Customer references – the ace up your marketing team’s sleeve

Creation's Simon Clark offers tips on how agencies and brands can use customer references to alter brand perception.

Simon ClarkPR, communications and marketing are all powerful tools that help open doors and close deals. However, in today’s competitive landscape, customers, prospects and influencers all demand proof.

Strong data and industry award wins provide excellent validation to a business promise or marketing claim. However, one of the most valuable forms of endorsement is customers you can name in press and marketing materials, and third-party endorsers you can call on to sing your praises.

The more third party references for an organisation’s solutions or services that are out in the market, the more likely other key decision makers will speak with you.

The challenge

Public customer endorsements can be difficult for brands to secure. Not only do you need a willing customer but also a sales team who will take time out of their existing responsibilities to engage with collaborative leads. Customers need to be identified at the right time in the relationship via a genuine approach that results in a mutually beneficial outcome.

Having worked across a number of brands in the past 10 years that have used customer references to change their brand perception, I’ve put together some best practice tips to achieve impactful advocates.

Where to start?

It’s a good idea to think about case studies and reference programs at the beginning of the business relationship, and include it in contract negotiations if possible. Each contract negotiation is different and so it often depends on the nature of the relationship. Ideally, the seed is sown early in discussions and all parties understand that part of the contract agreement involves joint marketing and communications post-deal.

Not all sales executives feel comfortable making the connection between their customer and the marketing team, however, it doesn’t have to be awkward. The ask is simple – essentially the approach just involves asking:

  • Can we name you publicly as an organisation we do business with?
  • Can we announce our new business relationship in a media release as having selected the organisation (e.g. a win announcement)?
  • Can we craft a case study (written / video) post implementation to share your story with media and to be used in marketing materials?

What’s in it for the customer?

Partnering on marketing activity is also a way for the customer to get his, her or the organisation’s brand out in the media. Joint PR can have mutual awareness benefits for all parties involved. PR offers an opportunity to reward customers for participating as references. The customer gets excellent visibility because they can be positioned as leaders in their fields. The vendor is also positioned in a positive light as the adoption of that organisation’s product or services has helped the customer achieve their business objectives.

How do you engage the sales team?

True success is achieved when the sales team is motivated to seek out these references. We suggest the sales team is provided with customer reference targets that are monitored and rewarded regularly. Ideally senior management or the CEO will reinforce the importance of these targets and successful customer stories will be applauded widely across the organisation. Seeking customer references should be embedded in how the team operates.

This direction needs to come from the top, not just marketing, to ensure it’s taken seriously. The best outcome is a sales team that works in tandem with marketing.

What can marketing do to make the process smoother?

It is also important to enable the sales team with the talking points and tools that will help them secure customer references. The task can be made very simple for them by preparing communications materials in advance when engaging customers. This can include suggested email approaches for asking about a reference through to questionnaires that help develop a storyline for how your organisation has impacted their business.

Ultimately, these materials will set up marketing with what they need to then create a customer reference treasure box of case study materials, win announcements, sales brochures and fact sheets.

Sometimes you really need to get deep into your customer base to find the true advocates and brand lovers. This can be achieved by tapping into the best connected sales executives or by leveraging the numerous social and data driven tools out there to hone in on which customers would make the best references for your brand.

There’s got to be a least one customer out there that is benefitting from your product or service – that’s happy to speak on your behalf and work with you on joint marketing. Your customers can tell a compelling story, particularly with:

  • The right messaging prepared in advance
  • Strong proof points backed up with data
  • A confident and charismatic spokesperson
  • The right connection with the right journalist

Simon Clark is a senior account director at Creation, a Weber Shandwick agency


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.