Learn from Talkdesk SVP of Client Services how to build a Customer Reference Program. How to create boundaries and norms with the sales team, how to find customer advocates, how to build and scale your program, as well as the difference between incentivized vs. reward program. Without considerations and principles, Customer Reference Programs can falter.

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Gillian Heltai | SVP, Client Services @ Talkdesk


Hi, everyone. My name is Gillian Heltai. I’m the senior vice president of client services at Talkdesk. At Talkdesk today, the client services organization is 90 people strong and we are responsible for making sure that our customers both in the pre-sale and the post-sale process are able to design and then achieve their desired outcomes. I’ve been at Talkdesk for a little over two and a half years. In that time, we became the first-ever or the youngest company ever to enter the Gartner Magic Quadrant, the Gardner CCaaS Magic Quadrant. We raised $100 million. We became a unicorn. Really importantly for the purposes of today’s topic, our average deal size increased by three 3.5X over that two and a half years.

Customer reference program went from something that was nice to have and important to absolutely critical to our new business sales cycle. That’s what I’m going to talk about today. I also entered the customer reference program space totally cold. I came from a company where I worked for 10 years. It was very well-established. It was a category leader. We had really high saturation of the market. We didn’t really have to do customer reference programs. I remember in my first week or two at Talkdesk I had one of the sales leaders come up to me and say, “Hey, we’re going to need a reference for this customer that we’re trying to close to help us help sell the deal.”

Frankly, my honest reaction was like, “Wait, isn’t it the sales team’s responsibility to be closing this customer? Why do I have to go ask one of my customers that I’m trying to protect and focus on kind of core Talkdesk product advocacy or product adoption? Why do they need to be involved in that process?” I don’t know if any of you have ever experienced that, but me coming into Talkdesk, I wasn’t familiar with this. A lot of what I’m going to talk about today is my learning experience and how we went from a relatively small customer reference program to what we have today, which is really kind of a humming machine.

If you’re anything like me, you may have entered a situation at some point saying, “Do I really have to do this. Do we have to do these customer references? Is there another way? Do we really want to be introducing this motion to our customer team?” The answer is probably. There are very few situations in which customer reference programs aren’t going to be really, really critical to your new business sale cycle. You’re probably going to have to be doing customer references unless there’s very small contract value, right, where there’s not a ton of pressure in making the right decision on the part of the prospective buyer. Another reason you may not have to do references is very flexible contract terms or maybe your company’s already huge, right?

You are very well established and you don’t necessarily need to run this program. My guess is that if you guys chose to attend today’s session, these do not apply to you, so I’ll just kind of move forward into – think about how you actually build a customer reference program. I’ll come back to some of these buts a few minutes later. You’re going to create a customer reference program, but there needs to be some criteria boundaries in order to supply customer references. We’ll talk a little bit about how you create those boundaries and norms with the sales team. Then you should also really be striving to amplify your advocate’s voice through 1:many activities.

Those one-to-one customer reference calls are really critical, but there is so much more that you can do to amplify their voices to create many opportunities for them to share their voice with multiple prospective customers. I wanted to start by talking a little bit about the Talkdesk evolution. I joined kind of at the second stage. At the very beginning, you’re in your earliest days as a company. You’re excited to be closing your first customers. It’s often really rocky, but if you’re in this stage, and you probably already know this, it is so, so, so critical that you do everything to keep these customers happy. Years from now they’re going to be your absolute best references. Today at Talkdesk, we had a lot of our kind of big momentum starting in 2014-2015.

Those customers are some of our most powerful references because we get to bring them in and they tell the story not only of what it’s been like to work with Talkdesk over many years, but they also get to tell our innovation story for us. So much of what Talkdesk sells on is innovation and trust. To be able to have a customer who’s been with you for years and even from the early days to come in and tell that story with you is, is really helpful. Now, I joined Talkdesk kind of in the second stage, which is, hooray, you’ve got enough customers that you’re able to do references potentially at scale. It’s really nothing a little bit of elbow grease can’t solve. At that point, often you’re using your customer success team, your AE team to really kind of manually manage this process there.

It probably looks something like this. AE has a deal that is getting close to closing. The customer that they’re trying to close says, “Hey, I’d like to talk to some of your customers.” Maybe they send out a message on Slack, maybe they send you a text message and they say, “Hey, do we have anyone who in Talkdesk could probably be say like of a certain size, with certain number of integrations, maybe in this regional vicinity or in this country?” Maybe you send out an email to a bunch of folks and like, “Hey, do we have any customers like this?” That’s kind of how the process runs and that was what it was like when I joined Talkdesk. That was okay for six to nine months and then we started hiring really aggressively on sales. We started investing a tremendous amount on the enterprise side.

