The need for customer references (and reference customers) is growing at a huge rate, doubling year-on-year in some cases. Yet the majority of customer reference programmes are simply not recruiting sufficient new references quickly enough to keep up with demand.
On top of this, a multitude of comms channels require constant feeding. The myriad of ways customers wish to consume content means an almost insatiable need for new channel/device-optimised formats. All with flat budgets too, so it does not take Einstein to calculate that:
Flat budgets + Growing need=Disappointment for someone…
Faced with this new reality here are five obvious actions to take:
1) Increase funding (demonstrate the need and programme value – not always easy)
2) Become more efficient (and consider outsourcing)
3) Stop doing some things, or don’t beat yourself up about not being able to do everything
4) Most CRPs spend >60% of their effort supporting sales, can you bill for bid support?
5) Automate where possible
As with any complex topic there is not one single answer, it’s probably a combination of the above and some great ideas I've not thought of!
HERE'S THE THING
I believe that some degree of marketing automation is no longer optional for any global tech organisation. Inevitably this must impact CRPs.
Done well, marketing automation takes boring, repetitive or difficult data-manipulation tasks and makes them simple. Tied to business intelligence (BI), marketing automation should deliver financial/time savings, better targeting and means of measurement.
But, before we get a little carried away, just because you can automate a task does this mean that you should automate it? Should you have value and volume approaches that sit side by side?
A CUSTOMER IS NOT A TIN OF BEANS
I recently sat through a presentation from a global tech reference manager. She proudly proclaimed she had automated all touch points with her customers and was no longer required to speak to them. Her automated system sends emails to try to persuade her customers to be references and the system will continue to do so monthly, in perpetuity until they say yes. Note, there is no opt-out option.
Automation at work. I’m sure it’s saving her money (and certainly the inconvenience of picking up the phone); she no doubt has the metrics.
How did we get to the point that the ability to build a relationship directly or indirectly with not merely a customer, but a reference customer is abad thing? Something so inconsequential we’d rather palm it off to a machine.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some great reference programmes out there where automation is used very well for pre-approved content (Cisco’s Kinetic system, for example). For some lower-level volume reference recruitment survey-based processes bring perfectly acceptable results.
But can we really treat potential reference customer activities like tins of baked beans; logged in an online system and called off for delivery at will?
I’m not so sure this is a sustainable long-term strategy.
WHERE DOES ALL THIS LEAVE CUSTOMER REFERENCE PROFESSIONALS?
I believe this all makes customer reference pros more relevant, important and busier than ever because:
References are trust and goodwill made tangible but they are only as good as your customer's opinion of your organisation at thatexact moment in time. The customer controls reference use and there needs to be a living-breathing feedback loop within your CRP.
In the long term salespeople tend not to use any system that does not a) operate by the power of thought alone, or b) compensate them financially. Salespeople may cost more than CRP managers (unfortunately) but they’re not as efficient. Plus, just like senior execs, they do not happily fill out forms.
When dealing with your largest deals and your most important reference customers, are you really going to do this via automated emails to account teams? Or maybe a call-centre staffed with students? I thought not.
To create a marketing output that actually means something and makes a difference there is a growing need for the services of CRP professionals. These activities will support:
Far from being the ghost in the machine, good customer reference professionals are becoming the drivers of efficiency. Their role is in deciding when and what to automate.
- The day to day box shifting needs of the sales force and local P&Ls
- The aspirational marketing strategies of corporate and brand
- The social, mobile, multi-screen consumption of marketing information by our customers
They are key to delivering parallel yet integrated volume and value programmes that meet the need of increased demand and also support sustainable reference customer relationships.
To develop the profession, educate, provide accreditation and recognition and leave a lasting legacy for future generations. Read on, or download this manifesto here
The customer reference community is at a tipping point.
Actually it’s at two tipping points.
The first one is small by comparison, relating to how broadband and mobile speeds and devices will change the deliverables we create in line with how much of the world now consumes content: immediate, mobile, sound bite, relevant, personal and narrow-band.
The second is much larger; in fact it’s so big and obvious it’s easy to miss, and yet hard to know how to deal with it.
This is the tipping point of the community itself; Customer Reference Programmes leaping from a mere marketing discipline into a recognised profession.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a profession as “a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification” and in its definition of a professional the dictionary uses the words “competent, skilful, or assured”
There is now such a wealth of experience, expertise, tried and trusted processes, techniques and forms plus a critical mass of practitioners AND an interest in the value of the work we do that it’s time to put a stake in the ground before evolving further.
What do we need to do?
· Seize this moment
· Formalise the profession
· Leave a legacy
What will it look like?
Hard to say as it is a group decision but it will initially include a fiercely independent web space with all the basic tools a reference pro needs, best-practices etc plus a forum that is moderated and rewards good citizens. Details of training and accreditation will be there (foundation, practitioner, advanced etc), as will details of events and other resources. It will be free to all, maybe subtle sponsorship allowed. Roles will probably be for limited terms, by election. Democratic and open.
