How to create a successful customer reference

Kate Pluth

24 June 2021

Customer references are an essential part of B2B marketing. Prospects are keen to see examples of your previous, relevant successes. Having customers willing to testify to your product’s success is an important signal for any prospective customer. Successful, engaging customer references confirms the effectiveness of your solution. 

Customer references pose a challenge for B2B marketers. Enabling both frequency and quality can be difficult if the process isn’t considered ahead of time. Successful customer reference programs will be driven by clearly defined development stages, as well as creative thinking to produce a compelling narrative.

Based upon 30 years of experience working with the world’s leading B2B brands, we’ve collected and outlined the four most important factors to consider when looking to develop high quality, consistent customer references.

1. Briefing and background

The critical starting point. Without first gathering the full context – ahead of speaking to the customer – your customer story is going nowhere. Don’t ask the customer to do the hard work by briefing you. Gather the full story, good and bad, before using any of their valuable time. This is even more important if the story is captured in video.

A successful customer reference needs:

  • A compelling and engaging narrative
  • Clearly communicated brand messaging
  • An unambiguous description of use cases
  • The product/solution, with a precise explanation of capabilities
  • The impact of the customer’s achievement of goals, ideally with KPIs

These are the building blocks that explain what the customer is achieving with the product and why it matters.

If this information is not available or crystal clear, the value of creating the story needs to be questioned. Sometimes the power of getting a customer’s brand into the public domain may override these points but be clear on this with internal stakeholders.

2. Establish your narrative storytelling

Without a compelling, carefully considered narrative your story will be bland, and it is unlikely time poor prospects will invest the effort needed to read or view it.

The earlier the arc of your story can be determined the better. It should be jointly agreed by the storyteller, the budget holder and the product owner to ensure it is creative and credible. Most importantly, it must successfully communicate why the reader should care. The interests of the prospects or other audiences, must override internal preferences.

If you are working with an agency to develop your customer references, it’s important to confirm the narrative early – before even interview planning takes place.

It can be tempting to try to fit in every possible point about a customer’s engagement in a single story, but the goal should be to coherently land the most compelling achievements, not to write the longest list of features used or benefits attained.

3. Stakeholder management

A customer reference often serves many different people, so efficient stakeholder management is essential.

The sales team want another weapon in their arsenal, the product team want the solution highlighted, the customer is worried about how they are being presented. And that’s before legal or corporate comms teams have sucked the life from it through formal approval requirements.

After all these views have been considered, the audience must still want to read the final output. Poor stakeholder management can leave your final customer reference aimless and boring.

All stakeholders need to input to the creation process, providing their ideas and surfacing issues early. Just avoiding them simply isn’t an option.

However, it should be made clear how much each stakeholder should be involved in the process, and who is the owner of the story. Make it clear who has the ultimate decision. Stakeholder interviews should clarify both the information needed and required involvement, rather than give too much opportunity for conflicting feedback.

Establishing and sticking to the pre-agreed narrative is crucial at this stage.

4. Don’t over complicate things

After ensuring you have all the right components for a successful customer reference, remember not to over complicate it.

A straightforward process and clear narrative will ensure your audience know exactly what they’re getting, and your team know exactly where and how to contribute.

If you’re confused during the development stages, it’s likely your audience will be left scratching their heads too.

Should all of this have left you wondering how to get started, read more about setting up a strong content process here.