This is where that growth into kind of mid market and enterprise really kicks in as I referenced that 3.5X deal size growth. We hire all these new enterprise account executives. Now they’re coming to my team not with a, “Hey, could we get a customer reference,” it’s, “Hey, I need three customer reference calls, I need an onsite visit, and I need all of that done within the next 48 hours.” Some of the emojis that I had built in this slide are missing, but it’s like that big yellow face with the big eyes and the red cheeks. I think it’s called bashful. That was the emoji that I had on this slide because it’s literally like, “Oh my God, how are we going to accomplish this?” That was a very short window for us because that is the point at which you need to hire specialists.

That is the point where your regional vice president, your managers of customer success, your vice presidents of client services can no longer manage this on their own. You really need to start building a machine. That’s the point at which we hired a customer marketing team and they helped us to refine the reference program and focus on this notion of scale again. How do you start to amplify those voices and get from a 1:1 customer call to a 1:many customer advocacy program? How do customers become advocates? There are a couple of things that we need to consider in thinking about like, okay, I’m now in a position where I know I need to invest, essentially I’m hiring customer marketing. What are the things that I need to be thinking about in building an advocacy program?

I need to know how do customers become advocates, right, so that I can try to harness that. Then we’re going to need to talk about how do I find them, what are the tactics that I can use to identify who my advocates are. Then once you’ve started to identify like what is the composition look and feel size of my advocacy pool, then we’re going to talk about what do you actually do to start building that program out. In terms of answering the question, how do customers become advocates, we can probably all relate to this emotionally, right, because we’re all buyers of one service or another. The number one reason is going to be love for your product. This is something that when I joined Talkdesk I was so fortunate. Engagement with our product was already so high.

Our net retention rate was over 130%, so we have this really great pool of customers that all we needed to do was kind of find them. One great way is to figure out who your advocates are or who are the people that love your product. We’ll talk in a couple minutes about how do you actually find those people. Another great opportunity is improvement versus the prior provider. Many times your customers maybe choosing your service because of some sort of pain that they had in the past. If you’re able to identify the customers who had really explicit pain with their prior provider that drove them to choose your solution, these are going to be really great customers to enlist as advocates as well.

This also ties, by the way, into a really good presale process around documentation of new business opportunities. What’s the pain point? Why are they going to choose Talkdesk over another provider? What are we trying to solve for? Making sure that all of that is documented on the new sale opportunity allows us to very quickly mine that to identify who may be an advocate for us. Another way that customers become advocates is a personal relationship with the account team. They’re going to develop a really close relationship with a sales representative. Hopefully, you’ve got a good client services team, a customer success or support organization that’s building one-to-one relationships. You can seek to find customers that that talk about those relationships as well.

Great support experience. Then finally, one that I love and we spent a lot of time talking about a Talkdesk is this notion of overcoming a challenge together. I think often we think about the customers that have experienced pain with our company as customers that we need to kind of tiptoe around or that may be unlikely to want to be an advocate for us. But honestly, it’s generally the exact opposite. When you are able to overcome a challenge, and sometimes it’s even Talkdesk’s fault, right? Let’s say we messed something up in the implementation. We thought we were going to be able to do something in a week and it takes 10 days or 14 days.

You may think like, oh, that customer is going to be angry, but actually if you manage that communication really properly and then you end up succeeding in the implementation, that’s someone who gets to join you in telling kind of the story of overcoming a challenge together and coming out stronger on the other end. These are really, really great customers to look at as potential advocates. Then you’ve got a profile of the types of experiences that advocates have. How are you actually going to find those people? There are a lot of really great tactics that you can use for this. The first one are your support CSAT surveys. I imagine if you’re not, you should be. After completion of a support-related case, there should be some sort of a CSAT collection for those users.

People who you find that are repetitively thanking your support team, they’ve got an emotional connection to your organization, these are great people to target as advocates. NPS surveys. We run a NPS survey right within Talkdesk. We get a couple of thousand responses every single month. We look at those in real time. We’ve got a Slack bot set up and we see every NPS survey that comes through one by one. Those are great people for us to engage with to be advocates. This is for references, but also the broader advocacy program. Targeted customer feedback surveys. This is actually something that we’ve only just started. We’re identifying what we consider to be our primary contacts for our customer relationship, technical users, business users, budget decision makers, primary administrators of the product.

We’re sending them surveys that help us collect key information for the marketing team, the product team, but also general feedback on the services organization. Positive sentiment around that and willingness to fill that survey out, these are going to be people who are willing to be your advocates. The way we normally do this as companies is really this fourth bullet, but there’s so much else that we could be considering, but let’s not forget the one-to-one relationship. CSM, account manager, AE, whoever is kind of running point as the quarterback of the relationship, they can also just ask. They can ask formally in a QBR setting. You could create some slide where that says, “Talkdesk customer advocacy program. Here are the benefits to you. Here are the benefits to us. Are you willing to sign up?”

