Friday, February 6, 2015

Is It Time to End the Traditional Approach to Reference Management in Technology Marketing?

by Hank Barnes  |  February 3, 2015  |  2 Comments

As I mentioned in my last post, sales arranged reference calls or site visits were ranked by the technology buyers we surveyed at the bottom of most influential sales interactions.  This was very surprising to me given the long history of “I need references” as part of buying processes.  Additionally, case studies continue to rank as one of the top 2 most valued content types.   What gives?
I think it is probably a few of things:
1.      Interpretation – The respondents may have viewed “sales arranged” as “moderated”.   As a result, their skepticism about the authenticity of the discussion might be higher.   With this interpretation or viewed at face value, the message to technology marketing and sales is clear.  If you connect a prospect to the customer, get out of the way.   Allow them to have a discussion without anyone from your organization present to moderate or influence the discussion.
2.      Social Networking – The rise in social networking makes it much, much easier for buyers to find your customers and connect with them without you even knowing.    If buyers are doing this and ask you for references, it could very well be a test–to see if the references you provide are consistent with the customers they found on their own.
3.      Delays – References, in many organizations, tend to be one of those gatekeeper type events I mentioned in my last post.  Sales tends to withhold references until the timing is right (often for what have been good reasons–not inundating references with calls from prospects that aren’t likely to buy), and finding the right reference takes time.  To the buyer, any delay (not in the actual connection, but in getting reference information) raises doubts.
Viewed in combination, it all boils down to trust.    Anything you do that creates a spector of skepticism is magnified in today’s buying environment.  Trust levels are the underlying current that drives buying.   And providers are usually starting from a weak, un-trusted position.  Everything you do needs to be about building trust between the buyer and you, your product, and your organization.
With that in mind, perhaps it is time to  rethink reference approaches.   The most common approach  puts reference ownership in the hands of marketing.  But to get those references, marketing needs to ask (or is beg a better word?) sales to provide them with client names that are willing to be references.  Often, the story that comes back is  “the time is not right”, “I have a big deal working”, “we have a service issues”, or something similar.
Some organizations have looked to shift this behavior by making reference activities part of their standard contract (language that is often negotiated out early in the deal discussions).   More sophisticated organizations have reference management systems that track reference activities and seek to balance requests, so references are not overwhelmed with calls.  This is a nice step, but does not address the core problem.   Which is, in my mind, if marketing is responsible for references but not empowered and trusted to engage with customers directly, then they have responsibility without true authority or empowerment.
Mainstay just published a very interesting report on B2B reference programs, not just technology companies (Please note: Mainstay is asking for some contact information to receive the report.  Don’t let this put you off–it is well worth completing their landing page form to see the report).  Despite supporting sales (with materials like case studies and identifying customers for calls), 83% of the respondents that managed reference programs did not know the revenue impact of their reference programs.  Similarly 90% of the respondents were unaware of customer satisfaction levels.  Part of the cause of this was low staffing levels in the reference function.  It is typically a difficult responsibility to own, since authority is often limited and the marketing group that handles references can’t get sales insights or visibility into service issues.   (I’ve seen cases where even companies with a robust CRM system that is well used don’t provide user accounts to the reference team). The report is definitely worth a read for anyone in technology marketing and sales that cares about references.
With the above context, what are some options for change.  Here are a few:
1.      Make references programs a shared responsibility–with shared metrics linked to compensation- across all major customer facing groups (marketing, sales, service).  Have full time participation from each function, with either marketing or sales operations leading the team (depending on organizational dynamics).
2.      Shift to Advocacy Marketing – I’ll be reporting on the advocacy marketing case studies I have been collecting later in the year, but one big claim from all of them is that after moving to an advocacy approach, they were able to dramatically increase the number of reference customers.
3.      Totally change the game.   Rather than focus on a reference program, invest in building customer communities.  This could start on a public platform like LinkedIn, but as it grows move to a purpose built customer community solution (run on premise or in the cloud).  Actively moderate the community—not to eliminate the discussion of bad things, but to encourage discussion and identify strong supporters.    Have the moderators own traditional reference responsibilities and goals, but allow them to focus more of their efforts in achieving the on working with community participants.From a selling perspective, when a prospect asks for references, consider just sending them to the community.  Imagine being able to say, “Rather than me arrange a call for you, why don’t you join our community and ask our customers your questions directly.  I’m confident you’ll get answers quickly and be able to request individual discussions as well.   If you don’t or it takes too long, let me know and we can connect you with a customer.”   That type of discussion totally shifts the trust equation (and likely raises your stature).
While the primary purpose of the community should be enabling customers to interact and help each other, reference development is a clear side benefit that should be mined.

What do you think?   Anyone trying the community based approach?  Any other tips that you use to both make managing and collecting references easier AND more valuable for prospective clients.


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