Turning Customers Into Disciples

By Philip Say

In tech marketing, the old-fashioned client testimonial has come into vogue. Look no further than at the latest approaches of giants such as Sun, Oracle, and Xerox. All are leading with case studies or some example of how they created value for their customers. It’s everywhere you turn, and if your company is building a marketing strategy targeted to generate corporate sales, you better get your case studies in line.

Today, corporate buyers want proof. They want certainty. They want to hear how you made an impact for another company. But building a solid set of references is not easy. You need:

The truth

Measurable successes

Relevant value

Customers willing to put their reputations on the line

For many companies, satisfying all four requirements is pretty difficult. That is why customers that can serve as effective advocates for your company should be treated like royalty.

Co-Op Marketing
In many ways, client testimonials are like reversible jerseys. They serve two needs, depending on how you use them. First, they can help validate company positioning or claims. Second, they provide high PR value for the featured company. Take the Oracle site, for example. The featured companies receive high visibility on one of the busier sites on the Web. For companies with a tight PR budget, co-opting your vendor’s marketing effort might be a cost-effective way to generate some awareness.

But simply writing a splashy press release or case study is not enough. In fact, today’s corporate buyers view those tactics pretty skeptically. What seems to work is what I call corporate evangelism. If your customers are passionate, outspoken, and energetic, you have a great opportunity to turn ordinary customers into disciples.

Salad Days of PeopleSoft
I saw this firsthand during the early days of PeopleSoft. I was with the company during its hypergrowth period in the mid-’90s, watching it go from a $50 million dollar company to a $1 billion company over a span of five years. I’d like to think some of it had to do with my clever product marketing skills; however, I believe most of it was attributable to the passion of our customer base.

Certainly, PeopleSoft’s early customers recognized the innovation of our products. But more important, they wanted to be part of our culture, processes, and success. They were willing participants in developing requirements, identifying new markets, and promoting our products. Without this enthusiasm, I doubt the company would have been as successful.

Approaches That Can Work
I won’t claim to have the magic formula for turning customers into disciples. However, I think the following marketing approaches can support the effort.

Adding honesty to your user conference. The modern user conference has become a parade of pitches. It’s really a turnoff to those looking for some truth beyond the marketing claim. Business, like life, is not perfect. Showing a little of the bad, with the good, demonstrates an act of good faith to your customer base.

Employing the right incentives. Giving target customer XYZ a 25 percent break on its maintenance contract is not the right incentive for eliciting its feedback on your product. Use incentives that promote relationships, such as addressing customers’ business needs with future products.

Following through. Passion is a double-edged sword. Your most enthusiastic supporters can become your greatest critics or detractors. Make sure you continue to meet their expectations.

The Payback
Leveraging existing relationships as part of your marketing effort is tough work. It requires a level of hand-to-hand marketing with which many companies are not familiar. However, the payback is enormous if you pull it off correctly. First, your cost of sales will decrease significantly. Second, your retention rate should skyrocket. Third, you will have an easier time discovering new opportunities or selling new products.

Philip Say is a principal at Blacksquare, LLC., a Web services firm that builds intelligent business solutions for clients. Prior to Blacksquare, Philip was a product marketing manager for PeopleSoft and a business consultant for Accenture and Novo Media Group. His understanding of business technology has helped more than a dozen Global 2000 companies achieve their marketing and supply chain objectives.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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