Why Do So Few Break Through?
When I started out in tech in the Valley, we were still producing physical clip reports using x-acto knives and Elmer’s paste. The office memo was far more commonplace than a relatively new innovation called email. There were dozens of industry publications dedicated to the burgeoning PC revolution, with entire sections devoted to the latest x86 processor, the hottest new display and the fastest-spinning disk drive.
So much has changed – and thankfully, progressed – in the world of b2b tech marketing in the last few decades. With one glaring exception: landing a customer reference remains the same frustrating cluster it’s always been.
I’m talking, of course, about getting customers who are willing – dare I even say, enthusiastic – to talk about how your solution is making a positive impact in their business. The customer reference has become b2b tech’s very own Sisyphean hell, as marketer after marketer rolls the customer reference boulder up the hill, only to have their hopes dashed – or to extend the big-damn-rock metaphor, squished – when the boulder rolls back down the hill with a resounding, No thanks.
Why is the customer reference still such a challenge? Here are the mistakes we see time and again.
You’re asking for a favor when you haven’t done squat. It usually starts with a poorly worded clause in a sales contract right after the initial purchase decision. E.g., “Customer agrees to participate in marketing activities, including displaying a customer’s logo in marketing materials, developing case studies and joint press releases, and quoting the customer in product testimonials….” Too often, it’s transactional, one-sided and not remotely strategic. And given that the vendor hasn’t provided any value yet, it’s off-putting – like asking a first date to sign a “meet-the-parents MOU” before the cocktails arrive.
You’re asking for a favor even when you have done squat. Even after a successful implementation, when vendors are providing value and the relationship is in a good place, too often they continue to ask for a favor. Sure, sometimes it might be thinly disguised in “this-will be-great-for-you” language, but more often than not, the customer perceives this as a favor.
You’re relying too much on sales reps and/or mid-level staff. In my experience, reps will follow the customer’s lead. If the rep is getting signals from the customer that references are inconvenient, annoying or otherwise troublesome, then they aren’t going to push. (Who can blame them?) Likewise, mid- or junior staff too often are tasked with “making references work.” But they keep getting squished under the boulder because they typically lack the experience and/or relationships to succeed.
The system is biased to ‘No.’ The lawyers who write the contracts (on both sides) are incented to say No. Most corporate policies are anti-reference. Most PR and marketing people – while quite willing to ask for references from others – default to No when the situation is flipped. (“We can’t provide a reference to everyone who asks,” “we’d have to give one to everyone.”) Bottom line, there’s a “No Bureaucracy.”
So what can be done? On the too-few occasions when I’ve seen it work, it’s almost always because the vendor has most or all of the following cylinders firing.
Instead of asking for a favor, they offer something of value. Vendors who make this work, think big – e.g., preferred customer programs, smart financial incentives, a “hotline to the CEO,” early access to technology.
They act like the customer’s marketing department. Smart vendors understand that the opportunity is to genuinely help the customer tell stories that benefit them. They have a strategic conversation with their customer’s business, marketing and communications leaders with an aim towards amplifying and reinforcing the customer’s marketing and comms objectives. Customer, not vendor, first.
They are willing references for their own vendors. It’s not rocket science. Be willing to do for your own vendors what you are constantly asking of your own customers.
Senior executives blaze the trail to ‘Yes.’ This one is fundamental, and unfortunately rare. Senior executives get involved early with their C-suite counterparts to talk about how co-marketing can be a joint win. They talk in the language of the customer and put the customer’s agenda forefront. They keep the conversation going as part of regular customer interactions. Senior executives who have proactive conversations with their counterparts are the ones most able to rise above the ‘No Bureaucracy.’
I’d love to hear from others on this. What have you seen? What are the pitfalls and what have you seen work? I’d love to see b2b tech finally gets this boulder to the top of the hill.