Your customers can do a better job of marketing and selling your product or service than your own team could. That sounds like a sweeping claim. It is, which is why it comes with a few caveats and provisos. I talked about the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of encouraging your customers to advocate on your behalf in my two previous articles.
As third parties, when your customers advocate for you and speak on your behalf in their own words, they can be one of your most believable, trustworthy mouthpieces. When you tell customer stories in a way that is genuine and in their own voice, you are giving prospects more reasons to believe, sooner.
My most recent article discusses elements that make a good customer story. So how can you get customers interested in serving as a reference?
In my experience, some customers - especially large or publicly held companies - are reluctant to participate in public relations or customer references. Reasons run the gamut, and busyness is just one. Giving up an hour or even a few minutes of their week may not be possible for your customer contacts. Even though it can be a difficult, uphill pursuit to get your customers to agree to serve as a reference, where there is a will there's a way. It may take time, but consider the rewards.
Let’s take a look at a few approaches to engaging customers in your reference program.
Offer your customer a modest thank-you gift. Keep ethics in mind, but it’s alright to give a thank-you gift as a way to show appreciation for their time. Maybe it’s a simple gift card or a thank-you gift basket. This is a bit ‘transactional’ and it may work for some customers, especially small to medium businesses.
Invest in Relationships
In my experience, however, it’s more common that you’ll need a longer-term approach - one that involves investing in the relationship, consistently delivering on your promises, and showing your commitment to your customer and their success. Whether or not it’s formally called a customer advocacy program, this kind of investment and engagement with your customers may involve any of several activities.
Encourage Customer Advocacy, Offer Incentives and Appreciation
Offer customers a referral incentive. If they refer another customer who purchases your product, give them something back, whether monetary or a discount on their SaaS fee.
Show your appreciation in unexpected ways. Have your CEO hand-write a letter thanking your most valuable or loyal customers for their business. How many companies do this any more?
Create Engagement Opportunities
Invite customers to a product roadmap feedback session quarterly or more often. You could even expand this into a customer advisory or user group council that meets regularly and gives customers access to key people in your organization as well as a peek into your plans for your product portfolio.
Some companies even host an annual or semi-annual user conference. This lets you wine and dine your customers, invest in their personal and professional development, and provide opportunities for people across your company to rub elbows with key people at the customer organization.
Doing these things will involve an investment from your organization.
It also requires investment from your customer that goes far beyond paying their invoice. In the process, you develop and deepen relationships and rapport. Rapport makes a great foundation for asking customers to spend time serving as a reference for you.
Finally, encourage reseller partners to submit their customers for references / case studies. You get a customer story. So do your partner and your mutual customer. You garner a lot of goodwill with both parties, because they both get publicity, with minimal time investment on their part, since your team will do a lot of the heavy lifting to create the customer reference assets.
Facilitate Low-Effort Participation
In consideration of your customer’s busy schedule, be sure to have a few different options for customer reference and storytelling activities. On the low end of time involvement, you could ask customers to give you a few quotes to use in your marketing and PR or take a brief call or two every so often from prospects for candid feedback about your company and products. On the higher end of time commitment is participation in a written and/or video case study.
Companies that have the best success engaging customers in PR and customer references are the ones who invest in the customer’s success, and encourage mutual investment and rapport-building.
Put your customers in the limelight, tell stories that position them as the hero, and you will find that they are very good at marketing and selling your products on your behalf.