Are You Putting Your Rock Star Customers to Work?


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Six Things You Need to Know About the Powerful Growth Engine Hidden Right Under Your Nose

If you think of your customers only as buyers of your products or services, think again. By finding, nurturing, and leveraging your potential “Rock Star” customer advocates, you can put them to work selling, innovating, building your brand…and growing your business in the best possible way.

Are you ready to grow your company? If so, the business world is full of specialists who are all too eager to help. Brilliant ad agencies and clever marketing communications experts. Highly trained salespeople. Talented product developers. Even PhD analytics eggheads. And while these professionals certainly have valuable services to offer, they all fall short in a critical way: None of them come from the buyer’s world.

No one can truly understand your customers or genuinely share their interests unless she is a customer herself. Everyone else is a layer removed, which makes it exceedingly hard for them to relate to actual buyers and respond to their needs.

Increasingly, companies are figuring out that they do have a resource that does come from the buyer’s world, and that this resource is key to creating robust, organic growth. Your most powerful growth engine is your existing customer.

That’s right. If you can harness the knowledge, natural enthusiasm, and peer influence of your very best customers—I call them “Rock Star” customers—they’ll market, sell, and help develop breakthrough products for your firm better than your internal resources can do, and often at a fraction of the cost. In short, they provide a natural, organic, and deeply reliable way to grow a business.

Consider the superb results companies are getting from this new way of thinking about customers:

  • Customer salespeople achieved, in effect, 80 percent close rates for, which was key in growing their business in the face of much bigger, better-funded competitors.
  • SAS Canada “customer champions” helped the firm restore declining customer retention rates—which had fallen as low as the mid-80s percent—back to the firm’s traditional high retention rates of 97-98 percent.
  • Local MVP (most valuable professional) customers are critical in helping Microsoft penetrate foreign markets affordably and effectively, providing the firm its most effective marketing communications and saving it hundreds of millions of dollars in support costs.
  • Customer content and engagement built rapid growth in the success of Intel’s social media and Web-based marketing efforts, increasing “customer contacts” by a factor of tenfold and overall page views by 100x.
  • When 3M brought “lead users” into its innovation process, they improved revenues by a factor of eight times over innovations from internal product developers.

These are just a few of the powerful, growth-fostering impacts “Rock Star” customers are creating for a variety of companies. And engaging customers in such ways is generally much less expensive than hiring costly employees or agencies. But it does require some new thinking.
I share the following insights about finding and leveraging Rock Star customers:

  1. “Rock Stars” are not who you think they are.

    Often companies think their Rock Star customers are the biggest spenders, or the most loyal customers, or perhaps the marquee names or brands. Not necessarily. Loyal customers don’t always promote you (in fact, it’s likely they’re not doing so), big spending customers may not even be profitable or have a good story to tell, and marquee names or brands often have policies against advocating for the companies they buy for.

    So who are your potential high-value Rock Star customers? In my book, The Hidden Wealth of Customers, I provide a model for helping you find and cultivate them. I describe a hypothetical Rock Star named “Catie” who is a composite of the sorts of customer advocates used by, SAS Canada, and others. She might be a “promoter” of your firm in Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys, a member of several associations that interest you, and an avid social media networker.

    First, they’re loyal—that’s the price of admission.They have a good story to tell about how your product or service helped them succeed. Second, they’re eager to tell it. Third, they have access—and want to gain more access—to influential networks that contain more buyers like them. And fourth, they want to build their reputation and influence in such networks.

  2. They won’t grow your business on their own.

    Even customers who identify themselves as “promoters” in customer surveys—saying they’d be highly likely to refer your firm to a colleague or friend—aren’t actually doing so. Two studies have shown that only about 10 percent of promoters actually refer profitable new customers. You have to make it easy for them to do so.

    Some of the most creative technology coming out of Silicon Valley is designed to do exactly that. Firms such as IBM, GE, Intuit, VMware, SAP, Dell, Infor, and others are using these new technologies to:

    • Automatically turn customer surveys into customer success stories, complete with graphs and charts, and even industry data that can be used immediately for marketing and sales—while bypassing lengthy review and approval processes typical with traditional success stories.
    • Find and engage customer advocates using a gamification platform that makes it interesting and enjoyable to advocate.
    • Allow customers who identify themselves as promoters on surveys to immediately provide a recommendation on the spot. That recommendation can be automatically populated to their Facebook friends, LinkedIn colleagues, or Twitter followers. This has resulted in dramatic increases in sales.
  3. Rock Stars want professional growth benefits, not bribes.

    I urge companies to avoid giving rewards and prizes and other quid pro quo inducements. It’s often unethical, and at the least it detracts from the authenticity of a recommendation. What does work and is ethical is helping them build their social capital.

    That means helping your Rock Stars build their peer or professional networks, grow their reputations, and gain access to valuable knowledge. The beauty of this approach is that you’re helping your advocates build social capital by helping them tell the story of how successful they’ve been, due—in part—to your product or service. For example, when SAS Canada customer champions show their peers how to make better use of data, they gain status by showing their understanding of the issue and by achieving success. In the process, everyone understands that SAS Canada software was an important contributor.

