The Elusive Customer Reference

July 28, 2009

Way back in the olden days (1998 – 2001) clients didn’t really worry much about having referenceable customers for press purposes. Sure there was the occasional high-maintenance reporter who needed them, but for the most part if the company had a Web presence and venture capital backing, who cared about silly things like customers, a business model, or a path to profitability? These were such old-school things to focus on. I mean really – why would a reporter obsess with those details when they could write about shiny objects, IPOs, big parties, and overnight millionaires?
Well clearly those days are gone. Great companies with great products and solid footing struggle daily with securing customers who are willing and able to speak to press. What’s going on? Of all things, why is this such an issue? Why is the “customer reference clause” often the first thing to be struck in a contract? And what can be done to mitigate this issue? Here are a few lessons we’ve learned along the way and practices we’ve put in place with clients to help bring some compromise to this issue.

Set Expectations Early

Our clients who’ve had the most success with customer references have, very early on, set the expectation that a reference is “worth its weight in gold”. Meaning that anything is negotiable if the customer is willing to speak with press, bloggers, analysts, or prospective customers.

Don’t Ask for the Moon

One mistake to be avoided is asking the customer at the beginning of an engagement to speak to press, speak on panels, participate in awards, etc. Companies should determine what is the most pressing item and where would the customer’s testimonial be of the biggest help. Determine that, ask for that, and very gently ease them into the world of serving as a reference.

Don’t Rush It

You just got a call that someone from TechCrunch, WSJ, or NYT wants to talk with you, and you know this means getting a customer queued up. This is not the time to start thinking about a customer reference program! Ideally there is a company-wide plan in place to cultivate customers who will talk on a moments notice, but only if they’ve actually engaged with your product, experienced some ROI, and can speak about how your product has made their life easier. Proceed with caution, swim at your own risk, danger ahead when you ask a customer with little to no experience – beyond implementation – to talk to press.

A Token of Appreciation

When I was in radio we’d have publicists, managers, and record labels bring us all kinds of cool gifts with an understanding that this might help get their artist played. Now the FCC calls it Payola and it’s illegal. In no way am I suggesting that companies look at their customers as “coin operated” but it is important to acknowledge that a person took the time out of their busy day to speak, hopefully positively, about your company. There is nothing wrong with sending them an acknowledgement – be it a bottle of wine, trip to the spa, an iTunes card, or simply a hand-written thank you note (but the wine / spa / iTunes thing is probably better). 🙂

Those Sales People

Not always, but often, it’s members of the sales org who are screaming for press and customer references. I would too if I was in their position. Good press helps close deals, period. But many times it’s the same people who cry for air-cover in the form of press, who quickly “kill the clause” where the client agrees to speak to press. I get it, why risk a six-figure deal over a reference clause? But it doesn’t need to be an all or nothing proposition. This is where, with a little work the customer will likely feel more comfortable
with serving as a reference. Which leads to my final point…

Show and Tell

When a customer is simply asked to “talk to the media” it can be overwhelming. Thoughts of “I’m not a company spokesperson” or “we have a policy against that” or “we don’t talk about vendors”, etc. run through the minds of customers. But we’ve seen many cases where these concerns can be allayed by simply showing the customer an example of what you want. Use past press releases with customer names listed as an example, or send a clip of an article where another customer served as a reference (especially one with a photo). What customers should understand is that often, by serving as a reference, they (as individuals and their company) end up looking really smart. And who doesn’t love the opportunity to look smart?

— Howie

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Let's Work Together

Give us a holler, we'd love to connect.

Latest Tweet