Hi, everyone. My name is Jeff Hardison, and I am Head of Product Marketing for Calendly. I'm here to tell you why a customer reference program is today's most important B2B marketing initiative.

I've built customer reference programs and participated in them for companies such as Amazon, HP, Envision, and Clearbit. I’m a big believer in customer reference programs and I hope I can share my excitement with you.

Why are customer reference programs so valuable in today’s economy?

The reemergence of customer reference programs is being driven by two camps of marketing. There are the folks who are trying to earn attention with influencer relations, content marketing, and events. Then there are the folks who are trying to buy attention through performance marketing and ads.

There's this huge group of marketers who came up during various boom economies, like the dot-com boom of the 90s, and they’ve always had the resources to buy ads. They've gotten real comfortable paying for attention instead of having to earn it.

I came up during one of these boom economies – we had huge budgets. Instead of rolling up our sleeves and doing loads of hard content marketing or influencer relations work that doesn't scale, we could put out a lot of ads.

I did a search on Google for dot-com ads, and this is what I saw.

(ALT: Image showing a screen completely covered in pop-up ads.)

You can see that ad creative got pretty lazy during the boom economy.

In an economic slump or an uncertain economy, like we're dealing with now, many buying marketers have to face a scary new reality. Bosses come to us, and they start examining all the buying that we're doing, and they want to see the returns on ad spend.

And so for the first time, there's this crisis for us. We start to really worry. We're like, “What am I going to do? This is what I do – I make ads, I buy ad space, I run these ads! I don't know how to roll up my sleeves and do content marketing!” Worse still, these bosses are going to want us to do more with less, and we start to worry about that too.

What ends up happening in these uncertain times is that marketers have to pivot to earning attention and leads. You'll start to notice people who've been doing lots of demand gen marketing doing a little bit of content marketing or lobbying certain departments to help them earn attention. We need to figure out how to earn attention in a way that makes sense.

The power of customer references

I want you to think about your favorite consumer purchases that you’ve made in the last couple of years. How did you first hear about these products? One of my favorites is my Bose speaker. Left to my own devices, I would have bought a really bad Bluetooth speaker, but my friend Adam, who’s an engineer, recommended the Bose speaker. I love it.

Another time, I was remodeling my kitchen, and I didn't know what to do. I would have made horrible choices on my own, so asked my friend Kathy, also an engineer, what she’d recommend. I went over to her house, saw her beautiful backsplash, and stole the idea plus a couple of others while I was there.

I’m so glad I listened to my friends because if I'm doing the purchasing, I often buy stuff that's not that great, like my iron. My iron kind of sucks. I think I saw it on promotion at Macy's and I bought it when I probably should have asked friends what kind of iron they would recommend.

I was wondering if B2B buyers do something similar. Do they ask their friends, peers, and people they respect? I did a little research, and it turns out they do. If you Google “buying trends of B2B buyers”, you will find over and over again that one of the most influential factors in buying decisions is the word of trusted peers and colleagues.

Yet, as marketers, we don't devote a lot of time and resources to garnering this third-party validation from trusted customers. That's unfortunate because it’s the best kind of marketing in my opinion. If we really look into our hearts and think about our buying decisions, they’re often infused with the voice of the customer.

Some of the best blog posts, web copy, and ads use this customer voice. When I was at Meridian in its small start-up days, we didn't have a big marketing budget, so what we did was make customers happy. We flew to their locations, helped them build their mobile apps, and then we said, “Hey, in return for this work, do you mind if we pitch this success story to the Wall Street Journal?” That's how we got a lot of our marketing.

Later, when Meridian was acquired by HP, Meg Whitman, an amazing leader, got on stage and what did she do? She brought a customer from Home Depot up with her, and they talked about how they use HP’s services.

Clearbit does an amazing job of creating beautiful case studies on their customers too. They use a lot of these testimonials in Facebook ads. I think those ads are way more attractive than the ones without testimonials.

Building a case for customer marketing with leadership

Before you can start doing this kind of customer marketing, you have to build a case with your company’s leadership. One of the things that I recommend doing is showing some stats about buying behaviors to get your key stakeholders’ buy-in.

Another argument in favor of customer marketing that you can use to get your leaders on board is that you're not just engaging the customer for, say, a case study – you're also doing this to also study the user. Case studies aren't just good for attracting prospects; the feedback that you collect in the process can also help inform product development.