  4. Traditional approaches to marketing and sales will only screw up customer advocacy.

    It’s painful to watch web-based media initiatives use traditional marketing techniques such as interruption advertisements or “all about us” marketing communications. It’s a little like hawking a “get rich quick in real estate” scheme at a TED conference. Wrong message, wrong audience.

    Intel realized this when its initial forays into web-based and social media marketing were going nowhere. While its B2B social media team was attracting large audiences in its market, it failed to engage them because it lacked credible, regularly refreshed content. Traditional corporate messaging—such as information about the company, its products and services lineups, their features and functionality and the like—wasn’t going to cut it in such an interactive medium.

    Once it became clear this “all about us” approach wasn’t working, Rhett Livengood, who runs the firm’s global customer engagement programs, took an approach of intelligent experimentation that kept in mind social media’s unique requirements (don’t try to control the conversation) and its opportunities (customers and buyers are starved for credible, relevant content).

    At first, Livengood and his team tried traditional pdf customer success stories on the corporate website. That provided relevant content from Intel’s most credible sources, which resulted in more engagement and downloads, but the results were still uninspiring. Then Intel began placing customer content on social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, as well as other firms’ websites where its buyers were active. Finally, it began experimenting with content delivery, and was among the first firms to exploit the power of video to tell customer stories. Short, well-told customer story videos proved most powerful, exponentially increasing engagement and lead generation for Intel.

  5. Community marketing is the best way to leverage Rock Star customers.

    Even if you’re a global firm, it’s a good idea to restore community marketing. New marketers are taking cues from the way people buy products and services in their local communities—e.g., a refrigerator, or flat screen, or a new roof, or family physician. Most people aren’t likely to seek out a salesperson to talk to, or collect company brochures. Rather, they’ll talk to their friends, neighbors, colleagues at work, or other peers to find out what or whom they’re using.
    Microsoft has deployed customer advocates brilliantly to leverage this natural approach to buying, particularly in its efforts to penetrate global markets where buyers don’t speak the language or know the culture. Microsoft will find local “MVP” customers who are well connected in their local communities, and who want to increase their status, and help them do so by providing access to early releases and “insider knowledge.” Getting known through established locals is faster—as well as more affordable—than trying to get locals to know you through advertising, PR, big splash events, and other traditional marketing approaches.

  6. It’s better to be a thought leader than to depend on the kindness of strangers.

    (Rock Star advocates can help.) Many firms fall into the rut of seeking influencers—such as bloggers with large followings, or prominent media personalities, or authors and other pundits—in their markets. I call this the “Blanche DuBois approach to marketing—it depends on the kindness of strangers.” I urge companies: Be the influencer. Be the thought leader in your market. Your Rock Star customers can help with this.

    A good company providing exceptional solutions to a market has two things that no outside influencer can match. You have actual customers who are happy, plus you have internal subject matter experts who work with these customers on a regular basis. That alone gives you far more valuable knowledge than the usual outside “influencer.”

    For example, Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) develops excellent technology in the data storage and knowledge management space, led by visionary Chief Technology Officer Hu Yoshida, and has won passionate customers in the process. But HDS was having trouble getting noticed against a much bigger, better-funded rival. So the firm unleashed those two assets: a brilliant internal expert, along with those passionate customers, to take a position of thought leadership in its space.

    The firm started putting on live seminars around the world, attended by many of those passionate customers, and unleashed Yoshida with his own blog. HDS expected to get perhaps 150 or so attendees at the seminars, but they wound up attracting double that, and generating millions of dollars in new business. And Yoshida’s blog—which combines a dynamic mix of his thoughts on the future of the industry, customer examples, and information about HDS solutions—became ranked as one of the “Top 10 Most Influential Blogs” within the storage industry by Network World.

The best thing about Rock Star customers is that they already exist. Your own “Caties” are already out there, quietly thriving under the radar, waiting for you to discover them and put them to work. Failing to do so is a little like being a homeowner who knows a stash of gold is hidden in his walls yet who never brings out the metal detector to find it. (Incredibly foolish, right? Especially in a tough economy!)

[Catie] can drive organic growth that “sticks” and bring in new customers who could benefit immensely from the value you provide. Your firm could be engaging with her to build a remarkable new exchange of exceptional value, in which you work with her to make her an increasingly powerful evangelist for your firm while helping her build her network, her reputation, and her business. Firms that miss this opportunity—or undermine it by offering poorly disguised bribes to get their customers to advocate for them—are leaving a lot of value, and a lot of profits, on the table.

Bill Lee
Bill Lee is author of The Hidden Wealth of Customers (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). He is also CEO of Customer Reference Forum, and has spent the last eight years building vibrant communities of customer advocacy professionals. His conferences have attracted leading global ?rms, such as Microsoft, Apple, Wells Fargo, McKesson, and others.


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