we felt we needed a thorough analysis of our program costs in order to build a justification case for this year's budget. We compared the program costs (and efficiencies) against having no program / database, in order to give a good picture of the overall value of our program and staff. We concluded that by  having a program in place, we saved the company over $600,000 in total for the year. The impact of those figures certainly influenced our budget approval.


Q. You were also able to analyze how frequently sales people were able to match reference requests before the Infor reference program got started vs. how often the program is able to provide reference matches now.


A. What we actually analyzed was the impact and cost of having sales reps hunt for their own references. Based on the number of reps in our company and an average time for a typical search, we determined that sales reps would spend over 13,000 hours (globally) trying to fulfill their own reference requests. That's a significant amount of time the reps would spend NOT focused on selling. In fact, that represents the number of hours that six newly hired sales reps would spend annually to bring in an additional (and very conservative) $3M. In other words, if sales were to fulfill their own reference requests, the firm would lose $3M in sales per year, in addition to the actual cost of processing each request.


Another issue is that sales reps would end up with a high degree of frustration trying to manage this aspect of the sales cycle. In addition, there would be no monitoring or managing the utilization of our customers, and the customer burnout rate would be extremely high. 


In contrast, by having a formal reference program and dedicated team to handle fulfillment, it actually saves the company money, while also protecting the customers and offering a consistent approach to messaging and building relationships with these valuable accounts. By having a reference management system in which all references and activities are tracked, we're able to fulfill over 75% of all reference requests within a short timeframe. In very simplistic terms, we found that the discretionary budget for our formal program was less than a quarter of the cost (we took half the time it took a sales rep to find a reference -- at half the cost).


Q. Can you give us an idea of how much the proposed budget cut was, and how much it was increased, after you provided these analyses?


A. Initially, we were asked to cut discretionary spending by 10% compared to the previous year. Because we could demonstrate the massive savings the program will deliver to Infor (and by providing detailed metrics), it made sense to increase funding for the program. As a result, we were able to secure approval for a 64% increase in funding for the new fiscal year.


Q. Tell us a bit about your monthly reference program reports. They tend to be quite diagnostic, allowing you to pinpoint and correct problems with the global program. Can you give us some examples of problems you've identified? What actions are you taking to correct them?


A. It was very important for us to model our measurements against our company's business plan. We compared the percentage of total revenue goals per region against the number of requests per region and determined that one region was significantly under utilizing the program. We also were able to show that because that same region had fewer qualified, approved references in their area, the time to close each of their requests was considerably longer than other regions. This provided us with the insight and ammunition needed to address the issues with that region.


Our monthly reports also help us perform gap analysis and identify those key areas where we have a high volume of requests with an insufficient number of qualified references. Since this flags a potentially serious problem of customer burnout, we launched 1-to-many forums (which we call Customer in Action Forums) for these key products to alleviate the burden on the customers, while at the same time providing sales reps with a tool to proactively use references in the sales cycle.


Q. You've also used your monthly reporting to get an increase in headcount for your program approved. Can you flesh that out for us?


A. Using historical data, we showed a projected increase in the number of reference requests we expected to handle month-over-month in the coming year. Using queuing theory to predict reference manager utilization capacity, we provided quantifiable evidence that additional staff would be needed at specific intervals during the year.


Also, as a manager, I use the monthly metrics to monitor my employees' performance levels. The detailed measurements allow me to set very specific goals and objectives for each reference manager and check their progress throughout the year.

How Sun Built Its Global Reference Program

Posted by Bill Lee on November 19, 2008 at 12:09 PM

A few years ago, Sun Microsystems' Reference Program consisted of several disparate efforts run by their various Business Units. Each was structured and resourced differently, resulting in negative customer experience, internal confusion and financial inefficiencies. 

Christine spoke with me recently about how she made the business case to Sun's CMO to centralize its reference programs, why he agreed, lessons learned in building the Global Reference Program swiftly,  and more. 

