Getting your customers to talk

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By Danny Sullivan

In today’s noisy technology markets, the media invariably seek ways to separate the most useful stories from the rest. As a result, the ability to deliver a customer perspective has become a significant barrier to entry for getting quality vendor ink.

And this presents one of the greatest challenges for technology vendors in virtually every sector. Time and again I encounter companies that claim to deliver tremendous business value to their customers, but that their customers aren’t willing to have this story told in public. The main reason for this lack of enthusiasm is often simply that the customer in question does not have anything to gain from doing so.

Unfortunately, there is no magic password that you can whisper in the ear of your customer to transform them into the glowing PR resource you want them to be (and if there were, you can be assured I wouldn’t be revealing it here!). But there is a different way of approaching the issue that may help improve the value of what you manage to get out of them.

The key point is to try not to approach the issue holistically. Many vendors will try to include a line in the contract with a new customer stating that they agree to do “joint public relations activities” or something similar. This is still a good tactic, as it at least raises the issue, but it is invariably one of the first things crossed out by the customer upon review.

And who can blame them. “Public relations activities” could cover a whole multitude of sins, and might mean having them be involved in everything from news releases and glossy case studies to tradeshows and speaking slots.

Sure, if you can get them to agree to all of the above, then great, but getting their agreement to sign-off on a four page case study, or to provide a quote in a news release, can still often be a tedious and sometimes fruitless exercise.

The reality of what is required from customers is much more simple. The media are usually far more interested to have access to information that is not publicly available. So, without wishing to detract from their value in other areas like marketing and sales, polished case studies and quotes in news releases are often of little real use to your PR program.

The most useful participation of all is a simple agreement to take a few calls from some relevant media over a certain period of time. With this arrow in your PR firm’s quiver, they will be able to achieve more than with any pre-approved quote or material.

Achieving this agreement is all about the management of your customer. Finding the right person to raise the question with, and broaching it in the right way. The idea of taking a phone call from an individual can feel a lot less significant than signing off on a news release that will be distributed to the world at large.

And involve your PR firm in the process. They are (hopefully) experts in the field and should be able to help both you and your customer understand what is required. Working together with our clients, we regularly craft other creative ways to circumvent the approvals barriers customers usually erect in this area.

Ultimately, unless you are one of those very lucky companies whose customers want to shout about the great things they are doing with technology, it’s never going to be easy to get your customers to talk. But you can at least focus on getting the most valuable participation out of them when they do.

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