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Customers Want Evidence Before Buying Solutions

At the 1st International CRP Community Meeting in Boston, the best and the brightest Customer Reference Professionals were there. Companies like Cisco, Intel, Siemens, EMC, VMware and many others shared their knowledge and successes.

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In the world of global anytime, anywhere information, there is a growing need for great customer reference content. Talking to Customer Reference Professionals I gained some important insights into how sales can be transformed by developing a genuine rapport with customers and addressing their need for information about the products and services they are thinking about buying. This approach also increases sales effectiveness and can reduce the cost of sales.

I learned a lot and was inspired by their ideas and creativity. In this article, I will share some of what I learned.

Feature Function?

I want to take a moment to test the theory that many of our product-buying decisions appear to be based on the product features and functions. Take, for instance, a decision to buy clothes. Walmart can provide shoes that can last awhile and shirts and shorts that fit—they have every size from women’s petite to men's big and tall. Brooks Brothers also sells clothes. No doubt there are some features—maybe a bit better quality in the fabric or the subtleness of the fit—that may dictate moving from $9.99 for Walmart’s Bermuda shorts to $89.99 Brooks Brothers’ Bermudas. But are the features worth paying almost ten times as much? Yet people do.

I can hear you protesting that clothing is not a technical product. OK, so let’s take us iPhone users. Why have we paid from $99.99 to $499.00 for a smart phone from Apple when we can get one from our cell phone provider for $49.00? Yes, there are features and functions we like. But again, are not most android phones loaded with all the same features?

I am not trying to make the point that features and functions—the technical sell—are not important. My point is that there is more to successful sales than features and functions.

Customers are taking more into consideration as they make their buying decisions. They are looking for security in their decision and the fulfillment of intrinsic motivations—acceptance, reduction of risk. In short, they need validation or evidence that their needs will be fulfilled.

Enriching the Process

Right out it is important to mention that not all customer reference efforts are focused on the sales process. During the life of the company, the product, the sales cycle, or specific marketing campaign, companies have a variety of motivators for educating the market and validating their market position and reputation. So companies need to understand their motivation for providing validated information about themselves, before they create programs and projects for the customer reference team. In parallel, the customers need many types of information whether selecting a new doctor, buying stock, a car, or a complex technology project. And the type of information that is best suited to their needs changes as they learn (from getting acquainted with the brand and learning about the products, to determining to buy) during the market/sales lifecycle process.

Again, not all customer reference programs and custom satisfaction surveys are for the sake of sales. Some examples of other objectives are:

  • Gaining feedback from customers to input into company strategy
  • Market research for the creation of or improvements to brand, products, services
  • Brand awareness programs
  • Managing reputational issues

And your audience for such content may vary. For example they may be:

  • Media
  • Analysts
  • Partners
  • Investors, and of course
  • Customers/prospects.

This all may seem elementary, but the reality is that companies often initiate these efforts without really understanding what they should spend, what kind of efforts they should make (surveys, case studies, advertising), and without understanding their goals. Hence, they have no way to measure the value of the program and what the right level of investment should be.

So What Is the Role of the Customer Reference Professional?

Firstly, I am always impressed when companies actually have a customer reference team dedicated to understanding and working with the customer in this way. CRPs not only help the sales and marketing teams; they can become a great touch-point and sounding board for customers. As such, they can help the customer-relationship/customer-experience teams to glean important insights about the customer.

It’s all part of the process.

But beyond the ‘soft’ value, the CRP has hard data and metrics by which to measure themselves. These metrics not only help the organization invest in the customer reference (CR) programs, but also provide understanding about what programs best contribute to the sales process. Today the way CRPs measure themselves has more to do with the ‘internal’ customer, according to a research report by Mainstay Salire titled Measuring What Matters: Annual Customer Reference Program Benchmark Report. It seems that the demand for their content is growing as sales and marketing need more evidence: ROI studies, case studies, video testimonies, quotes, press releases, etc. According to this report, they match the success of the customer reference team to the sales increases of the company. The correlations, I suppose, are obvious. They also look at CRP team output—their responsiveness and productivity.

More challenging, but where CRPs will want to go (I learned after listening and chatting with CRPs and some of ChainLink’s customers) is a way to link specific programs more directly to results. Some metrics for the future are:

  • Usage rates:
    • Web content metrics—dwell times and downloads of customer reference content
    • Mapping specific programs to open rates, opt-ins, downloads, and moving the lead down the process
    • Request tracking from internal customers—marketing or sales
  • Surveys from the sales team—what helped close the deal.

More long term, the customer reference team and those who fund it want to understand:

  • Effectiveness of different methods—this is particularly important since much of the CRP activity is based on finding a reference customer and preparing them to participate in forums (events, webinars); reference calls; and even visits from their peers; as well as participation in the creation of content such as case studies and customer satisfaction surveys.
  • Effectiveness of media and content—research/ROI studies, video, and now, social reputation from the social network you built for customers. The effectiveness of an ROI study, say, vs. a video clip is always of interest to everyone.

Budgets associated with these programs may have to be ‘tin cupped’ from the business unit that is anxious to snag the case study for current needs, since these programs may not have been foreseen in the CRP team’s general operating budget. So being definitive about the value/benefit of the work is important.

The fact is that more and more end-users/potential customers are seeking out their shortlists on the web before they ever engage in a discussion with salespeople. So the above discussion is not just interesting—it’s urgent—to understand. Prospects are YouTubing, reading online reviews, and doing social networking on the products. So the CRP plays an extremely powerful role in the scheme of things.

But there is more to sales than getting acquainted. Big products cost a lot to sell. Think about all that flying about for demonstrations and reference visits. This can be a costly and unpredictable expense and eat into the budget big-time. Applying collaborative methods—web, video—and organizing the right online venue can save a company millions, as well as reduce the cycle time. (It is much easier to schedule a web meeting than a road trip.)

CRPs need to have a more visible role as well as be part of the management team involved in the social networking strategy. Using social networks, customers can by-pass your best efforts to ‘control the message’ (or create more accurate information). CRPs are highly skilled at dialoguing and catering to the customer and can also mine the social environments for the betterment of the reference program. It is essential that they be involved, lest the social network gets out of control.

Conclusion: to Web or Not to Web?

This question keeps popping up in my mind. It takes real zeal to create lots of good case studies and get them organized and available. Getting the OK to go through with that quote, that video, the budget for articles and third-party reports, and going public with the value proposition is not easy. These items are costly, so you need to think about how and when to use them.

I fear that in our current web climate of optimized searches, or YouTube, the value of these golden references may get squandered. Often the real depth of what one customer might share with another won’t be on a video or in the glossy brochure. And the precious time you get from customers willing to participate in a reference exercise will be spent on one particular deliverable, like a video clip or a quote in a brochure.   

The customer’s story is a real asset, whose management requires the professionalism and art of the CRP.

To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.

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