Christine will be a presenter at the 2009 Customer Reference Forum, February 18-19 in Berkeley, CA. Below is a preview of her presentation.

Q. Christine, tell us a bit about yourself and about Sun's reference program. It's pretty new, yet also quite ambitious. Can you tell us when and how it was started and the role you played?

A. I have held a variety of Marketing & Communications roles for the past 17 years, beginning at Ketchum Public Relations in San Francisco, with stints with Ask Jeeves (now, Oracle Corporation and Sun Microsystems Inc. Customer references have been central to my career, beginning with business-to-business food and packaged goods and ranging to the latest in technology products and services.

Sun's Global Customer Reference Program came together in July 2006, built from several disparate reference efforts in Sun's Business Units. Each Business Unit effort was structured and resourced differently, resulting in negative customer experience, internal confusion and financial inefficiencies. After a discovery process, I presented a business case to centralize efforts to our Chief Marketing Officer and his staff. I emphasized efficiency in reference delivery, customer experience improvement and a significant annual savings.

My proposal was accepted and the Global Customer Reference Program was born.

Q. So how has it gone for you since then?

A. We've had a few milestones since our inception, in 2005:

- Launched Sun's first-ever research focused on determining IT decision-makers' reference preferences (via Phelon Group). Research drove creation of Sun's Customer Content Model.

- Led vendor review to consolidate from multiple vendors to one for customer content, leading to consistent quality, format, branding and financial efficiency

in 2006:

- Launched, central, on-line, dynamic repository for Sun's Global Customer Content

- Created success story template for use on /customers

- Managed Six Sigma project to replace static, outdated Reference Database

- Built virtual team to support globalization of reference program

- 2007

- Introduced new Reference System (Siebel based)

- Managed vendor review, emphasis on global abilities

- 2008 (to date & planned)

- New globalized success story template

Q.  What goals were established for the reference program?

A. In the early days of the program, I relied on a cumulative benchmark built upon inputs from the existing reference efforts. In order to meet all the global needs against Sun's priorities, we set an annual reference recruitment goal, with cascading goals by Business Unit, Industry, Size of Company, Brand Recognition and Regional Representation. Similarly, we reviewed the demand for new content and created a matrix summarizing goals for content against several measures.

Q. Where is the Sun reference program situated organizationally. How has that helped you win a "seat at the table" with your global strategy team?

A. The Customer Reference Program is part of Global Communications, reporting up through the Sr. Vice President of Branding & Communications, ultimately to the Chief Marketing Officer. Global Communications also includes Editorial, Analyst Relations, Product & Corporate Communications and Executive Communications. The Reference Program provides content and spokespeople to all of these arms of Global Communications. Because of the high-visibility of Global Communications, Customer References is seen as a mission-critical function by management and the field. We support this by investing in aggressive communications around our deliverables and the outcomes supported by our work.

Q. In building Sun's reference program rapidly, you've incorporated best practices and lessons learned from other firms such as Oracle and EMC. How did you learn these best practices? How much did they help in terms of saving Sun time and money to develop its global reference program? If you didn't have access to these, where would your program be now do you think?

A. As customer programs have grown in a variety of industries, I have kept my eye open for interesting uses of references and built a network of other reference professionals; I also participate in several organic forum-networking groups around references. This has helped me learn what other companies are doing, both good and bad. Every company culture is different and not everything can or should apply, so it's very much like shopping the aisles for ideas.

If I were not exposed to these other ideas and lessons, our program would likely not be as global or as resourced as it is at this point.

Q. Let's look at some specific challenges in building Sun's program. How, for example, are you developing a standard content process globally for Sun success stories?

A.  Sun's engineer-centric culture fosters an engineering approach to everything, including program building. Six Sigma is a highly valued approach, and while it doesn't apply to everything in the Reference Program, it has been critical in making our larger projects successful. The globalization of content is not a pure Six Sigma project, but we applied crucial Sigma concepts, such as Voice of the Customer, to gather requirements from the main stakeholders. This has smoothed and sped up the entire globalization process, with unanimous support by those who will be intimately involved in launching and maintaining the effort.

