Customer Reference Management and the Self-Service Imperative
I'm a great proponent of self-service, but not when I'm asked to press 1 for this and 7 for that, only to be put on hold for 20 minutes and then connected with someone who asks me all the same questions that I've just painstakingly answered by pressing buttons.
Since the mid-1990s the trend toward self-service has accelerated at a dizzying pace. In some cases it's been merely a cost savings measure with more attention being paid to the self (read: not our people) than service. That began to change in the late '90s as more self-service moved online. The trend has been to improve service by improving access to real-time data, extending the range of online capabilities, and giving customers 24x7 access points to their bank accounts, health insurance records, and of course retailers. Web self-service has become a way of life, personal and business.
It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad Scramble
One area of business that seems to have been forgotten in this Web service movement is the customer reference management process. For decades, even centuries, the process has remained pretty much the same. A salesperson is asked for references and a scramble ensues.
"Who's referenceable today in this vertical, using these products, running on this platform? Is there one place to search or do I need to blast an email to the entire sales team? And how long with all of this take, because the deal won't happen until references are provided."
It's well known that customers are an important part, sometimes the most important part, of closing new business. But getting their involvement is a messy, time-consuming process for both sales and marketing. There may be hundreds of consumers of reference assets in your company including sales, PR, investor relations, and analyst relations. They all want access to the same set of satisfied customers and this access needs to be carefully coordinated and tracked, but how?
Build an Online Library
Today you can leverage the strengths of the Web to manage your customer reference program. Begin by establishing a central clearinghouse for reference resources and activity. Excel or Word won't cut it for this job. Information needs to be real-time (one source of the "truth") and accessible to every stakeholder around the globe.
"So let's use that CRM system we spent bazillions on," you say.
Well, maybe. The reference management environment includes a lot of unique fields and workflows, and it changes regularly. If you have an IT organization at your beck and call and a budget to make the necessary customizations then you're in rarified air. For most of us, though, this means building or buying a specialized application. Regardless, be sure the solution is adaptive and flexible for business users. A solution that stops growing with the needs of the function quickly falls out of use and the investment is lost.
Let Audio and Video References Do the Heavy Lifting
Once you've got the management of the reference content under control, what about the live customer to prospect interactions? You can't do much about the calendar gymnastics and frequently recurring plea bargains your customers have come to know you for, right? Wrong. Media use on the internet has come a long way. With the right approach you can effectively capture your customers as they describe their experience with your company and its products using audio or video. When executed correctly, these objective recordings can replace a large percentage of live reference calls. The first generation of these new media testimonials were highly scripted and largely used as feel good pieces at user conferences or on the corporate Web site. This is fine for the very early stages of the sale, but totally insufficient for the due diligence needs of prospects. The second generation, the evolution of this approach, encourages openness and reality.
Record Candid Customer Insights
What if your customers' recorded impressions are detailed, conversational, and candid? What type of organization would bare all at such a delicate stage of a sale?
It says that you are confident in your ability to perform and to execute on promises. This honest approach sets expectations about the openness a prospect can expect in the relationship. It's a powerful message, and most likely different from your competitors. It also prevents overuse of your best customers, thereby protecting customer relationships.
Self-service Increases Control
It's time to provide your sales and marketing teams with the same kinds of Web services they've grown to expect in their personal lives. The gains in productivity justify these investments alone, but the real win is in the measured use of your customer references and the preservation of those valuable relationships.
David Sroka is the president and CEO of Point of Reference. Point of Reference provides a combination of processes, technology and focus to deliver complete customer reference solutions for businesses. He can be reached at email@example.com. Or visit www.point-of-reference.com
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