14 Steps to Running a Customer Reference Program

For those starting a customer reference program or those who have been tasked to take over a reference program and have no idea what to do, “The Customer Reference Handbook” is a must read.  Written by Boulder Logic and Big Sky Communications , it’s a great practical approach to those who are new to the field of customer references.

Although there is no one way to run a reference program, this is a great handbook on how to get started – and that’s usually the hardest part. I could have used this handbook 10 plus years ago when I started my first program from scratch.

For those who have started the program and have experience, it’s probably not the best read for you, but there’s never anything bad about a refresher course.

Stay tuned for my comments via blog post on some of the 14 essays in this handbook.

Do you have other tips for running a program or how not to run a customer reference program?


Is Your Largest Customer Your Most Important One?

I was asked to guest blog on the Boulder Logic blog for today so check it out and let me know your thoughts.

Is Your Largest Customer Your Most Important One?

Transactional vs. relationship based customer satisfaction

Joshua Horwitz (president and founder of Boulder Logic) approached me with some questions about transactional vs. relationship based satisfaction/happiness.  In my mind it was clear to that in a B2B setting a relationship based satisfaction is more important while in a B2C setting a transactional one is more important.  Then Joshua sent me some of his ideas and I began to think a bit more. 

Joshua: “No company is perfect all the time, and it is the manner in which bad transactions are handled that creates positive relationships, which in turn can become the foundation for an effective customer reference.” 

I couldn’t agree more with Joshua on this point. I recently had a customer tell me this and it was an “ah haaaa!” moment for me. It seems really obvious but at the same time I had never thought of it until my customer said it in an interview. He deals with tons of vendors and in IT he knows that he’s bound to run into issues where the product isn’t working correctly but, it’s the vendors that can help him solve problems quickly that he sticks with and is loyal to.

Joshua: “It is important to understand the difference between transactional and relational happiness, and recognize that relational is what’s truly important to an effective reference.” 

Sometimes.  What’s important is that you know what your prospect is looking for.  Know what the most important thing the prospect is looking for so that the most appropriate reference can be given. My dentist can be the nicest guy, send me cards on my birthday but if he does shady work, then the transactional is going to be more important than the relationship.  (see my previous blog “The weight of bad word of mouth”). On the same note, my surgeon has no bed side manner but does amazing work. So, transactional is definitely more important there. 

Joshua: “…it would be naïve to overlook the impact that bad incidents may have on a reference interaction with a prospect or analyst.  To the extent it is possible, it is important for a reference manager to understand past incidents and ensure they don’t directly conflict with the objectives of the reference.  This can be done by personally placing the reference or ensuring information is easily accessible during the reference search and request process.”

Yes.  You have to know what has gone wrong in the past so that if you know a reporter tends to do a deep dive with customers and ask about the past 5 years of a relationship, you don’t stick him/her with a customer who just became super pleased last week.  Same thing with a prospect.  If X is important to a prospect, then don’t set them up with a bad X reference. I can’t say the next part enough.  The job of a reference professional is to know the customers.  Know which ones are good at speaking on topics X, Y and Z, which ones are happy and which ones seem like good references but really aren’t. 

I think that what it ultimately comes down to a single question for each party.

For a business: what do you do when everything has gone wrong with the customer?

For the purchaser (consumer or business): how well does the company help me address problems?

Customer reference resources

I haven’t found a ton of resources on the Internet regarding customer references but here are some sites and resources that can be helpful.

Net Promoter – These guys are pretty much the end all and be all of customer loyalty at this point. They are popping up all over the place from small companies to large Fortune 50 companies. They’re basic concept is that you have to have loyal customers and one way to find that is through the Net Promoter Score. I’ve read their book “ The Ultimate Question” and found it pretty useful and it’s much cheaper than attending one of their 3 day seminars! With that said, I’d still love to attend one of their conferences which are held internationally in cities like London, Miami and San Francisco. At the end of the conference you can take a test and be Net Promoter certified.

Boulder Logic – This is an online tool for managing your references but if you don’t have the money or the need for the tool, the company sends out a newsletter every now and then about hot reference topics. A recent one was “Talking With Your Executives”. To sign up for the newsletter, visit this page. Boulder Logic also holds Webinars which are useful for the new customer reference professional.

I haven’t used the online tool but have gone through a few demos with them. I think it’s a great resource and beats the Excel document I use, but no company I have been with has been willing to pay for the tool or was ready to use it.

References Online – Like Boulder Logic, these guys offer an online reference tool. It’s been a few years since I’ve spoken to anyone there but I remember the tool was useful and very similar to the Boulder Logic tool.

Phelon Group – These guys focus on customer reference programs rather than the tools for managing the program. They can help you set up a program from scratch or help you refine your program. I have also found these guys very intelligent and understand the wants and needs of reference programs and what the professional has to do. They have a blog but it hasn’t been updated in quite a while. In fact, nothing on their site has been updated this year so this might be an old resource. Either way, there’s still a lot of good information on the site.

I haven’t done anything with them in about a year but they did sponsor a reference seminar called the “Customer Reference Forum” that lasted a few days and I thought it was great – mostly because at that time I realized that there were other people out there that doing references too.

Customer Reference Forum Customer Reference Forum is a community of customer reference professionals from many of the leading corporations in the world.  They also hold events.

Point-of-reference has two primary lines of business: reference management technology and customer content development services. The firm’s core technology, ReferenceStor™ is a hosted (SaaS) reference management system, available as either a Salesforce.com certified application or outside of Salesforce.com with potential for integration with other CRM systems. Point of Reference’s customer content development services include interviews, based on their own methodology, video and audio due diligence recordings, and written pieces that range from traditional 1 and 2 page case studies to ROI and industry composite studies. The firm also re-purposes content for social media applications, tradeshows, marketing campaigns, podcasts, etc.


Who are your customers? Don’t know? Find out.

I’ve started reference programs at a few companies now and on my first day I always ask “Can I have a copy or access to the customer database?” The answer, in all the companies, has been “No – we don’t have one!” Can you believe it? Besides the standard support database and possibly an application like Salesforce.com, I have found that most companies don’t have access to a master customer list. This is shocking to me. But, the shock eventually wears off.

How do you go about finding the customers? Talk to people outside of Marketing. I’ve spoken to sales people, sales operations people, customer support, contract owners. Anyone that would have any information on a customer is valuable. Granted, sometimes that information is just a company name but at least it’s a starting point.

It’s not uncommon for me to spend the first week of a new job talking to these folks and then combining lists and lists and lists of customers – all in different formats. Spending a week or so going through 100,000 Excel lines might not seem like the best use of your time, but in the end it’s invaluable.

Although somewhat archaic, I keep my customer list in an Excel spreadsheet. Not ideal, but the companies I have worked at haven’t wanted to invest in the money for tools such as Boulder Logic or haven’t had the budget to do so and for me, Salesforce.com doesn’t have all that I’m looking for. It’s an easy tool to use and sorting generally isn’t a problem. It’s also nice to be able to send new sales guys a list of his/her customers in the area when they start – a little brown nosing goes a long way.

So take the time to find out who knows what in your company. It might be a long process but a customer list that you can work with needs to be created and then updated daily when you find out new information.