Customer Reference Program: 5 Steps to Collecting Powerful Customer Stories

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A customer reference program is a strategic approach to identifying and leveraging your most satisfied customers. They advocate for your business through testimonials, case studies, and direct conversations with prospects.

An example is Gillian Heltai, the SVP of Client Services at Talkdesk, a leading contact center software company. She saw Tallkdesk’s average deal size increase by 3.5x from 2018 to 2020. This was thanks to the execution of a thoughtful customer reference program.

This article will explore a 5-step framework for building a successful customer reference program. It includes real-life examples and actionable tips.

First, let’s clear up some confusion about customer reference, referral, and ambassador programs.

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Customer reference program vs. referral program vs. ambassador program

The customer reference, referral, and ambassador programs are part of customer marketing. Yet, they have different focuses and mechanisms.

  • Customer reference program: A customer reference program aims to showcase the success stories of satisfied customers. You can then use these stories in marketing materials or sales pitches. Customers in this program often take part in case studies. They also provide testimonials or speak directly with potential customers.
  • Referral program: A referral program aims to incentivize existing customers. It encourages them to refer new customers. Customers are rewarded with discounts, freebies, or other benefits in return for successful referrals.
  • Ambassador program: An ambassador program focuses on building a community of engaged customers. They act as brand advocates. These ambassadors not only refer new customers but also promote the brand through various channels like social media, events, or their networks.

These programs can work together to create a holistic customer marketing strategy. A happy customer from a customer reference program can refer new customers through a referral program. And they might eventually become a brand ambassador.

Step #1 – Set up a system for tracking and measuring your customer reference program

Setting up a system for tracking and measuring your customer reference program is crucial. This will help you understand its effectiveness and make necessary adjustments.

The first step is to establish a source of truth. A centralized place stores all the data related to your program. This ensures that everyone on your team has access to the same information. It increases transparency and reduces errors.

When structuring your system, consider what metrics you want to track. These can include the number of customer references, customer touchpoints, the impact on sales, and customer feedback.

Option 1 – Database tools

For custom tracking, tools such as Notion and Airtable are excellent choices. They both offer database functionalities. You can create custom fields to track various metrics.

Notion is flexible and easy to use, allowing for rich text editing and embedding other content. However, its database functionality is somewhat limited compared to more dedicated solutions.

Airtable is a more powerful database tool. It offers advanced features like automation and interfaces for helpful reports and charts. But it lacks the rich text editing features of Notion.

Both Airtable and Notion offer plenty of templates to get started. Or you can build your customer list from scratch. The choice is yours. 

Option 2 – Customer Relationship Management tools

If you’re looking for a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution, consider platforms like Salesforce and HubSpot. 

Salesforce is a powerful tool with a wide array of features. It includes detailed reporting and analytics. However, it can be complex and may need dedicated staff to manage.

Meanwhile, HubSpot is user-friendly. It offers robust features, including email marketing, SEO tools, and social media management. But, the more advanced features are only available in the higher-tier plans.

When choosing a tracking system, consider factors like the level of automation it allows. Also, how flexible is it to change? What integrations with other tools does it offer? How easily does it enable collaboration among team members?

Step #2 – Identify your most engaged customers

Auditing your customer database is crucial as the first step in identifying your most engaged customers. This process allows you to understand your customer base’s size, behavior, and engagement level.

Wide or deep?

When planning your customer reference program, consider whether to go “wide” or “deep.” If you have a large customer base, say 1,000 customers, you might want to ‘go wide’ by accessing all of them. This approach allows for better matching between your references and prospects due to the larger pool. However, it requires more resources to manage.

Conversely, “going deep” involves focusing on a smaller group of highly engaged customers, say 100, and encouraging them to do more.

For instance, you could set monthly tasks for these customers and offer rewards for their participation. This approach requires fewer resources. It can also build stronger relationships with these key customers. However, it provides a smaller pool for prospect matching.