Q. Can you tell us about your reference database. What system to you use. What information do you keep on it?

A. Like many other programs, we have deployed the References functionality within Siebel CRM. We enter and maintain standard information about our references, their status as references and any associated content in the system. Siebel CRM is used globally by Sun Sales, so it was a natural path for us to pursue.

Q. Tell us a bit about how you integrate with and reach out to sales? What tools or templates have you used to help with that process?

 A. Sun has several push and pull information sources for Sales, the Customer Reference Program leverages these to the hilt. They include a Sales intranet, which houses a Reference Program website, as well as weekly sales bulletins via email that include updates on our latest content and upcoming reference activities. We also campaign actively to participate in sales kick offs and training sessions, which is an investment of time and effort but well worth it, especially in terms of "return business" and viral marketing of our program. Sales teams pass the word to their colleagues and contact us when they have customers ready to be references.

Q. What lessons have you learned in terms of winning executive level buy-in to globalize your program?

A. In no order of importance...

Quantify Value, Deliver Meaningful Metrics: Include execs or their designees in the planning and goal development process. Report against agreed goals monthly or quarterly, may require tailored reporting at times.

Communicate Succinctly & Actively:  Know that your executives are time constrained and need information in the most succinct possible presentation.

Provide Insight: Customer references and content are not merely deliverables to list on a slide or tick off a goal sheet - they can provide trending information and valuable insight into customer preferences and needs.

What Forrester's Merv Adrian Has Learned About Customer Reference Programs

Posted by Bill Lee on November 18, 2008 at 11:12 AM

Merv will be co-keynoting at the upcoming 2009 Customer Reference Forum  on February 18, along with Laura Ramos, Vice President, Principal Analyst at Forrester. He tells us what he learned from attending our last Forum earlier this year, why he thinks Reference Programs are growing in importance, and why Forrester is planning to start covering them as well as partner with Customer Reference Forum on this year’s program survey. Take it away Merv.

A sizable and increasing number of businesses in the technology industry are finding that their existing customer base remains one of their best sources for continuing growth. It’s well understood that it’s less costly to retain customers than it is to find new ones.  But many firms have also discovered that effective management of their Customer Reference (CR) management function – in some cases, simply the creation of a formal organization to manage these important assets – is on the critical path to both sustained business from the base and growth in new accounts. Sales uses references to nail deals down, Marketing develops reference stories for campaigns and events, and Analyst Relations uses them to support information requests from influencers.

That conclusion is no mystery to the firms that participated in the Customer Reference Forum event in February 2008 at California’s Claremont resort. And the list of attendees read like a who’s-who of the industry’s leaders. They have created, staffed, and begun to measure teams that manage their sourcing, development and distribution of customer references in a way that has begin to reap substantial benefits. They have improved their sourcing development of referenceable accounts, made better use of them for selling and marketing, reduced redundant and often conflicting programs, and grown a cadre of professionals who are learning to measure and mange the delivery of substantial value from their programs.

Forrester found the customer reference professionals at the event to be a highly motivated, increasingly well funded, and thoughtful group who were often seeking more visibility, support and resources despite their early successes. We were struck by the growth of an industry of products and services to support the CR professional: creative services, hosting, management tools and full consultative outsourcing were all in evidence.

The Customer Reference Forum event is a valuable gathering place for those involved in CR programs who seek to learn about best practices and share with their peers. It has also served as a focal point for an ongoing survey designed to document common practice in the industry, and the sponsors of the survey have several years of data tracking the emergence and growth of CR management as a discipline. They have learned that successful teams usually result from a Sales-Marketing partnership, with agreements forged to use references wisely, manage conflicts about ownership and overuse, and assure a steady stream of fresh stories to support corporate goals.