Right? We have to be brave enough to just kind of throw it out there and ask the question bluntly. We can also ask informally during a catch-up call, a site visit, personal email out to a ballgame, would you be willing to be an advocate for Talkdesk? Then a third thing that you can do is incorporate it into the contract. Either in a new business deal or in a renewal engagement, there’s always that negotiation that’s happening. What am I going to give? What am I going to get? One of the things Talkdesk likes to think about at that contractual phase is, okay, so a customer may be asking for discount or customer may be asking for like specific payment terms that we don’t offer, whatever it is, we can say, “Okay, well, if we’re willing to give this few, might you be willing to be an advocate for us?”

That’s another point in time where you can start to engage around that topic. Then finally, local event attendance. Talkdesk has invested a lot in the last year in local event attendance for both customers and prospects. This is a really great way to find your advocates because generally speaking, the customers who sign up and come out to the happy hour or the luncheon or whatever it is, they like you. They’re good folks to talk to, to engage with in your advocacy program. Now, we’ve talked about who your advocates are and how you can find them. Now, we need to start thinking about, I’m ready to build and scale my advocacy program, what are the things that I need to be thinking about? What are the decisions that I need to make as I build that program out?

What are the considerations? I want to spend a couple of minutes on each of these because I’ve debated them and we’ve also changed our tactics a little bit overtime at Talkdesk. The first one that we go back and forth with a lot and it is a basically philosophical decision is, is this going to be an incentivized program or is it going to be a rewarded program? An incentivized program, you often use a software solution, one that’s very popular as Influitive, that you encourage people to join this program, and they know that if they do whatever it is, the customer reference call, the case study, the live presentation, the webinar, the onsite visit, that they’re going to get something, right? It’s almost like a point system where if you do this, then you get Y. That is an incentivized program.

It works really, really well in some industries. It tends to work really well also with more junior folks. If you are in an industry where what you’re trying to do is kind of engage maybe at the kind of independent contributor or supervisor level, this may work really well for you. It tends to work not as well for kind of VP plus budget holders because they are less interested in participating in a sort of an incentivization program. The other way you could do it is through ad hoc rewards. Rather than saying to the customer, “If you do this reference call, then you will get X,” you ask the customer for the reference call. You ask the customer to do the webinar and then you thank them with a reward. It isn’t something that is always consistent.

The reward doesn’t always happen, but it is a generous thank you approach for rewarding people for signing up for being your advocate. Again, this is a big decision that you have to make. There’s big cost decision with this. In one situation, you probably need some sort of a software solution. In the other, you could probably manage it in a Google sheet. That’s one big decision you need to make. The next is who is going to ask. I have seen companies totally fall apart over this because if you don’t define who is going to ask, then either everyone is going to ask or no one is going to ask. It’s critical that you figure out who is going to be the voice of Talkdesk or the voice of your customer in making the decision to, A, who are we going ask to do this advocacy event and how are we going to ask them.

The worst thing that can happen is no one makes the ask and then the second worst thing can happen is that customer gets an email from three different folks from Talkdesk making the same ask. That makes us look very disorganized and it’s not something that we would want our customers to experience. The third consideration is do you want this to be a wide program or a deep program? What I mean there is Talkdesk has 1,800 customers. We need to make the decision, do we want our advocacy program to tap into all of the happy people within that 1,800 customer base, or do we want to identify maybe a hundred of those customers that are going to be like our identified advocates and they’re going to do higher volume of activity?

Again, this is a really important decision to make because it’s going to frame how you hire, how you structure, and how you incentivize. If you’re doing a very deep program, what you might do is kind of engage with a large organization and say, “Hey, we want you to be part of our advocacy program. Here are the handful of things that we’re going to ask you to do on a monthly basis, and this is how we’re going to reward you or thank you or incentivize you for this.” If you’re doing a very wide program, you need to rethink that because there’s going to be higher volume, higher velocity.

You’re going to have to manage business decision maker turnover, but you’re strengthening your capabilities by widening the pool of folks that you can talk to, and it means that you can do better matching of advocacy program needs. Then finally, and this is where I’m spending a lot of my time right now, is what are our effective alternatives to one-to-one references? A lot of times the ask from the sales team is going to be, can you get someone on a call with my prospect to help them tell the story of what it’s like to be a Talkdesk customer? But as we get bigger and bigger and our sales team gets larger and larger and our pipeline gets bigger and bigger, this just becomes harder, right? It’s like we’re having a hard time fulfilling those in a timely manner.