Triggers and opportunities

There are several triggers or opportunities to look out for that show customer engagement:

  • Positive feedback about your product: Customers who consistently provide positive feedback will likely be delighted with their experience. They are also more willing to share their success stories. For instance, a customer who frequently praises your product’s features or usability in reviews or surveys may be an excellent candidate for your program.
  • Improvement in their experience compared to their previous provider: If a customer highlights that your product or service has significantly improved their experience compared to their previous provider, this indicates a strong belief in the value of your offering. For example, a customer might say how your software solution has made their workflow more efficient. They might compare it to a previous, more cumbersome tool they used.
  • Personal relationship with your account team: Developing customer relationships often leads to higher engagement. If a customer has a strong, positive relationship with members of your account team, they may be more likely to advocate for your brand. Direct communication, such as emails or calls, can identify these relationships.
  • Great support experience: A customer with a positive experience with your support team can be a potential advocate. For instance, if a customer has faced an issue that your support team swiftly resolved, their satisfaction from this experience could motivate them to participate in your program.
  • Overcoming a challenge together: If your team has worked closely with a customer to overcome a significant challenge, this shared experience may foster a deeper connection. This could be a technical challenge, like helping the customer implement a complex feature of your product. Or, it could be a business challenge, like aiding the customer in achieving a crucial business goal using your product.

Finding your engaged customers

There are several methods to locate your most engaged customers. These include:

  • Customer Satisfaction surveys: Customers who consistently give high scores on Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) surveys and frequently thank your support team are likely to have a strong connection with your company.
  • Net Promotor Score surveys: Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys can help identify your brand promoters. Customers who rate your business 9 or 10 out of 10 are your potential advocates.
  • Targeted customer feedback surveys: These surveys can ask more specific questions about customer engagement and help identify potential advocates.
  • Team interactions: Your Customer Success Managers (CSMs), Account Executives (AEs), or Account Managers (AMs) can also identify potential advocates during their interactions with customers. This could be formal, such as during a quarterly business review where the advocacy program and its benefits are announced, or informal, such as during a catch-up call, site visit, or email.
  • Contract negotiations: If a customer asks for different payment terms or a discount, you could negotiate by offering them the opportunity to become an advocate in exchange.
  • Local event attendance: Customers who attend your local events, like seminars, happy hours, or lunches, are engaged and the perfect potential advocates.

Read more: NPS vs. CSAT vs. CES: 4 Costly Mistakes to Avoid (and What to Do Instead)

Identifying your most engaged customers is not a one-time process. Do it continuously to ensure you have a consistent pipeline of passionate customers.

Step #3 – Develop an outreach process

You risk missing out on potential customer advocates without a proper outreach process. A lack of structure leads to inconsistent communication, leading to inefficiencies. Read on to see what you need to consider for your outreach system.

Offer incentives or rewards

Consider offering incentives to motivate customers to join your program. Encourage them to share their success stories. Incentives could include discounts, exclusive features, or community recognition.

But while incentives can attract participation, they may not always foster genuine advocacy.

Balance your incentive strategy with efforts to cultivate authentic customer relationships. Make sure participants are genuinely interested in advocating for your brand. Not just the rewards.

The beauty of B2B SaaS is that most companies see the benefits of providing public praise for another company. There are marketing benefits to reaching new audiences and securing mentions and links. This is helpful for getting more online visibility on Google Searches.

Delegate ownership

The ownership of the outreach process should be clear. Someone needs to take responsibility for the communications, whether it’s the CSM, AE, or the marketing team.

The best person to lead the process depends on who has the strongest relationship with the customer. For instance, if the AE has a better relationship with the customer, they may have a higher conversion rate.

Formats for outreach

You can do outreach through various formats, each with advantages and considerations.

  • Email: Email is a standard and often effective outreach method. It allows for detailed communication that the recipient can refer to. It also provides an easy way for them to reply at their convenience.
  • Phone: A phone call allows for a direct and personal conversation. It can help explain complex details and address any immediate questions or concerns.
  • Video meeting: A video meeting, using platforms like Zoom or Google Meet, provides a personal touch similar to a phone call but with the added benefit of visual communication. This can be especially useful for showing any relevant materials or presentations.
  • In-person meeting: In-person meetings can be the most engaging and personal form of communication. However, they can be time-consuming. They may not be workable due to geographical constraints.
  • Social media: A direct message on social media can be a casual and convenient way to reach out. This is especially true if you know the customer is active on a particular platform.

