Customer references have always played a crucial part in AR programs. Analysts, by nature, value facts and objectivity over speculative claims or promises, and therefore appreciate proof points to validate any claim made by a vendor. Customer references are often key to the inclusion criteria for major evaluations conducted by industry analyst firms. As such, AR teams have rightly placed a high value on customer references for their AR programs. But is the execution of these customer reference programs worth reviewing, especially in light of the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic? And given the importance of vendor evaluations, and indeed analyst counsel generally, to the winning of end user prospects for new business, should vendors consider a different approach to their existing customer reference programs?
Prior to the pandemic it was common for industry analyst firms to request a number of customer references in the early stages of the evaluation process, which the AR team would be responsible for providing. The analysts might then, either directly or through the AR team, contact the customers for calls or surveys to solicit feedback. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic causing chaos and affecting everybody’s time, including that of analysts and customers, we saw a pivot from some firms away from direct customer references and towards a reliance on review aggregators, either owned or via third-party partnerships, to source peer reviews for IT solutions and services. To say the pandemic was the sole disruptor to affect this trend towards peer review reliance is unfair. More accurate, perhaps, is to say it was an accelerator to a trend we were already starting to see emerge. What matters, then, is how vendors approach their customer reference programs moving forwards.
Peer review sites are naturally becoming a bigger focus for vendors as a result of this change. Of course, every vendor is different and, more often than not, customer referencing has its own function within a business that is separate to AR, but it is perhaps no surprise that some AR specialists have assumed additional customer referencing responsibilities in their titles given how linked the two functions are. That is not to say that AR should be responsible for peer reviews – often this is done by sales or customer reference teams but, failing that, and often at smaller companies where such programs aren’t in place, AR assumes responsibility. The problem with peer reviews, at least for vendors, is that these scores are harder to control. A lot of effort is normally put in by AR teams and customer reference teams working together to identify and vet the best customers to put forward when requested by analysts. This is not simply to ensure the customers say all the right things when questioned by analysts, although that is the hope, but it is also to ensure that the right customers are being put forward to best demonstrate the most relevant use cases of interest to analysts. Removing all that influence and relying on peer reviews could be frightening, so vendors of course want to have more say in the process.
There are myriad tactics available to incentivise peer reviews, but they do not guarantee the same quality of results as putting a customer with whom one has a particularly strong relationship, and who has been vetted and prepped ahead of time to ensure they’re a strong speaker who knows how to answer questions in such a way as to provide analysts with the insight required while also ensuring the discussion does not dwell on negatives, in front of an analyst. Large enterprises are also not swayed by peer reviews in the same way that smaller IT buyers might be, so to rely solely on peer reviews for success is not a good strategy.
It is important to remember that analysts are on a constant quest to find the truth. Rather than other specialists, which might try to find the appropriate data to add weight to a narrative, analysts will find the narrative from within the data. They want the results to speak for themselves. So, what happens, then, when peer review scores do not marry well with the findings in the rest of the research? Analysts, wanting to ensure accuracy in their reports, will naturally wish to investigate the discrepancies, meaning that direct customer references could still be sought and, rather than reactively responding to such requests, AR teams should continue to accumulate a bench of vetted customers to put in front of analysts ahead of time.
Doing all this hard work and then waiting in hope for it to one day be called upon would also be a wasted opportunity. AR teams should infuse customer references into as much of their AR programs as possible on a constant basis. Analysts are constantly developing their opinions and are unlikely to begin a major report without already having good knowledge, and therefore some form of opinion, on the strengths and weaknesses of a given vendor and its solutions. It is better, then, to dispel misconceptions ahead of time by offering customer references on a continuous cadence to validate points made during briefings and other interactions, thus ensuring that analysts have an accurate view of your capabilities well before the time comes to start writing reports. Having these customer references ready ahead of time also makes it more likely that deadlines will not be missed, and also shows a certain confidence in one’s solution. Imagine being the vendor who, when asked by an analyst for five customers to contact, confidently presents ten, or twenty, or more. That, in and of itself, could well be influential.
Giving analysts access to customers on a regular basis also takes into account the sometimes-forgotten fact that much of an analyst’s influence comes outside of reports. Customers, prospects, partners, investors, trade bodies and more all seek out analyst insight and counsel on a regular basis, which often take the form of verbal engagements, so why wait for a report to kick off before scrambling to get customers in front of analysts? Identify and vet your customers constantly, then prepare them well and ensure you’re getting them in front of analysts regularly.