The CMO’s Customer Conundrum and Why You Should NEVER “Ask for a Favor”

We hear almost daily from our clients that they are challenged with converting customers to become marketing and PR advocates. Common cries from CMOs and VPs of Marketing include: “They will never talk!” “They were interested in helping us out, but now they are upset due to integration issues.” “The sales guy won’t even give us their contact information to start a conversation!”

Why is this such a universal problem that seems to only be getting worse? Logic would say that if you have a great product — and it’s consistently delivering value for your customers — that those content customers would be happy to assist by participating in a webinar, talking to an industry analyst, or contributing a quote in a press release. After all, humans are wired to genuinely want to help one another, so why don’t customers “do a favor” and assist their vendors with marketing and PR requests?

Customers = Gold (a coveted commodity meant to be guarded for dear life)
A customer reference is like gold for emerging technology companies – and established ones for that matter. The challenge is the sales team wants to hang onto such “gold” like aggressive miners from the days of the California Gold Rush of 1849. Salespeople see their customers as their customers – and rightfully so, carefully restricting access to such prized possessions and almost always reserving them for their next big deal. The typical “closing” sales scenario reaches its final critical phase near the bottom of the funnel when the only thing left for the prospect to do to “seal the deal” is to speak to a happy customer who will sing the company’s technology praises, resulting in the prospect moving forward with a purchase order.  But when you have a type A salesperson on a mission to hit their year-end quota to earn President’s Club recognition and a luxurious trip to Paris, the game changes. Truth be told: most coin-operated salespeople are motivated by commissions and maintaining the primary relationship with the customer, and not “playing nice” with marketing.

It’s Not a Zero-Sum Game
We like to think about customer references on a continuum – on one side you have the very cautious customer from a risk-averse Fortune 500 company who faces internal “corporate communications police” on a daily basis and may only be available to participate in a very minor capacity; whereas on the opposite end of the continuum, you have a very ebullient, customer champion who wants to see her or his “name in lights” and use the positive publicity to build their own personal brand and to advance their  career  – not to mention, enjoy an all-expenses paid trip to Las Vegas to speak at a major event like CES.

Find the Win-Win, but Never Ask for a Favor!
Regardless of whether you desire customer advocate is at one of these extremes or in the area between, you should never ask them to do a favor for marketing or PR purposes.  You have to find “what’s in it for them and their company,” and then find a win-win scenario where they would also realize value when they give up their precious time to become a mouthpiece for you.

Bigger is Not Always Better
Many companies – especially Series A-B funded start-ups – want to appear bigger than they are so they can improve their chances of selling into large enterprises and move beyond the SMB market (where deal sizes are much smaller). One strategy to elevate your brand is to associate your company with bigger brands – such as Goldman Sachs, Nordstrom, or Mercedes – as you target vertical buyers in financial services, retail, automotive or other industries. But bigger is not always better when it comes to leveraging brands for marketing and PR, because the larger the company, the bigger the obstacles in converting a customer champion to sing your product’s praises. All things being equal, you want a household name Fortune 500 customer, with a senior executive spokesperson who is as ebullient and smooth as a silver-tongued politician to conduct media interviews, do a video case study, and participate in a webinar.  And, good luck with that – you would have more success finding a unicorn or winning the lottery!

Beggars can’t be choosers, so “think small” when kicking off your customer reference program. It’s perfectly fine to utilize a relatively unknown brand who might actually appreciate “riding your PR coattails” to generate some visibility for their company and their career while promoting your company along the way – a win win!

It’s Not Who Says It, But What They Say
While you may covet a relationship and reference from your biggest customer, don’t let that blind you to the power of a smaller customer.  We once cultivated a relationship for one of our clients with a spokesperson from Associated Food Stores – which provides wholesale distribution services for independently-owned retail supermarkets – and we placed him on the cover of multiple magazines! Why? Because he saw the customer/vendor marketing partnership as mutually beneficial, where he was willing to invest his time to conduct several media interviews to generate the most powerful sales tools (feature articles) our client had ever seen, and he felt very proud to have his face plastered on magazine covers and get some “free PR” for Associated Food Stores.

Imagine if we had pursued Target or Wal-Mart as a customer reference – we would still be in the checkout line. The bottom line is you are better served having a very passionate champion from a lesser-known brand than a guarded spokesperson – fearful of getting reprimanded by their boss – be your focus when kicking off a customer program.  Over time, as you land more big-brand customers, you can evolve your strategy to lure some whales as customer champions – but it takes a long time to reel them in, and you need special “bait” and a process to be successful. Contact us to learn more.

The ROI of a Las Vegas Boondoggle – No, this is NOT an Oxymoron
As mentioned above, it’s important to view your customers on a continuum – from the ultra-reserved or constrained “never going to happen” customer ,to  friend and  ally, to  effusive champion.  There are a plethora of possibilities when considering how to tap your customers as PR and marketing references. There are several to consider, including very conservative approaches – such as a once-a-year industry analyst briefing under NDA (where nothing would ever leak into the public domain); to a middle-of-the-road approach where you can byline an article on the customer’s behalf and be able to control the message and every word in an article; to a more aggressive approach where a customer might consent to conducting media interviews, participating in a webinar, and doing a video case study.

We have executed a number of  creative customer advocacy campaigns over the years, and for customers who are “tough to budge,” here are a couple of ideas we have found to be successful.  “You have just won an all-expenses paid trip to Las Vegas for you and your spouse!” No, this is not the sketchy offer in the snail mail or the robo-dialer leaving you a cheesy voice mail to go to Disneyworld; this is YOU making a genuine offer to submit your customer to deliver a case study presentation at a key vertical-focused conference where your prospects convene and you will pick up the tab for all travel and lodging expenses for her/him and their significant other!  Who wouldn’t want a free boondoggle to Vegas – talk to a group of 100 or so attendees, play a round of golf while the spouse enjoys a spa day, then enjoy a nice dinner and see a show — Viva Las Vegas and Viva PR ROI!

When All Else Fails, Throw a Party
“Loose lips sink ships” and they also sell millions of dollars in product when red wine-induced happy customers sing your praises when accepting their award in front of a room of prospects. Such is the typical outcome of VIP customer award dinners which have proven to be a very effective strategy for wooing customers into a controlled environment – not in the public domain – where they are comfortable sharing their “love story” in a private room in front of a room of prospects and fellow customers.

We have had great success co-locating such events in conjunction with industry trade shows where your customers and prospects are already in attendance (and looking for a gourmet dinner and fine wine one evening during the conference, rather than ordering room service and being a slave to their laptop all night).  These awards dinners are a great way to honor big brands – who are under corporate communications gag orders to never speak publicly as mentioned above – and genuinely recognize them for such awards as “most innovative use case of 2018” or “fastest deployment and ROI.”

We recommend limo service from the conference venue, so you can start the evening in style and whisk away your customers and prospects to a swanky restaurant with a private room. After a hosted cocktail hour, you proceed with the awards program during dinner where you invite 2-3 customers to accept their respective awards. You present them with a beautiful Tiffany crystal award and ask them to say a few words, which ends up being a glowing case study about how much they enjoy working with you and the incredible value they have realized from the product – all in front of a room of prospects who are also on their third glass of wine by that time! The old adage now becomes: “Loose lips convert customers!”

Cheers to converting more customer champions – and if you need a chef to cook up a recipe for success, give us a ring and make a reservation!

By Ross Perich


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