Follow up customers

Remember to follow up if you don’t get a response. But it’s essential to define when to stop following up to avoid irritating the customer. Typically, a maximum of three follow-up emails is considered acceptable.

You can get creative with follow-ups and mix up your communication format. Using a combination of email, phone calls, and meetings could increase your number of follow-ups without losing engagement or interest.

Measure the effectiveness

Measurement is crucial in an outreach process. Track metrics such as response rate, participation rate, and feedback. Use them to evaluate your outreach process. Make any necessary adjustments. For example, if you get a higher conversion rate with calls vs. emails, invest in more phone outreach.

Step #4 – Create Compelling Customer Assets

At this point, you have a pool of customers who have said yes to becoming references for your brand; well done! Now it’s time to create assets that tell compelling stories of your customer’s experiences with your product. Let’s look at some examples.

Live presentations or joint webinars

These could be co-hosted with a customer who speaks about their success with your product during a live webinar. This provides an interactive, engaging way for prospects to hear directly from satisfied customers. 

For example, show a slide deck highlighting key points from the customer’s story. It should include quotes or data to support their experience.

As a sales engagement platform, Apollo runs regular webinars to help customers master sales. They often have industry sales experts on the presentations, many of which use Apollo. This is a powerful way to demo your product and provide a customer reference simultaneously.

Customer reference calls

These are direct phone calls between a prospect and a satisfied customer facilitated by your sales team. For example, you develop a script for the customer to ensure they highlight key points about their experience.

The key here is having a list of customers happy to do a reference call. This makes it easier for your sales team to coordinate during their sales process.

Case studies

Your product provided a solution to a customer’s problem. These stories share the results of this solution. A case study might be a PDF document or blog post showing your product’s before-and-after effects. 

The ecommerce platform Shopify dedicates a page on its website for successful Shopify merchants.

Each case study is tagged by the industry. For example, clothing, sports, and electronics. This means prospects can quickly read customer references that are relevant to their business.

On-site visits

Invite prospects to visit the site or office of a satisfied customer. This allows the prospect to see firsthand how the customer uses your product and the benefits they receive. You could develop a guide to structure the visit and ensure you cover key points.

Video testimonials

These are short videos of customers discussing their favorable experiences with your product. A video testimonial might feature the customer speaking to the camera interspersed with footage of them using your product.

Popular work communications platform Slack creates video case studies. The videos show customers solving problems using its platform. Here’s an example of a video testimonial from Shopify:

Step #5 – Promote your customer references

Creating and distributing customer references can significantly support your sales team. The goal is to minimize scenarios where the sales team urgently needs a customer reference call within the next 48 hours to help close a deal.

Maintain a library of compelling customer assets that can be easily accessed. For instance, the sales team can share a case study or testimonial in the initial meetings that closely aligns with the prospect’s situation.


The distribution of your customer references is critical to their effectiveness. They should be easily accessible and presented at the right sales process stages. Here are some channels to consider:

  1. Website: Allocate a dedicated section on your website for customer stories. This showcases your successes to potential customers and boosts your SEO.
  2. Sales Meetings: Encourage your sales team to share customer stories during presentations or meetings. A well-told customer story can often be more convincing than a sales pitch.
  3. Email Campaigns: Incorporate customer stories in your email newsletters or promotional campaigns. They add credibility to your messages and make them more engaging.
  4. Social Media: Share customer success stories on your social media platforms. They can be in the form of quotes, short videos, or infographics.
  5. Sales Collateral: Include customer references in brochures, pitch decks, or product datasheets. They can help to illustrate the real-world benefits of your product or service.

Not sure how to get started?

Book a 45mn call to discuss your objectives & requirements, and see if reviewflowz might be a good fit.

The next step to building your customer reference program

You now have a 5-step process to building a high-performing customer reference program. Your next step is the first step. Set up a system for managing your customer data. This is the heartbeat of your program.

Once you have your database or CRM in place, you must find a way to collect and send new customer data to your source of truth. A natural progression is refining how you manage customer testimonials. 

We’ve written a detailed guide on the 10 best testimonial collection software. It also covers the seven things to look for when choosing a tool in 2024. Of course, integration with your source of truth is critical. 

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