Monday, February 27, 2006

"Bad Advice" About Customer References, 1 of 3

First things first: if you are a corporate marketer, listen closely and heed the counsel of your expensive PR consultants. When they tell you that they are going to need customer references, believe it and make it your #1 priority. Seriously. #1.

As much as we clever, creative PR types like to think that we can be successful in media relations without customer references, sooner or later it will be “mission critical.”

This post marks the first of a 3-part sequence of advice about Customer Reference programs that, frankly, most PR folks might think represents BAD ADVICE. But having made every mistake in the book by now, I am going to play the contrarian and suggest that these are GOOD IDEAS re: Customer References.

“Bad Advice” – Let Your PR Agency Manage The Reference Program…All Of It.

Most corporate marketers insist on maintaining a substantial measure of control over customer contacts. They think that these relationships are so sensitive-to-the-touch that the gentle prodding of a mere PR pro could put the kibosh on a multi-million dollar deal. The corporation feels it needs to “own” the relationship.

Yet in my experience, internal PR managers are either too timid or too ham-handed to move the ball downfield when it comes to the customer reference program.

In my experience, the most successful PR programs are forged when the client trusted their agency partner to be discreet, judicious and strategic about making direct contact with their customers, and simply handed over the contact list (after a head’s-up to the customer and to in-house sales contacts).

The good agency will never screw this up. It’s too important. We have special kid-skin gloves for just for dealing with our client’s customer list. And here’s the deal: we are good at coaxing references out of the client’s customers.

The agency can make the customer feel at ease about the process. Rather than simply ask for the reference, we can best explain the various levels of referenceablity. (“How about if we only call you for business press opportunities, say, a maximum of 3 times this year? How would you feel about attaching your name to a bylined article that we’d write for you?” etc.)

We can also soothe the customer contact’s trepidations about their lack of media savvy; we can ease away the angst of the customer’s internal PR group.

In this process, the agency often learns things that the client’s PR manager would not, because we are viewed, accurately, as an unbiased 3rd party. We hear about deployment snafus, product bugs, support problems, etc. (Better the agency hears it than the WSJ reporter, eh?) We also hear honest tales about the customer’s original and on-going pain points.

It’s an invaluable dialogue. We can use these frank dispatches from street-level users to formulate fresh pitch ideas that will carry the entire program forward.

Tomorrow: watch for part 2, more "bad advice" about customer references.

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