Customer reference point systems. Do they work?

I have heard a lot of mixed reviews on if incentives programs work for customers. I personally have never had a point system for my references so my viewpoint may be a bit slanted. But let me explain my positioning.

It’s a lot of extra work. Having been the only reference person at my last three companies, I’d rather spend the time making sure customers were happy than having to add notches to their files every time they speak to someone. At the same time, because I was the only reference person, I had all this information in my head. I’m not saying it’s not important to keep track of how often you use your customer, because it’s very important so that you don’t overuse them and burn them out. I think that it’s just not important to give value to each type of reference because there are many more ways you can add value to your program.

How do you put value on references? Is a sales reference call worth more than a customer speaking to an analyst or speaking to the media? What if the media is BusinessWeek and considered a top tier publication for you? Would you give the same amount of points to a reference who speaks to a mom and pop shop as one who speaks to a Fortune company you’ve been trying to win for years?

Do this and I’ll give you free training or free products. Larger bonuses such as free training or products generally come from Sales. Have you ever told a sales guy you want to give part of his/her paycheck to the customer for free? Unless Sales suggests the free training or products, I’d stay out of this discussion. (But, do work with your sales people to get it in purchase contracts that the customer will do a press release or case study with you – that generally costs the Sales person nothing.)

There are better incentives than points.

What I have found through my years of running customer reference programs is that customers want to be appreciated. It’s not a matter of sending them shwag with your company logo but they want to know that what they’re doing makes a difference. Let them know they are important by giving the good reference customers access to your executives or product roadmaps or inviting them to special events or simply, sending them a thank you card for helping you out (yes, a thank you card, not an email, an old fashion hand written note!). Letting them have access to your company is much more valuable then having them walk around with a t-shirt with your company logo on it – that’s branding not loyalty.

One of the best experiences I had with a customer was when I wrote a press release and after it got published, my contact’s boss saw it, realized what was being done and how much money was being saved and promoted my contact. How can it get better than that? Not only is my contact happy, getting paid more, being recognized and rewarded for his hard work, but I was a step closer to creating a loyal customer – not just a happy one.

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