You gave a bad customer reference to an analyst! Are you serious?

This morning Jeremiah Owyang sent out a new “Web Strategy by Jeremiah”  newsletter. In it, he talks about his work on the upcoming Forrester Wave report. Read this part and I hope you’re as shocked as I am.

“Surprisingly, vendors don’t know their own customers that well, in more than one occasion; customers poorly rated the vendors that suggested they participate as this ideal customer reference. I also cross references with vendors to see how well they could anticipate what their customers said about them –in some cases, vendors were completely unaware of the challenges that clients were having –a very bad sign.”

I’m hoping that these companies don’t have a customer reference program. If they do, there needs to be a hard look at how their program is structured and if it’s really working. I’m sure I haven’t always given references that were 100% perfect, but I know that they were at least 90% perfect.

You absolutely have to know what your customers think of your company and product. If you don’t, you risk the chance of a reference opportunity blowing up in your face. And, if you’re giving a reference for an analyst (in my opinion one of the most critical references you can give) make sure the customer is happy, willing to be a reference and a great fit for the request.

To get a sense for how a customer feels about your company/product, try the 1-10 scale listed in my previous post. This will be a good initial measurement of their happiness.

It’s also important to do a few other things:

1 – Touch base with the sales person prior to a big reference (especially if you don’t have a great and open relationship with the customer). They’ll let you know if there were recent issues. Even if the sales person says the customer is happy…

2 – Never give a reference without first touching base with the customer. Make sure that they are happy, willing and able to give a reference. Some customers will be reluctant to tell their sales person that things aren’t great. There have been numerous situations I’ve come across in my almost 10 years of doing this where the sales person says that customer “A” is super happy with us. When I get on the phone or email the customer, they say now isn’t a good time because there area bunch of issues or they’re about to rip out our solution. You’ll also want to make sure that the customer will be able to take a call and that they won’t be on vacation or too busy.

3 – Touch base with your customer every now and then. Just because they were happy last year doesn’t mean they’ll necessary be happy this year.

4 – When speaking with a customer, ask what they feel comfortable speaking about. They might be very happy talking about VPNs but not so hot on anti-spam. In that case, although they give you a 10, you wouldn’t want to give them to an analyst who is writing an anti-spam report.

One thing that we sometimes forget is that there’s a difference between a transactional and a relational happiness level. I might be furious that my cell phone provider double charged me last month, but overall I’m really happy with them. Or, I might be happy with the way my cell phone provider dealt with a recent issue but I might hate their service. Because of this, it’s critical that you touch base with the customer prior to using them as a reference.

When giving references, especially for analysts, you can’t do too much up front work. You must know your customer. After all, isn’t that what having a customer reference or customer loyalty program is about?


3 Responses

  1. Nice post Maeve. I think folks often feel such stress to answer a reference request they forget the basics. Thanks for the good reminder. PS – I think you should do a post on transactional versus relational happiness. It’s a very important point. If you have any thoughts on overcoming transactional challenges to ensure relational happiness comes across in a references, I’d love to hear about it.

  2. Maeve,

    As a former analyst, just one year out of it, I can second Jeremiah’s experience to a T. I usually expect, and actually ask vendors, for 90% happy customers so I can get something to cross-reference my research. In 40% of the cases I get 50-60% happy customers, and just 10-20% 90-100% happy. I got more negative info that I knew what to do with it sometimes!

    Even got one reference that when I called and said I was calling for a reference for vendor A they asked me why, since they had chosen vendor B over vendor A over a year ago, gave me all the negative points on A and the positive on B. BL: they were a great reference to B, a bad one for A… and A wondered what went wrong… I told them, and they could not believe it.

    Anyway, I always wondered how could that be possible. Now I am on the vendor side, I can see how that happens. Not going into details, but vendors need closer relationships with their customers and even better with their reference customers.

    thanks for the post, nicely done

  3. It makes me think of a gentleman that I was looking at working with this week and as it turned out, he needed my services as well.

    I was appalled and embarrassed that he asked me to give him a recommendation on LinkedIn before we even worked together. I told him that I would write a letter of recommendation, but I did not intend to write it prior to having any history behind us.

    Unfortunately or fortunately I have not heard back from him. Is he busy? Will he respect my business ethics? We will just have to see.

    If he is going to let my integrity get in the way of me helping him with his Internet marketing, which he desperately needs, then so be it. I steer away from dishonest people. There enough honest people out there to work with to settle for anything less.

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