The most valuable asset a growing company can possess is a portfolio of enthusiastic and successful customers. This "customer capital" represents an opportunity to build market credibility, gain media exposure and analyst influence, attract new clientele and accelerate the sales cycle. In fact, your existing customers are a more powerful growth lever than just about any other marketing move you might make.
Unfortunately, few companies truly capitalize on their existing customer capital -- or fully leverage their customer references and success stories. They miss a key opportunity to rise to the next level of revenue and profitability.
In the world of B2B solution marketing, customer capital takes multiple forms:
Customer Cases. Case studies represent a compelling opportunity to tell your story from your customer's perspective. They are high leverage because, once published, you can employ them actively and continuously. The media welcomes these types of stories and considers them one of the most valuable sources of content you can provide. Industry analysts and other opinion leaders hone in on them as proof points. Sales people find they lend credibility in their conversations. However, companies typically put too little effort in the sales process into ensuring successful customers will go on record and too little effort in the marketing process crafting and promoting these stories.
Customer References. Your customers, quite simply, have a high level of credibility among their peers and thus, represent the greatest source of influence on your prospects. Even if they won't go on the record with a case study, they should be expected to provide references in key client opportunities if you have delivered the outcomes you promised. Such expectations often are written into contracts. However, the best client references are those who willingly play this role -- and clearly recognize that their continuing success is bound up with yours.
Customer Insights. Some have called this element "the voice of the customer." Others talk about their "lighthouse accounts." However you look at it, it's critical to understand that your clients are not only an extension of your marketing, but an extension of your R&D. Your best ones can be counted on to provide perspectives and insights that can help guide you as you launch new offerings and enter new markets. It makes sense, therefore, to have a well managed "customer council" or, perhaps, make some of your best clients members part of a wider "thought leadership council" that might include advisors and opinion leaders of varying stripes.
In order to accumulate and leverage your customer capital, it is important to manage this asset with care and diligence. Market leading companies tend to have well tended customer reference programs. Indeed, one growing profession, according to the Phelon Group, is the "customer reference professional."
I also think it's critical to think strategically about the customer's motives and interests. How can you enhance the professional, corporate and career status of the individuals you seek to engage? How can you make participation in your customer capital initiative compelling to them? While many companies may prefer to keep their high-value solutions secret, you may be able to overcome such obstacles by creating incentives for participation. What would they value in exchange for providing insights, doing a case study, speaking to the press, giving a presentation at a tradeshow (or on a webinar) and acting as a reference? Think long and hard about this one. It's a strategic issue.
Customers typically welcome the opportunity to be part of an elite club that elevates them professionally. That's what I advocate. Make it a club -- or a council -- that respects their professional insights and marketing value, while ensuring that they obtain value that is commensurate. Don't assume the success of your "solution" is adequate to win their enthusiastic participation; focus on their personal and organizational motives. Imagine you are hiring them to be your evangelists because that is precisely what you are doing.