Forrester is excited to be partnering with the Forum team on this year’s survey, developing some new avenues of investigation, and sustaining the existing data elements, which document team size, reporting relationships, management styles, and more. We’ll be joining in the 2009 conference, delivering a keynote address that will include data from the survey as well as other ongoing Forrester research. Since our discussions of this important corporate function with our clients began following the 2008 event, we’ve had a steady stream of inquiries and discussions with them that will provide us with additional ideas to share. And our ongoing research onto the effective uses of social computing supplements and extends this work. We look forward to networking with the pioneers and the new arrivals alike – we hope to see you there!

10 Tips For Getting Budget $ In Tough Times

Posted by Bill Lee on November 12, 2008 at 08:49 AM

"We have a travel freeze in place and may not be able to attend the 2009 Customer Reference Forum.

"Our reference program budget may be cut."

"We're in danger of losing headcount."

Do any of these apply to you? In fact, your reference program and your continuing acquisition of best practices will - or should - merit an exception to these policies. I'm providing several compelling points you can make to demonstrate this to your decision maker.


(most of which can be used as is, or can be easily modified, to get other essential budget $ for your reference program)

1) In an economically challenging time, on-point references that are rapidly delivered to the field and to PR are even more critical. Cautious buyers need proof points now more than ever.

2) Doesn't our reference program need best practices from multiple outside sources more than ever, to help ensure maximum program-productivity in a tough sales climate?

3) Our competitors who do attend the 2009 Forum, will be able to "steal a march" on our reference program, while we fall behind on best practices if we don't participate.

4) Which part of our reference program are we willing to fall behind in: Acquiring new references? Integrating references more effectively in the sales process? Getting our references to reveal the ROI they achieve with our solutions? Integrating references into our Web 2.0 and customer

community programs?

5) Participating in the 2009 Forum fits within the exceptions of the travel freeze - which excepts travel related to acquiring new customers, and keeping them  happy. Having a robust, state-of-the-art reference program Is critical to bringing in new customers, as well as helping keep our most

prized customers happy.

6) There will likely be a lot of our customers represented in the room at the 2009 Forum - including ones that have been hard for us to get "on the record." This creates an opportunity for us to engage their reference teams, and gain their support in this important effort.

7) (Enlist your AR team for this point). Forrester Research is fielding a major survey on reference programs, and will present findings and analysis at the 2009 Forum. This will gain the attention of analysts around the world - and will provide critical information  on how to position  references to

impress analysts and get their approval. We need to be there to learn this.

8) There will likely be several of our technology partners in the room. Consider the joint-reference marketing possibilities with these partners when our people get together with theirs, live, over a two day period.

9) Will our reference team be performing at their highest potential - which we need now more than ever - if we're not making even a small investment to ensure that happens?

10) This isn't a travel or conference expense. It's a customer-acqusition and relationship-building investment.

Bonus Tip) Compare the value of 2 days exposure to 1) representatives from our best customers, 2) representatives from our partners, and 3) processes and best practices from the top reference programs in the world vs. just $2500 (approximate cost of hotel, transportation, conference fee).

SAS' Elizabeth Stack on the Art of Building a Robust Government Reference Program

Posted by Bill Lee on November 4, 2008 at 12:35 PM

An urban legend says that government customers don't give references. But don't tell that to SAS Institute, which has built a thriving government reference community that includes 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.

I recently spoke with Elizabeth Stack the SAS Institute US Government Customer Relations Manager about lessons she's learned in building the SAS Government Reference Program.

Elizabeth will be a presenter at the 2009 Customer Reference Forum, Feb. 18-19 in Berkeley, CA. Below is a preview of her presentation.

Q. There's a prevalent belief that you can't get governments - particularly the federal government - to act as references. Tell us a bit about your government references at SAS, and how you built this program up over the last 3 years.

A. SAS' US Government reference program is inclusive of all government accounts, including federal civilian, defense, state and local. At any given time, we have approximately 50 customers that are actively referencing and another 50 in the pipeline to keep our eye on and nurture into activity.