The third argument in the case for customer marketing is that it helps the sales team. Every CEO knows that if you have a sales team, they're always asking for more and more customer references to help close deals. Customer marketing, of course, does a great job of equipping sales with that.

Sales teams are usually happy to get any kind of customer testimony they can. My colleague Derek Kim at Calendly did a wonderful job of taking existing case studies and repackaging them into a slide format for sales, and sales loved it.

Tips for building out your customer reference program

Alright, so now that I've built a case for why you should build a customer reference program, I'm going to give you five easy tips on how to implement it.

Tip #1: Formally present your customer reference program.

When you bring your pitch to the c-suite, use some stats, present some research, and show examples of other companies doing customer referencing to create that fear of missing out.

Make sure you give your program a name too. If this is just something that you do on top of your regular day job and it hasn't been formalized as a program, you're probably not going to get many resources or people behind it. Call it a customer advisory board, call it a customer reference program, call it anything. Just give it a name, and formalize it within the company.

Tip # 2: Survey your customers and see if they want to participate.

If you just reach out to CS and ask if they have any customers that can serve as references, that's going to take a long time. CS might even be a little bit protective of their customers. Instead, see if you can get approval to run a voice of the customer survey, where you tap into NPS scores and ask customers if they're happy and whether they would be a reference.

Super secret tip: don't just say, “Will you be a customer reference?” Lay out different options to do so. You can help out your other teams here too. So send out a little email to those customers with high NPS scores, telling them that they’re your favorite customers and asking if they would like to…

  1. Talk to your product team about new initiatives,
  2. Beta test new products with the product team,
  3. Get promoted in a… video case study, written case study, public speaking opportunity,
  4. Be a sales reference, or
  5. Be a VC reference?

When you give multiple options, the customer usually won't say no right away. If you just give one option, they tend to think of the worst type of customer reference activity and automatically say no. Let your customers opt into whatever type of referencing appeals to them most.

A lot of times, small startups in particular will use a customer too much for VC references, then they use them for sales references, and then when they ask for a case study the customer is already tired. So you want to make sure you're only getting them to opt into the activities that they’re interested in.

Tip # 3: Keep track of your customers’ participation and reward them.

There are a lot of different systems like ReferenceEdge and Salesforce that you can use to track your references once you get a little more sophisticated, but you can start with a simple Google Sheet. Keep track of the customer, what they're willing to do, what they've already done for you, who the owner is, and so on. It doesn't have to be complicated.

This isn’t just so you can reward your customers later (although you should), it’s to make sure that the right hand is talking to the left in your organization. For example, someone on your team might reach out to a customer for a reference, and if you're not keeping track of this, another team member might not know that they shouldn't reach out two days later for some other customer research initiative.

You’ve got to keep track of all these different activities so you can make sure you're respecting the customer's time. I think sometimes we forget that these customers don't work for us, we work for them.

And then, of course, keeping track of everything that your customers are doing for you makes it much easier for you to make sure you're rewarding them and holding yourself accountable for that.

Tip #4: Hack your customer calls to provide value to other teams

Whether you're a product marketer doing customer discovery work, or you’re a customer reference manager trying to get a testimonial, hack that call to get the most value you can out of it.

Let's say that you are doing a customer discovery call to find out why someone decided to buy and what feedback they have. In that call, say, “While I’ve got you, can I ask what you love about our product?” record it, and then take that little snippet and share it in Slack. Share it in Notion too. You want everyone to see why this customer loves your product.

I promise you, doing this kind of slicing and dicing works, and killing two birds with one stone in customer calls will make everyone much happier.

Tip #5: Treat each customer like the hub of a hub-and-spoke system of storytelling

Shower the world with each customer's love. One of the mistakes I often see is people reaching out to different customers for every type of reference. They ask one customer for a case study, another customer for a speaking op, and yet another customer for a VC reference.

Instead, you want to capture that customer's story as your hub and see how much you can squeeze that lemon. Use it for a case study, a video interview, a press mention, and customer research work.

This story will become famous within your company because everybody's going to be hearing about it, and it’s going to become very well known in the market too. Best of all, you're not doing a ton of work trying to get thousands of customer references; you're making the most of the customer references you already have.