Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Next time you sit inside a CAB...

I recently attended the CAB Exchange, a small conference about customer advisory boards (CABs). I had some appreciation of what CABs are about, but had not dived deep into the subject before, so if you have been running a CAB for years, I may be stating the obvious here.

Most people talk about customer reference programs and CABs in the same sentence, which is understandable because both try to leverage satisfied customers for the benefit of the company. While the two concepts are linked, they work in opposite directions. Customer references are outward-looking activities in the sense that we take what the customer says and try to blast it out to the universe for everyone to hear.

CABs are very different because they are inward-looking. The goal of a CAB is not to get quotes from customers, tell them the roadmap or give them a C-level product pitch, but to listen to them. After a successful CAB, you should have a truckload of tasks and ideas to implement in marketing, product development, customer support and business development. The hard thing is to implement these ideas across the enterprise and show results to keep your CAB members interested.

CABs in a nutshell: Shhhhhhhhh, listen.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Testimonials can boost web site traffic

Luke Parker suggests a great way to drive website traffic through testimonials. If you're not only responsible for your company's customer reference program but also for website traffic, you will love this guerrilla marketing tactic.

The idea is not to use testimonials from your customers but testimonials you have written yourself, attributed to yourself, about other products and services in your industry that you don't compete with. By including your company name and website in the attribution of the quote, you can drive traffic back to your site. Watch Luke's video on the topic for the full story. Even though the video's music is very cheesy, I just love the way his marketing brain works.

An antidote to unhappy customers

It's a fact: Every company has happy and unhappy customers, and unhappy customers are more vocal than happy ones. It seems as if unhappiness is a real motivator for people to spread the word, potentially over the Internet to thousands of people. Think Dell Hell.

Customer reference programs are a great way to turn the tide by giving the happy customers more of a voice. I recently read of testimonials as "intermediated word-of-mouth marketing" (I can't remember the source), which is a great way to look at it. Although more authentic and convincing, pure word of mouth marketing is difficult for a company to influence and shape. Customer reference programs solve this problem by listening to happy customers and giving them a strong voice, counterbalancing the vocal dissatisfied customers.

So what's the main cause for customers to be dissatisfied? Product? Support services? You guessed wrong: Several surveys measured that employee attitude is the cause for 68% of lost business.

This raises an interesting question: Should the reference managers also look out for vocal, dissatisfied customers to turn them around? Or is this the responsibility of other departments, say sales (for enterprise customers) or the customer service department (for consumers)? Many companies don't seem to have a process for monitoring and satisfying disgruntled clients.

Next time someone flames your company on the Internet, pick up the phone or open your email client and reach out to the customer. Unhappy customers that have been taken seriously and have been satisfied have been found to be more loyal than customers who've never had a problem. After you have solved the problem, why not ask them to return the favor, rectify or delete their blog rant and to give you a testimonial. They'll probably be so glad you reached out to them that they'll do it. People are more forgiving than you may think.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Say it through a testimonial

If you're advertising that you're the best hot dog stand in town, people will probably think you're just bragging. There are some things that simply backfire if you say them directly. You can solve this problem by having someone else say it for you, making it so much more believable, and it doesn't even matter that much who says it.

Granted, a testimonial from your local "eating out" magazine or from a renounced hot dog connoisseur may sound swanky, and everybody loves a great name (or "brand" for us marketing folks), but are these sources really relevant to the average customer? Your average customer, say a construction worker, may not really be able to relate to the testimonial by a TV chef. Think about whom you really need before asking for testimonials. Likely it will be a mixture of different customers - think of your market segments and find a testimonial for each of them (prioritize in order of market segment size).

Typically, a company's testimonials will be written by the same marketing person, based on a quick conversation with the customer. As a result, all testimonials will sound very similar in style and tone.

I've read the recommendation to keep typos and grammar mistakes in the testimonials so they don't lose their authenticity, but I would not recommend this approach for most companies because it both detriments the company's and the customer's professionalism. However, I agree that you should not over-polish your testimonials because they will otherwise lose all of their authenticity. Testimonials that are not perceived to be authentic lose all value, even worse, they can even backfire when readers feel manipulated.

If you want to read about how to craft a testimonial, I recommend the posting 5 Tips for Knockout Testimonials on Copyblogger for some additional tips on what to do and what best to avoid.

Friday, August 17, 2007

How to build a trusting relationship with your sales force

Many reference managers seem to suffer from overly protective sales reps who don't want anyone to call their accounts, fearing they'll destroy their years of careful nurturing. Other sales reps may just never return your calls, and you hate them for it.

Rather than antagonizing with sales reps, try to understand their perspective. Unlike most marketing professionals, sales reps' salaries (and ultimately jobs) are directly linked to the revenue they create for the company. This is hard, because there are a lot of factors account managers cannot control: contacts change jobs, budgets are cut and competitors offer dumping prices. So they try to control the parts that they can: access to their customers.

Instead of blaming the sales reps, make it easy for them to work with you, provide immediate value and most importantly build a trust relationship. Here are some things you may want to consider:
  1. Be respectful of the sales reps time. Keep emails and phone calls short and to the point.
  2. Tell them in advance what you're planning to do.
  3. Copy them on each email you send to a customer so they know what's going on.
  4. If you're planning to do something out of the ordinary with a customer, discuss it with them first.
  5. When you talk to a customer, send them a brief email with a summary of your conversation. (You should write that summary for your notes anyway, so you won't need a lot of time to do this.)
  6. Be there when a rep needs your help, for example when trying to convince your finance department to grant a discount for a reference customer.
  7. If you hear that a customer contact left, the phone number changed or that a company is looking for an additional product in your space, let them know. It saves them time and potentially makes them money. And money makes friends.
It takes a while to get your sales reps accustomed to working with you, but once you build a trusting relationship, your sales force will become a powerful ally.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Customers up for adoption

I strongly believe in listening to customers to make your company successful. Fred Reichheld brings this down to a simple formula by asking customers whether they would recommend a certain product or company to their family and friends, providing a simple metric of customer satisfaction. If you're interested in the idea, read his blog, where you can also download the first chapter of his book "The Ultimate Question".

So what do you do to make your company truly customer-centric? David Hersh's recent post tells us about a customer adoption program, the idea being that senior executives adopt customers and act as a free implementation consultant to them. As a result, they find out from a grass-root level what works and what doesn't. Unless things go horribly wrong, these customers should make great reference customers.

This is a fantastic idea, but it is only bound to work in corporations where the culture and senior executives embrace the concept. At AOL, each employee, including the CEO, needs to spend one day a year in the corporate call center that is gets calls from customers who want to discontinue service. This is a great program to ensure that corporations know and cater for their customers.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Weeding out

Yes, it's a lot of work to get a reference customer on board and a case study signed off, but there is a time you'll have to let go. Great customers become good customers, become bad customers.

The process is gradual, so when is the right time to break the tie? While you'll probably be in touch with most of your references on a regular basis, make sure that you keep tabs on all of them and give each reference a call at least once a quarter to make sure that they aren't having problems with your product and that they're still using it. Don't let your prospects be the ones to find out that your public reference moved on to a competitor.

Make sure that you update each case study at least every year (some people recommend 6 months) so that you're not advertising outdated technology. Otherwise your prospects may think you're not cutting-edge.