I inherited our program, which has been in existence about seven years, from our US Government marketing team. Although reference development and fulfillment was only a portion of their focus, many of my best practices came from them.

Possibly the most important lesson they taught me is endorsement-free referencing. In every conversation I have with a customer, I make sure to articulate SAS' desire for them to simply share their story, including the good, the bad and the ugly. We consider referencing an opportunity for collaboration in order to make government more effective. The only way to accomplish this goal is for agencies to talk with and learn from one another. Our program is one avenue to help them accomplish that goal.

Another key lesson is starting small. We try not to overwhelm customers with the multitude of reference options that are available to them. Instead, we introduce them slowly to our program and grow over time, offering more diverse and public opportunities as their comfort level grows.

We also make sure they understand their right to decline any opportunity we might present to them. My job is to evaluate the opportunities and find the right fit from within our customer pool. I tell them up front that I would rather have them tell me no 100 times than to find out later they missed out on an exciting opportunity - a philosophy that they generally appreciate. They are grateful to know that joining our reference program does not automatically obligate them to opportunities that they may not be comfortable with or that they may not have time to accommodate.

In summary, it's all about playing it safe and creating a comfort level with the customer that they are in control.

Q. Let's compare government references to business references. What's harder about getting governments to reference? What's easier?

A. Because of laws prohibiting both federal and state government agencies from vendor endorsements, it can be difficult to overcome legal objections. Increasingly, government agencies are becoming even more sensitive to these restrictions and cognitive of not stepping over the line, which can make referencing very difficult.

However, when you can get past this initial concern, government references are often more willing to share information about their work than commercial industries. Government entities are almost all seeking similar objectives and have the same types of obstacles to overcome. They often welcome the opportunity to speak with their colleagues from other government agencies and treat it as a mechanism to learn and continuously improve their own agency's programs and efforts.

Q. What motivates a government executive? How does this help you win him or her over as a reference?

A. Government employees at all levels seek to serve the greater good and most are passionate about that. Part of accomplishing that mission involves collaborating with both government and commercial colleagues to learn from one another and share best practices. Individuals who feel their program is truly making a difference in how government works and/or serves its constituents are generally willing to share information about that program in a reference call. They want to see their good work benefit as many people and programs as possible. By participating in a reference call, they not only have the chance to help others who are seeking similar goals, but they also typically learn something during the conversation as well.

Most importantly, we seek to understand what motivates our customers and help identify other opportunities that fulfill the customer's needs. For example, many organizations wish to gain publicity for their program in order to educate constituents or gain additional funding. Publicity can also help government organizations be viewed as a leader. We work with our internal support staff to develop marketing plans that enable our customers to take advantage of SAS' resources, which are often more abundant than their own. Examples might include customer success stories (both print and video), speaking engagements and press opportunities that customers can utilize to highlight and differentiate their capabilities.

Beyond the organization's goals, many of our individual customer references have personal goals, such as a promotion or leveraging their government experience in the commercial world. By helping to position them as a thought leader through speaking engagements and press opportunities, we help foster their credibility in the marketplace.

Q. What do you mean by "community of conversation"? This includes live events, right?

A. Because of concerns regarding vendor endorsements, referencing can be very scary for many government customers, especially with increasing regulations and oversight. But when you take referencing out of the equation and pitch the program as a 'community of conversation' that enables them to share best practices with their government colleagues seeking similar goals, suddenly the prospect of joining our program seems much less intimidating.

And that conversation can happen at all levels and in multiple venues - from phone calls and visits to public speaking engagements. 

Q. What sort of media and technical facilities do you have supporting your government reference program?

A. At SAS, we are very fortunate to have an extensive and full-service marketing, creative and video department in house. Not only do we have the internal resources to produce customer success story videos and print stories, we also have a state-of-the-art studio where we can broadcast live webcasts featuring our customers and other thought leaders.

We have a talented press team that helps us to place our customers in print media. In addition, we have a talented marketing staff and writing team who craft our marketing materials that customers can take advantage of for their own purposes. 

