Becoming a customer reference for a vendor can be an opportunity for a company to showcase its wares in a way that its own marketing materials don’t, through vendor-produced conferences, whitepapers, case studies, media interviews, and video testimonials.
The beneficiaries, according to Fortlage, are the community that hears a great story, the vendor who has someone besides itself to sell the virtues of a product, and the customer who shares its success. Michael O’Connor Clarke, vice-president of Ottawa-based public relations firm Thornley Fallis Communications Inc., has managed such case study relationships.
He said among an organization’s core strengths is the perceived performance level of processes, such as accounting and product management systems. “And if a company has successfully implemented a system that allows them to do that, then it’s worthwhile talking about it.”
North Vancouver, B.C.-based eyewear supplier, Suntech Optics Inc., can relate such successes of software implementation with clients and potential clients, since it became a customer reference for Fujitsu Canada and To The Point Software, according to the company’s IT manager, Mike Chang.
Such involvement has also garnered the company added credibility. “If featured in a magazine, obviously we’ve done something right,” said Chang.
Giving media interviews often follows when a customer is included in a vendor-produced press release that might focus on a particular technology that a customer has deployed. Such exposure, Fortlage said, helps build the customer’s product or subject matter expertise in the eye of the public.
“The press is more than willing to come back and ask you other questions related to other topics that may gain you other credibility in the IT community,” Fortlage said. It also builds a deeper vendor relationship which can come in handy when trying to expedite problem solving, he said, “It goes beyond tier-one help desk. You now can get to the source.”
Some vendors have customer reference programs, such as Cary, NC-based SAS Institute Inc., to manage case study relationships. The company’s director of external communications, Pamela Meek, said considerations for selecting customers are whether they have an interesting story to tell, show ROI, and apply the software in an innovative way. SAS either identifies case studies through account executives or receives calls from interested customers, said Meek, who has observed smaller organizations often volunteering “because that brings them some visibility that they can’t necessarily afford themselves.”
The case study reference process, Meek said, is entirely voluntary and not bound by a contract. Customers choose their level of involvement among different marketing initiatives, and have the option to decline participation in activities at any time.
“[Participants] have the opportunity to review content to make sure it is consistent with the customer’s own messaging standards,” said Meek, adding that customers can choose to terminate the reference relationship when they want. Meek insisted SAS customers are not paid for references, but she is aware of customers being granted a break on pricing.
“We’ve never given a break just for referencing. It may be that in the negotiation, in looking at volume of a package and other things, that might be just one of the things that’s thrown in,” she said. “But it’s not a practice that’s used where we go in and say if you give us a reference, we’ll give you a break on the software.”
Thornley Fallis’ Clarke said he has heard of instances where vendors grant customers a break on pricing or free software, hardware or services — a practice he doesn’t condone because it “corrupts the value of the case study.”
If the implementation is successful, he said, that should suffice for the customer to want to speak positively of the vendor. According to Chang, a break on pricing was not part of Suntech Optics’ customer reference deal. “They just asked us for the truth, and we spoke the truth.”
Although Fortlage acknowledged there were “incentives that were offered on many levels,” including a price break, he stressed that his company’s relationshiop with the vendor was more complex than a mere software discount in exchange for a reference.
No bad blood
Clarke emphasized he has never requested a customer to speak in solely glowing terms of a vendor, and doesn’t think that sort of restriction can be imposed. Having said that, however, a vendor wouldn’t involve a customer who bears unresolved issues either. “It comes down to the vendor to make sure the relationship and customer’s expectations are managed, so that they end up with a customer who is willing to speak positively on their behalf.”
At the same time, he said, assuming the relationship is successful, balanced and healthy, it’s not in the customer’s interest to speak negatively about the vendor.
According to Clarke, he’s never observed vendors prohibiting customers from later becoming references for rival vendors, but doesn’t imagine it’s an impossibility. “I can imagine situations where a vendor might try to stipulate that kind of clause. If I was their client, it would make me question the real motivation behind the thing.”
The vendor stands to benefit too, said Clarke, by showcasing the strength of their products in a way that might otherwise be difficult to exhibit given the complexity of the technology. “It’s a great opportunity to showcase the way their technology works in terms of real-world benefit.”
Often, he added, vendors find it difficult demonstrating a generic version of a product given they do primarily custom implementation work — the narrative approach of a case study, or a “before-and-after” situation, can better describe the impact of the technology.
Meek agreed that having a customer detail an in-depth account is advantageous. “With enterprise software, unlike old simple productivity tools, you can’t simply go in and do a demo and tell your whole story.”
Using customers as references is a “credibility point”, she added, because purchasers tend to view peers — more so than vendors and analysts — as reliable sources.
The practice of using customer references will only increase in frequency, believes Betty Alexander, president of Toronto-based public relations agency Xposure PR Inc. “I see it as a critical component to a marketing plan. [Vendors] need a third-party endorsement to validate their technology.” In particular, with the advent of social networking sites, Alexander said, platforms like LinkedIn may play a role in customer testimonials — a company interested in knowing more about a particular vendor’s technology may contact a customer reference directly through the vendor’s LinkedIn contact list.
She also sees wikis becoming a “customer-controlled” communication platform where testimonials are posted and viewable by all. “Because it’s so fluid and can change day by day, it’s important for the vendor to keep in touch with the customer to make sure the experience doesn’t (go) sour,” she said.