Who makes a good customer reference?


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If you’re building a customer reference program, or taking a good hard look at how your current program works, this is the right question to ask. All customers are not equally good candidates for your program.

Before answering this question a gap analysis should be conducted to make sure that you know a) the segments that need coverage today, and b) those that are up-and-coming. The current demand is most easily identified by getting a sales pipeline report from your CRM system. You can slice and dice that information by, for instance, industry, product/solution, and geography; as well as criteria combinations (e.g., product A and healthcare). Once your target segments are identified, then it’s time to think about your ideal customer reference profile, which should include:

* Tenure – A customer reference should have some experience with your products/solution to share with prospective customers. Results, especially measurable, are the bottom line. A customer that can say how your solution is changing their business is more compelling than the one that says the really like a certain feature, or their account manager.

* Level – Generally you want to provide references of equivalent level, or seniority, to the contacts at the prospective customer organization. That might include c-level, director-level, manager-level and even front line people who are influencers. Having a good mix of reference resources allows for peer matching and higher relevancy.

* Activity Threshold – At what point do you define a customer as a reference? Is it when they agree to a press release about selecting you as a partner? Is it when they agree to their first phone reference? Is it when you have a focused conversation with them and gain participation in a variety of activities such as speaking opportunities, guest blogging, or giving a video interview, etc.? Will their availability and responsiveness be adequate or will getting a hold of the Queen of England be easier? You need to decide what level commitment equates to program membership.

* Personality & Passion – We’ve always said that an energetic and passionate manager-level reference is more compelling than a tentative, dry c-level reference. But that’s not meant to be blanket statement. It depends a lot on how you intend to use a customer reference. For live events and for video the more personality and passion, the better. For written case studies, on the other hand, it’s not as important because the writer can take artistic license.

It’s common to fall into a “beggars can’t be choosers” mindset when embarking on your recruiting project. But if you take a moment to develop a more deliberate approach the end result will be a higher quality pool and a more efficient program.

David Sroka
David is a multifaceted sales and marketing veteran with a deep appreciation for the value of customer reference insights and experiences. Point of Reference helps enterprise companies leverage customer references to fuel business growth and fortify brands. This approachable, finely tuned team of industry-engaging leaders and tech facilitators deliver an intuitive solution that elevates company references, tracks how marketing influences sales and boosts brand momentum.


  1. I definitely agree about both passion and level. Two things that are often overlooked. With level, as long as it is something that is considered, it can show through on paper. Passion, not as much. It is often lost in translation, and that’s too bad because it really is key.

  2. . . . Customer Reference Management and Customer Relationship Management. In the ’90’s, I groomed “Reference Customers” in a similar way to what you described. But I’m unclear whether I can do that any more–or whether I need to do that. I’ve heard many people hollering about prospects having information power, but in the aspect of prospects learning from the experiences of actual clients, I emphatically agree. Customers talk, and social media has made it possible for their experiences, thoughts, feelings, happiness, and frustrations to be aired and consumed. There are few impediments, except for lack of an Internet connection.

    Increasingly, what matters most are not the references we select as vendors, but which customers select themselves as spokespeople, how vocal they are, what they have to say, who they say it to, and through which media. The four dimensions you describe–tenure, level, activity threshold, and passion–are important, but ultimately, prospects will be influenced by what many customers have to say–not just the ones I want my prospects to know about.

    Assuming that’s true, where is the boundary between References and Relationships? It makes sense that if relationships are managed properly, references will be, too.

  3. Thanks for the comment Andrew. Perhaps some context is needed for my post. I was writing about B2B buying situations involving enterprise solutions: big ticket, often complex purchases. Today (all things are subject to change) it’s hard to imagine social media-sourced business references for B2B enterprise solutions being as accessible, relevant and meaningful as those who have been fully qualified and categorized for fast access by a formal reference program. When a reference is requested by a buyer the ask is pretty specific (e.g., same industry, same platform, same enterprise size, X years of experience with the product, etc.). If you’re the economic buyer just imagine finding that needle in the social media haystack. Wow, makes my head hurt. I have a hard enough time finding an adequate supply of meaningful product reviews of home electronics. They’re loaded with emotion and feelings, but more often than not lacking in objective details I can rely upon.


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