Q. Tell us a bit about the legal and policy challenges you face in working with government references. How do you deal with them?

A. The legal concern over vendor endorsement is a common objection we hear when exploring reference opportunities with our customers. When our customers raise that objection, our policy is to continue reiterating our commitment to factual information sharing about the business benefit realized and not endorsement. I try to get in front of everyone involved in the decision - sometimes successfully and sometimes not. In most cases, when the dissenters at our customer take the time to review collateral that we have produced - most of which does not even mention SAS - they appreciate our undeniable commitment to simply telling their compelling story. 

Q. Can you share with us a story about how you landed a particularly hard-to-get government reference?

A. Recently, we were able to produce a public success story and video for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia (CSOSA). CSOSA is the agency that provides supervision of adults on probation, parole and supervised release in DC. Although they had been active in our reference program for some time, their participation was limited to less public activity, such as sales reference calls and visits.

When we presented them with the opportunity to produce the success story and video, many were excited to participate. But others were hesitant because of vendor endorsement concerns. To overcome their objections, I typed emails, sent letters, took countless phone calls, and ultimately gave my word that SAS would work with them at every step of the process to ensure that we produced a product that would reflect their entire story of program transformation - not just the technology story. We also assured them that they had full edit power over the final product..

Ultimately, when their Chief of Staff reviewed other videos that we have produced, she determined that endorsement wasn't an issue. Our track record proved our ability to tell our customer's story without endorsement. We also agreed to have their PR representative conduct the video interview, which provided him a comfort level that the final product would reflect the CSOSA story he wanted to tell. 

Why Forrester Research is Bullish on References

Posted by Bill Lee on September 22, 2008 at 12:31 PM

Forrester Research, as you probably know, is one of the world's most respected technology and marketing research firms. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Merv Adrian, Sr. Vice President, and Laura Ramos, Vice President, Principal Analyst, on why Forrester is bullish on customer reference programs.

Merv and Laura will be keynoting the 2009 Customer Reference Forum on February 18. For more information about them, please see their bios just following the interview.

Q. Forrester is getting ready to publish articles and conduct research in the area of Customer Reference Programs - which will be presented at the 2009 Customer Reference Forum. What prompted your interest in this field?

A. Our clients: Marketing, Sales, and AR professionals - are all deeply interested in customer reference programs. Customer testimonials are deeply connected to how B2B firms market their products since the most popular source of information to inform and validate product or service purchases is peers and colleagues. B2B marketers must focus more on their installed base - leveraging customers they have is much more cost-effective than attempting to build on new names alone. Our research shows that many vendors are not leveraging higher value programs that can create loyalty retention and advocacy the way that effective CR programs can.

Q. So why DO you feel that the importance of Customer Reference programs is increasing?

A. As more and more firms realize that their practices in this area are redundant, overlapping, and ineffective - and often serve to inhibit customers from participating as advocates - the value of a formal program with clear goals and metrics, one supported by its key internal stakeholders and adequately resourced, becomes more and more clear. The Customer Reference Forum's research of the past few years has shown how this recognition has spread through the top tier firms, and we are both seeing growing interest in smaller firms as well as increased investment to make existing programs more extensive and effective.

Q. Right now you're planning a research project jointly with us and Point of Reference. We've been surveying reference programs now for several years. Forrester is going to add a lot to that effort. Can you give us an overview of what we can look forward to from the information you help us develop?

A. Forrester is excited about partnering to take this research to the next level. The work to date has documented the state of current practice, proved and catalyzed the growth of professional standards and internal recognition. We plan to take a deeper look at ways to ensure and visibly demonstrate the value of customer reference programs to the rest of the business. And how customer reference programs help to extend marketing's focus beyond demand generation and the front of the sales pipeline.

Q. A lot of Reference Managers think that the rise of Web 2.0 -- social media, online communities, customers controlling conversations about companies - will completely change the nature of Reference Programs. I know this is one of the things we'll be researching, but what are your early thoughts on that?

