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No more customer-reference fire drills.
Posted Aug 13, 2009
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In tough economic times, companies still willing to spend money need to ensure they are making a solid investment, and that means more due diligence. As a result, sales references are more important than ever. So now all the vendor has to do is match a happy customer with a prospect.

Sounds easy, right? Wrong!

Companies selling complex products in multiple markets know that finding a good reference can be like finding a needle in a haystack. Even after a potential fit has been identified, getting that customer to agree to a call with the prospect is a whole other challenge. It can feel as chaotic as a disorganized fire drill every time a reference request comes in.

Why does such a seemingly straightforward task often become a huge burden? First of all, many companies do not have a process in place to handle customer-reference requests. Without that, the responsiblity of identifying a match is in the hands of the individual salespeople. In general, salespeople are incented to work independently; therefore, they are unlikely to have access to the deals other representatives may have won. All too often, sales professionals find themselves working frantically to uncover possible references that may "belong" to other salespeople or accounts. Collaboration is low, especially when it takes away from another salesperson's own selling activity. Without a person or group responsible for organizing, managing, and processing all references, successfully matching a customer and prospect is extremely difficult.

The good news is, the madness can be resolved once an organized approach for fulfilling sales references is put into place. The most important aspect of successfully fulfilling reference requests is establishing a process for doing so. The process can be simple but it must be clearly communicated and enforced. The entire company must know, understand, and abide by this new process. Only then can salespeople focus on spending more time on other selling activities rather than searching for references. Sales will never have to run the fire drill again. Better yet, results will improve.

Follow this framework to jump-start your sales reference process:

Think about the big picture: Determine goals the sales team would like to achieve. For example, if the current reference fulfillment rate is only 50 percent, aim to increase that metric. Companies with this objective in mind have seen boosts in their fulfillment rate to nearly 95 percent in just one year.

Build a process to achieve your goal: Start by increasing accountability. Depending on the size of the organization and the number of reference requests coming in, assign an individual or team to be responsible for managing the entire process. Identify measurable goals that will be evaluated on a regular basis and consider rewarding frequent communication of results and activities. Then, map the actual process based on input from the entire sales team. During this process, there are critical questions to consider:

  • How will incoming requests be communicated to all relevant parties?
  • What will the team do with the requests once they are received?
  • Should the team invest in sales reference management software? Use existing CRM software tools? Or create a home-grown tracking process?
  • How will the team contact existing customers?
  • How will the team track activities and results?
  • When will the team evaluate progress and return on investment?

Obtain senior-level support: Once the process is defined, solicit the endorsement and support of upper management and every stakeholder involved as a way to help motivate and ensure employee participation. Sales professionals must understand the value of this process and recognize that communication will be critical to its success. Utilize communication tools such as email and meeting updates to help keep the process rolling.

By following these steps, companies will soon have in place a sales reference process that will put an end to the fire drills and see a dramatic and measurable impact on the business's ability to grow and succeed. Different companies, of course, will require different processes: While larger enterprises with complex selling cycles can afford to invest in customer reference management software, smaller companies may benefit from a simple, well-documented process and manual tracking system. But regardless of size, improving sales efficiency and results are consistently a top priority. Eliminating the current fire drill-like experience of customer reference requests, sales will close more quickly, smoothly, and happily.

About the Author

Joshua Horwitz worked in marketing for several software companies in the late 1990s and quickly learned many companies struggle when it comes to leveraging customer references during the sales cycle. In 2003, he founded enterprise customer reference solution Boulder Logic. Horwitz also blogs at http://www.referencesuccess.com, and is on Twitter as @boulderlogic. He can also be reseached at jhorwitz [at] boulderlogic.com.

Please note that the Viewpoints listed in CRM magazine and appearing on destinationCRM.com represent the perspective of the authors, and not necessarily those of the magazine or its editors.

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