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[February 4, 2004]

Customers Are The SolutionTM

By Promise Phelon

How To Launch A Successful Customer Reference Program

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As companies ramp up for the coming new-new-new economy, customers are on radar. Executives want to hug customers; engineering wants customers to beta test; sales wants to up-sell customers; and reference programs are emerging to leverage them. However, launching a successful reference program is easier said than done. This article shows you how to launch your reference organization to-be with a powerful and positive start; or how to kick start an existing program 

Before launch, step back from tactics: Hiring, recruiting and writing success stories. Become a company expert. For instance, know which organizations and people are laden with ripe customer intelligence; know your customers -- who they are, what they buy; know everyone in sales -- especially super stars; know the operations people and systems engineers; and know what the engineering team has on its roadmap for the next several quarters.

Not only will you gain insight to drive your programs strategy, but also, youll establish relationships with people who will act as champions when someone inevitably asks, "What are we doing about enabling the field?" or "What are we doing about customer references?" The truth is, reference organizations influence and touch so many functions across a company that they cannot exist successfully in a silo. 

Reference organizations serve various groups company-wide -- from sales and services to public relations and product management. However, very few reference organizations build "stakeholder" relationships with the two to three groups holding the greatest influence; groups vested in the programs success. Identify and cultivate relationships within those groups. Discover how they define success. Gather their requirements, then assess and meet them. 

A critical success factor for building and launching a reference organization is defining and positioning the program before others do. Otherwise, you might find expectations are too broad or narrow for your programs mandate.

One of my clients recently shared a story with me; it highlights that a program will be defined -- whether you do it or not. When my client launched his customer reference program in 2000, no one cared about the organizations charter or mission. Most were just happy to see customer content, success stories, return on investment data and the occasional reference call.

However, in early 2002, when the market shifted, people began beating down his door with requests. Engineering insisted that the reference group, now 50 percent of its original size, provide it with two dozen companies for its customer advisory board. Sales demanded funding for free consulting resources to fix their customers ill-fated implementations. Marketing executives wanted to enact a customer loyalty program and determined it was the reference organizations charter...and, by the way, where are those loyalty reports? We need them for next months board meeting.

Its hard to be successful if everyone else creates your metrics. Define and publish your organizations charter. Be sure your boss, your peers and your team can articulate it. Not only will this extend your sphere of influence, but also, it will avert miscommunications and misinterpretations, build credibility and help other organizations identify holes in the customer lifecycle. 

Organizations without a clear vision -- whether customer reference, engineering or order management -- find themselves either unfocused or too focused on tactics.  Successful organizations work with a map -- a defined plan and directions. They regularly share this map with influencers, advocates, champions, stakeholders and team members. The "map" includes, at least, the definition of your organization, as well as its short- and long-term strategy, complete with drivers and milestones.

Once you create your "map," rather than posting it on a server somewhere, keep it in your back pocket as a reference and note-taking tool. An effective way to manage others expectations is to demonstrate the impact of decisions. For instance, while meeting with peers or management, neatly jot (dont scribble) requests onto your "map."  If a request is out in left field, show its requestor the map. "Plot" their request, and metaphorically (but gently) explain the impact of flying to Chicago when the caravan is cruising to Dallas.

While you dont want to appear indignant or unsupportive, the frank reality is that your reference organization is most likely understaffed. According to our recent Customer Reference Program Benchmarking Study[1] of 23 enterprise solution companies, reference organizations within mid-size and small companies are 42 percent and 150 percent understaffed, respectively. This is significant. It implies your program may be one of those overstretched. So, rather than reactively saying no to everything, note valid requests on your "map" and share it with other groups. Try this for one quarter and notice how your peers and boss treat you differently. 

If youre going to do anything that touches sales or customers, think twice or even three or four times about it. If youre unsure; if a new idea, process or campaign is not "fully baked," pilot it to a select, forgiving few who will hold discoveries or challenges in confidence. Get sales to weigh in -- if it touches the customer, dont hesitate to ask their advice. Yes, proceeding slowly and seeking support is a longer path to success, but one that will help your team avoid mistakes that may affect your credibility. 

Heres an expensive mistake: Building a reference database from scratch with a single-user desktop application. An enabling system that does not enable; a system that is inflexible, not scalable and not integrated with other corporate customer data sources is doomed. Instead, contemplate how your team will access and manage information now and in 18 months, execute reports and extend the system over time -- before anyone starts coding. 

Being familiar with your companys strategy, identifying stakeholders and defining your program before someone else does is helpful advice, in general. My hope though, is that you actually put this guidance to work for you; that is, before your team begins to recruit customers, qualify reference leads, write success stories or fulfill requests. If you do, I imagine your path to leverage will be smoothly paved.

[1] Phelon Consulting Research+Analysis Benchmarking Study 2004 Edition. February 2004.

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Promise Phelon is the founder and principal at Phelon Consulting, a consulting firm focused on enabling enterprise software companies to shorten their sales cycles by leveraging sales and customer successes. She may be contacted at [email protected].

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