Obtaining a Fortune 500 company as a customer reference is every reference pro’s ambition, but getting them to sign on the dotted line can be a huge battle. Read on to find tips on how to win over global account managers, how to identify the right customer spokesperson and how to work successfully with the all-powerful comms department. 

Getting the small or medium-sized customer to be a reference is usually hassle-free – the benefits of participating are obvious. But what about signing that ever-elusive Fortune 500 company to your list of external references? It’s a powerful asset to have but first you have to fight your way past the global account manager who doesn’t like anyone approaching their customer, then you have to find the right spokesperson within the company and even if you manage to get the CIO on board, once you approach the communications or legal departments for sign off, the whole thing is often stopped in its tracks.

Here are some of the different approaches we have come across over the years:

Build it into the contract.  The longest of long shots! Every contract will have some kind of publicity clause however most multinational companies will have an extensive legal team that will always ensure this section is removed. You might be able to build this into the overall agreement, or you may just get lucky and get a contract passed through without notice.

Business incentive.  Offering incentives for references is pretty much a no go, but giving reference customers access to exclusive information is an ideal way of providing an incentive without appearing as bribery. Maybe it’s membership to an advisory board or influence over your corporate strategy, or maybe it’s just a case of putting the reference spokesperson in front of senior management as a thank you.

Use the sales rep.  If you have an account manager who is particularly enthusiastic about the reference programme, this can be a huge advantage.  They hold the key to the relationship with the customer so getting them onside will often mean the difference between getting the customer to say yes and never actually getting a foot through the door.  If your reference team has the available resources it’s even worth trying to attend some of the sales meetings so that you can start to build a relationship directly with the customer.

Bypass sales.  Alternatively, some reference programmes try to bypass sales altogether and go directly to the customer.  This approach depends entirely on how the reference programme is engaged with the sales force.  If they’re not supportive, then going direct to the customer can unlock many more reference opportunities but always remember that the sales person has the strongest relationship with the customer and try to keep them onside as much as possible.

Exec-to-exec. Most customers will respond to hierarchy so asking one of your company’s senior executives to approach the customer’s CIO / CEO directly will not only flatter their ego but also go a long way to building a positive relationship with the reference programme. Exec buy-in to the programme is also essential on both sides of the relationship – internally it’s important to have an exec promoting the programme to give it the necessary importance, and within the customer’s company, it’s vital to have an exec on board if you are to stand a chance of getting legal and comms department sign off.

Tailor-made approach.  Finally, if you have the available resources, it’s worth taking the time to create a reference proposal that is tailored to the customer’s own PR / marketing objectives.  This way, when you approach them with a reference opportunity, you can ensure that it is something that will benefit them as much as your own company. It will demonstrate an understanding of your customer’s own business and is a sure-fire way to get the comms department onside.