A. We don't believe it will "completely change the nature" of the programs - but it will expand the ways customers can meaningfully participate. Not enough customers are engaged in these efforts - many hate participation in programs that chew up their time. Social media gives vendors other avenues to make participation easier- like creating a blog post on the vendor's behalf, but expressing the customer's unique perspective done at his/her convenience. Or customers could participate in a podcast conducted over the phone from their office, contribute to a wiki or other threaded discussions, participate in online surveys - all these take less time and effort than conventional reference tactics. Web 2.0 technologies enable these and other avenues - and they can be tracked, measured and managed much more precisely with the emerging technologies.

Q. Forrester is, of course, one of the leading technology analyst firms in the world. What are the three most important things a Reference Manager should know about working with analysts?

A. Customer references are used a lot in analyst programs, of course. And the same guidance applies in other uses:
1.) Ensure freshness - an old, untested reference may not be a good one. CR Managers should always know the sate of a customer before using them.
2.) Manage appropriateness, defined as fit to need. Most analysts are looking for references for a specific reason - just like sales prospects or press are. Get the fit right - know why it's needed.
3.) Follow up. How good was the reference? And how did the analyst, or press, or prospect talking to them find the interaction? Was it useful? Measure results, not activity. And as long as you're following up, give the reference a stroke - check in with them, ask them the same questions, uncover any current or outstanding issues, and thank them.

About Merv and Laura Merv Adrian does research designed to serve information technology marketers and strategists. He introduced Forrester's research for the Analyst Relations role, and continues to contribute to that body of work. He has also been publishing research about ISV partner programs and the Business Intelligence market. He is responsible for Forrester's large primary research effort into software demand for 2009 which surveys decision makers in NA and Europe about their plans for spending and technology initiatives.

Laura Ramos primarily conducts research for Forrester's clients who are business-to-business (B2B) marketers. Her research covers a broad spectrum of B2B marketing issues including the integration of traditional and digital B2B marketing tactics, emerging B2B social media use, best practices in interactive demand generation, B2B marketing measurement, and the use of technology to enrich the online B2B customer experience. Laura's work also focuses on effective lead management, lead nurturing, sales and marketing integration, installed base marketing, and the use of digital media and the Web to create customer engagement, loyalty, and advocacy.

upcoming events on customer references, advisory boards, and customer communities

Posted by Bill Lee on July 3, 2008 at 04:22 PM

July 21-23
San Jose, CA
For professionals who run Customer Advisory Boards, Executive Summits or similar structured customer collaboration meetings. You'll hear presentations from CAB programs at Wells Fargo, Intel, Interwoven, Cisco, Adobe, SAS, iCrossing, and other respected firms, get results from the first comprehensive survey of CAB programs, get a panel of executives' views on why they value CABs, and much more.

October 13-15
San Jose, CA
For professionals who engage with and build B2B customer communities - the only conference that addresses their unique issues. Includes a marquee group of presenters from respected Customer Community programs such as Oracle, Intuit,, Dell, Intel, HEUG (the 16,000 member Higher Education User Group), Citrix Systems, Riverbed Technology, and more. Early registration now open.

February 17-19, 2009
Berkeley, CA
(event website will be up in July)
For professionals who build and run customer reference programs. Keynote: Customer Reference Programs: Why Their Importance is Increasing, How Social Media will Radically Transform Them, by Merv Adrian, Sr. Vice President of Forrester Research. Merv will describe why he views references as increasingly important not only in analyst relations to firms like Forrester, but in marketing efforts in general. He'll also present research from Forrester on how social media is and will continue to dramatically change the field.

Tips on Surveying Sales

Posted by Bill Lee on June 17, 2008 at 12:29 PM

One key to winning the cooperation of sales in running your Customer Reference Program is to provide real value. And doing that requires knowing what sales needs. To keep on top of this, regular surveys should be a part of your process.

