The job of your customer reference program is to identify your organization’s strongest advocates and connect them with your prospects to help sellers close deals—and in turn create more advocates.  You know who the seller’s customer is. But as a customer reference manager, who is yours?

At first glance, this is a straight-ahead question. Your sales team’s customers are in turn your customers, but it doesn’t end here. Your sales team, whether it is one person or 100, is also your customer. They use customer references and they create them. In many organizations, the customer relationship is wholly owned by sales, so unless you get their buy-in, you are left out in the cold.

At last month’s Summit on Customer Engagement I had many conversations with colleagues about tapping into the “secret” references that individuals in the field keep to themselves. According to Megan Heuer of SiriusDecisions, most sales teams support customer reference programs voluntarily. Fewer still are required to meet or are measured on a customer reference quota. In short, there is no incentive for sellers to share, and lots of incentive for them to keep those prize references squirreled away for themselves.

The best way to access those hidden gems is to treat your sales team the way they treat their prospects – by nurturing them so they become your advocates. In many ways, this is just like nurturing “traditional” customers to become advocates. Develop the relationship and the access will come.

Here’s how:

  • Know your sales team and the battles they face. What kinds of scenarios do they need details on? Is there a new product about to be released? Who are the competitors they are looking to unseat? Most importantly, where do they face gaps in customer successes they can share? Do the legwork to see things from their perspective. Listen. Don’t come to them with questions you can get answered elsewhere. Being prepared will show that you respect that.
  • Remove roadblocks. Or, as Don Pepper put it at the summit, remove the friction to the reference experience: “The customer just wants his problem solved. Quickly, competently and conveniently. The secret to customer loyalty is a frictionless experience that removes obstacles.” Be active on internal networks and communities to search for and proactively respond to reference-related topics. What is the customer’s journey? When you receive word that a lead is at 60% in the pipeline, you can know what type of reference activity or material is going to be most helpful to the field. Ask yourself: Where can you be proactive with the team?
  • Automate and be mobile. There is no excuse to not provide mobile access to reference tools and applications. And regardless of budget there are ways to simplify how a rep engages with your team. Are you a small company using emails and datasheets for tracking? Think about using a single alias versus emailing an individual. Regularly communicate about the latest reference customers and their story highlights. Do you work in a larger organization with automation capabilities? Create workflows where submissions can be routed quickly and without guesswork by the field and leverage an application that allows the sales team to engage via their mobile devices.
  • Regardless of size, think of yourself as a program.  A program means having a name to evangelize throughout your organization, processes to follow, and SLAs to adhere to. Creating a specific name allows your program to be easily recognized and marketed internally. SLAs help ensure that all requestors receive quality support. And putting processes in place (for example, requiring background information on reference nominations and prospects) makes sure that you are able to fulfill requests with the right references.
  • Create an environment of “trustability.” As Pepper reminds us, trustability is based on empathy, which often requires giving up a profit in the short term for a longer-term good. So go ahead and accept a rapid-fire request to help a salesperson in a pinch. SLAs are guidelines, not mandates.

Breaking through the barrier to coveted “secret” references comes down to having a relationship with the individuals in the field. A sales contact who knows you will take the time to nurture a customer and who sees you treat him or her with the same respect will help you get behind the curtain.

Unlock more than just secret customer references in the Modern Guide to B2B Marketing.