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Reference Point: ARE YOU EDUCATING THE BUYER?
February 2014                                                                               Gray
Hi Sdf,
 
If you want to reach and influence buyers today, you have to educate them. They can increasingly avoid traditional marketing and sales approaches that pitch, spin, manipulate, or try to control the conversation. Marketing and sales need to respond to this reality, and no one in your firm is better able to help them do so than customer advocacy and reference programs. Why? Because you have access to and relationships with the one resource buyers want most to hear from: their peers (your customers).
 
Here are some ideas on how to do leverage customer advocates to give buyers what they're demanding: education:
 
* Develop authentic customer stories.
Encourage customer references and advocates to provide more balanced stories, rather than "everything about your product and service is perfect." Of course, show how it played a critical role in your advocates' success. But also encourage the advocate to talk about the context--what factors make your solution ideal, and in what context your solution wouldn't be a good fit. Aim for authenticity, not spin. Your buyers know the difference.
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* Keep abreast with how your buyer's are purchasing.
In many industries, including yours very likely,  buyers' "decision journeys" are dramatically changing. Don't assume they're going through the same process they were a year, or six months ago. There are all kinds of tools out there to help you with this, but a good way to do so is just ask them. One firm (I can't mention the name) did this and found that a significant number of buyers--about 16%--relied solely or at least mainly on a few specific product review sites. When they crunched the numbers, this translated into $30-40 M in sales generated by these sites. You can bet they got their customer advocates providing reviews on them.

 

* Expand your horizons to the entire buyer's decision journey.
The days when references are just called in to close deals are long over. Buyers who increasingly demand to be educated are doing so in all stages of the decision journey, starting with "awareness" --and that means they're receptive to hearing from your customer advocates sooner. Sirius Decisions' Megan Heuer will share the latest research on what customer content they're interested in and when, at the 2014 Summit later this month..

 

* Get your advocates engaged with relevant 3rd party "educators." 
These include analyst firms as well as your industry's equivalent of Yelp-type firms. In the IT world, for example, Yelp-type firms include IT Central Station, G2Crowd, Credii, Trust Radius and others. These firms build communities of IT users to create and exchange information about various IT solutions--often it's surprisingly in-depth. Traditional analyst firms, meanwhile, responding to this trend, are often bringing in client customers into advisory boards and forums. Find the ones relevant to your buyers (see second tip above), and encourage your advocates to participate in these.

 

* Create events where advocates can educate buyers.
That is, instead of talking about your firm's products and services, host events (or have your advocates host events--I know of at least one company who's advocates have done so) where the topic is a compelling issue that your buyers are facing in their jobs and businesses. That will draw an audience. As your advocates show how they've addressed the issue successfully, your buyers will get the idea that your products and services helped. Fast-growth Apptio is focused on creating a "movement" in its market, and central to that effort is the Technology Business Management Council it formed a few years ago that focuses not on Apptio's offerings, but on helping CIOs and other CXOs to "identify and promote best practices for running technology organizations like a business." That compelling educational component draws elite members. The Council has expanded in the past two years from just over 200 members to more than a thousand, and includes senior technology executives from many of the top firms in the world, including Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Univision, Cisco, Time Warner, etc. Btw, Apptio's Maria Galindo will present on this at the 2014 Summit.
 
* Make liberal use of the most powerful relationship-building technology!
And note, it's not social media (which isn't even social, but I digress). The most powerful technology for building relationships is F2F (face-to-face). Marc Benioff--who invented cloud computing, and who you think would have built his firm using fancy analytics--relied most heavily on old fashioned F2F. He found that when he did live events with prospects and buyers, 80% of the prospects became customers themselves. Some of his sharper sales people began requesting budget to host prospect & customer events at local bars. These were very low budget, and included no presentations from SFDC people--just casual conversations between prospects and buyers. Result: 80% of those prospects became customers too.
 
 
Increasingly buyers demand to be educated. That's the new reality your marketing and sales departments are facing. You hold the keys to this new kingdom--the one resource your buyers most want to hear from. Resist the temptations to turn these into traditional marketing and sales pitch men and women. Turn them into genuine educators for your buyers.
 
All the best,
 
Bill  
 
Bill Lee, President  
Customer Reference Forum  
Author of 
The Hidden Wealth of Customers (June 2012, Harvard Business Review Press)
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