Why do we need to take action?
On the face of it we don’t. Customer Reference professionals are some of the most collaborative and open marketing professionals there are.
While we don’t NEED to do this I believe we are obligated to act. Take any professional organisation and you can trace it back to a set of individuals that recognised their skill for what it was, and thought bigger.
Even if one ignores legacy, education and the greater good there are still reasons to do this:
Although there are many LinkedIn, Facebook and face2face groups already in existence almost none of them are not aligned in a larger or smaller way to a specific vendor, geography, or industry.
We speak about the freedom of Social Media yet this freedom is being abused. We have a situation where competitors’ tweets are not forwarded no matter how good they are, what are billed as ‘discussions’ are often promotions and those with the biggest mouth (or time to type, or axe to grind) are completely un-moderated.
True communities set values and work for the greater good, which is why the professional body we will establish MUST have ways to amplify great content and genuinely helpful contributors and also ways to try to modify self-interest, with the ultimate sanction of removal from the professional community if needed.
What do you need to do?
Nothing, however IF you share these beliefs, have expertise and experience to share and want to be part of the team that will attempt to create a lasting structure for customer reference professionals, and their profession then please email your interest (or encouragement, or reasons why this is a spectacularly bad idea) to:
Personally I can think of 30 or so thought leaders in this space that would make an excellent team. Your list might be very different from mine so even if you don’t have sufficient experience yet, why not nominate someone you think is a ‘must’ to be part of this movement at:
*’customer reference’ and ‘customer advocacy’ can be used interchangeably in this manifesto.
This manifesto was originally outlined in Boston at the ICRPC on May 15th 2012.
Feel free to share and use in any way you wish.
OK, I can see the irony here (as Banksy's work is often placed in an environment where you have no choice but to see it but maybe you can use it and amend it) however this statement, purported to be by Banksy resonates with me.
It's like another take on Seth Godin's permission marketing and it goes like this:
Banksy on advertising
"People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are ‘The Advertisers’ and they are laughing at you.
You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity.
F**k that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.
You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs”
Once you become aware of the messages from brands hitting you as you drive or walk through a town the 'noise' becomes really distracting.
You can choose to fast-forward past TV adverts, or tune to another channel as with Radio yet how do you tune out of hoardings, bus-sides, posters etc? You can't and there are laws preventing us from copying, deleting or changing images we simply cannot avoid; even if we find them distasteful, demeaning or insulting (even even to our intelligence!).
Full disclosure: Maybe Banky's not the only slightly hypocritical one here. I work in marketing and have previously been responsible for wrapping buildings in advertising.
Maybe there are too many rules in the world already, or maybe there is a discussion to be had about ambient advertising that plays on insecurities, or that sees itself as untouchable, fits into a 2012 world.
Opted-in, personal, relevant, optional advertising that adds value to the individual has to be the end game as companies shout louder and louder for a reducing amount of attention.
The Summit of Customer Engagement (a Customer Reference Forum event) held in San Mateo CA finished yesterday and, with some help from some jet lag I've been thinking about what went on over the last three days.
Networking and knowledge share
I started to write these as different categories then realised that for customer reference pros they are the same thing. Interesting.
Get any two customer reference pros together, even from competing organisations and you are sure to have a remarkably open conversation about shared issues AND successes. Why is this? I know for a fact that this open exchange of ideas does not happen in other areas of marketing and I truly hope our discipline stays this way.
Perhaps we sometimes feel as the hidden heroes of marketing; strange when you think about it as for many companies their marketing strategies are now based on third-party endorsement, plus we get to actually work as a key part of the deal-closing team.
Ho hum. Back to the event. Sure, some of the sessions were good however I took some time to watch the interaction in between sessions, at lunch and in the evenings and from a career progression and best-practice efficiency perspective the event was very good. Lots of business card swapping and no doubt LinkedIn inviting going on.
A forum for future attendee interaction that includes the vendors would make sense.
What was new?
Not that much this year (a teeny bit groundhog day-esque) and often it was in non-scripted throwaway comments that get you to think, such as
"It's still location location location but the location is in your customer's pocket, on their smartphone"
"I used to work in procurement and whenever I spoke to a reference I always asked, 'so, what are you getting in return for doing this' "
Some of the content was great, some less so, some was a slightly awkward fit and some (apparently) pure sales pitch.
What I DID enjoy very much was the opportunity to co-present a two-hour workshop with Caroline Thomas, the British contingent was there in greater numbers than normal, I got to spend time with some clients and friends and that our US team and business is really starting to take shape and I could see it in action.
For next year I think that the workshops should be trimmed to 75 minutes and mixed up with the normal sessions, also that we get the chance to present on bigger topics such as globalisation and the future roadmap for the profession.
I'll follow up with some takeaways at some point once it's all sunk in however all in all it was a great event and you can bet I'm going to be there in 2013.
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