Here are some tips for productively surveying sales, gathered from Rhett Livengood's President's Award winning presentation at our last Customer Reference Forum earlier this year. Rhett is Chief Reference Officer and Director of Enterprise Customer Programs at Intel:

- Surveys should assess the value of all sales tools and collateral, not just references.
- Have a sales executive send out or sponsor the survey, to ensure good response rates.
- Ask a combination of closed and open-ended questions.
- Use the compiled survey responses to identify key action items -- and communicate those to the field, along with your plans for working on them.
- Make survey results available to product and services marketing teams.
- In addition to surveys, meet with field sales people to gather direct feedback and build support for references from sales.

Rhett's teams conduct sales surveys twice a year. As a result of a recent one, Intel stopped producing expensive customer videos because they were not garnering much awareness from sales. Now they are using much less expensive YouTube-style videos, which are far easier and less expensive to create, and ironically, have a bigger impact because they seem authentic.

125 Reference Pros in Berkeley

Posted by Bill Lee on April 30, 2007 at 08:58 AM

Just got back from an intense 2+ days at our Spring 2007 Forum in Berkeley (with a bit of a detour to southern CA for a little beach time).

Below are some of my more optimistic takeaways from the Forum. Also, here are Jeremiah’s. And here are Steve Ellis’s (on our keynoter Ben McConnell, his red shoes, and "scary" Jeremiah) – three of the most perceptive people I know in and around this space. Jeremiah's presentation on social media and customer references was both scary, as Steve notes, but also filled with opportunities.

1. An strong spirit of collaboration.
We had directors and mangers from HP, Dell and IBM, EMC and Network Appliance, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP – presenting, collaborating in small group discussions and sharing information. Obviously a line has to be drawn – presenters were careful not to disclose proprietary or strategic information. But very few attendees, as far as I can tell, refuse to disclose anything because competitors are in the room. Software engineers form communities to collaborate and exchange ideas. CIOs do it. Doctors from competing hospitals do it. So do lawyers, accountants and other professions. And so, it now seems, do customer reference professionals. It will be good for the profession, and good for the companies who send these professionals.

2. A strong sense of strategy and business results
I observed very few people who are mired in the nitty gritty of tactical activities. They understand how what they do ties to strategic goals and business results. HP’s Billie Abrams is not in the business of churning out x number of case studies. She focuses instead on how to put reference information into a format that prospects will read and respond to when it’s time to buy. Amdocs’ Stef Porter doesn’t present references with a laundry list of activities to check off, or not. She and her team have become expert at building long-term relationships based on providing value. That helps customer loyalty. NetApp’s Holley Garmany is developing a “closed-loop” system to ensure that valuable and often unexpected customer intelligence – which reference managers are in a unique position to gather – is fed back into NetApp sales and marketing, resulting in upsales and cross sales. EMC’s Terri McClure and a workshop full of other practitioners are figuring out how to segment customer references strategically, so that they can marshal their resources and efforts where they will have the biggest businesses impact. And on it went for two days in Berkeley.

3. Steady growth of the profession.
We had about 125 reference professionals in one place for two full days this week. The most we’d had before was about 110.

Of those, 95 were practitioners (the rest were sponsors and vendors). The most practitioners we’d ever had before were 76.

Among the firms who have sent numerous attendees numerous times, you can count most of the major global technology firms, including HP, SAP, Microsoft, Oracle, Intel, Dell, IBM, EMC, SAS, Sun Microsystems, EDS and many others.

We also attracted substantial newcomers. Among the companies who sent reference managers to our event for the first time, we had A&R Edelman, ADP, BEA, BMC Software, Callidus Software, Entrust, Extreme Networks, Infor, Juniper Networks, Nortel, Open Text Corp., Postini, Inc., Rackspace Managed Hosting, Riverbed Technology, Siemens (first event in the US), Teradata and Tripwire.

This profession thus appears to be growing not spectacularly (word-of-mouth and social media events are growing far more rapidly), but steadily. The profession of reference management, as an integral part of customer programs, has the feel of steady, unspectacular-but-strong long-term growth.