It’s a lot to ask of our customers. Now we’re starting to spend a lot of time thinking about what are the things that we can do to amplify our advocate’s voices so that we don’t have to do so much of that one to one matching. Great examples of this are webinars, particularly vertically-based webinars, customer video testimonials, case studies, reference letters, local events, either social or kind of more targeted in nature. These are all really great ways that you can create content and experiences that deflect the need for a one-to-one customer reference.

I’ll come to this in a minute, but you need to start coaching the sales team on how to introduce those opportunities or that content earlier in the sales process because that helps to, again, kind of deflect the need for a customer reference call. I’ll talk about that in just one minute. Then the principles. The principles that you need to be thinking about as you’re building and scaling your customer reference program. First of all, it needs to be 100% measured. This is something that I am really dogmatic about. You do not want to be doing dozens or hundreds of customer reference engagements in a given month or a given period and not have all of that measured. Because whether or not it’s rewarded or incentivized, do not forget to thank your advocate.

If you do not have this measured, you are going to forget to thank someone and then you have turned an advocate into someone who is never going to do that again for you because there’s no worse feeling than doing something for a partner and then like not even getting a thank you for it. If you’re not measuring it, you’re not going to thank them, and you’re not going to be able to move into measured outcomes, which I’ll talk about now. The third principle that I have here is that boundaries must be defined. You do not want your advocacy program to be a free for all. At Talkdesk, we define boundaries based on what stage the deal is at, certain criteria that the AE must meet for us to be able to engage in a one to one customer reference.

If you’re not measuring, then you’re not going to be able to use a measured outcome approach to define what that stage is. What I mean there is, let’s say you start with everything. We’re only going to be able to do customer references. If a customer or a prospective deal is at a certain stage, let’s say in verbal stage, if you’re not measuring the outcome of that and whether or not those are actually converting, you can’t decide whether or not that stage requirement is too early or too late. Again, that’s why the measurement is so critical and why defining those boundaries is informed by that measurement process. Then finally, protect your customers. I think there is so often this habit of focusing on the new business deals, right?

This advocacy program, the purpose of it, of course, is to help Talkdesk grow on the new business side, but our customers, frankly, they matter more. They already made the decision to join Talkdesk. They’re staying with us. They’re working with us. They’re growing with us. It’s really important that sales leadership is aligned with that value of making sure that customer is the number one priority.

Take a listen to the Q&A!

QUESTION 1: What are some examples of local events you mentioned you folks do?

Yeah. The question was what are some examples of local events that we do. We invested a lot in a local event marketing team. We’ve got events that go on all over the U.S. and in Europe as well, but these are going to be like… One of the themes that we do is cocktails and conversations where we’ll give a CX related topic that’s going to be the primary point of the conversation or the primary point of the event, and then we provide it to prospects and customers who attend a happy hour setting. We’ve done these CX tours where, again, the intention is, in this case, a little bit more around thought leadership, but we do half-day events where we seek to get… In those happy hours, it’s looking more for like 30 to 50 people.

For these tour events, we’re looking more like a hundred or 200 attendees to engage in a little bit more structured learning exercises around CX. Then just kind of general meetups on topics that our customer success or sales team here is about that we think will lure people into attendance. Yeah. Yeah.

QUESTION 2: Can you tell us the strategy a little bit around your G2 Crown and Capterra reviews? Specifically, how do you incentivize customers who have a corporate policy that they can’t accept a gift?

Good question. The question is talk a little bit about Talkdesk’s online reviews strategies, specifically G2 and Capterra, and then separately, how do you reward customers that aren’t allowed to be rewarded by their own company policy? One the first one, online reviews are a huge area of focus for our customer marketing team. They leverage, I mentioned on the how do you find them, support CSAT and NPS. Those are our highest volume opportunities to identify advocates. We’ve built a process, it’s actually so manual, we don’t have any automation around it, where a human reaches out to them and ask them to go say something nice about us online. Generally speaking, these people are primed to give us good feedback.

They love our product, they love our services team, whatever it is, and they’re willing to go do that. We see a pretty high response rate on that. Then related to your second question about what do you do when people can’t get incentivize, you have to ask before you give them something, right? If it’s something that’s online like a gift card or something, they have to press accept. If it’s something that we’re going to mail them, we have to ask them for their mailing address anyway. We usually uncover in that moment, “Hey, actually, don’t send me anything. It’s against policy,” and then we just note it on the account level so we don’t make that mistake accidentally. Yeah?

QUESTION 3: How are you able to measure how much of video, like the one you just showed us, has reviews that need for one-on-one references?

Oh, I wish I could say yes to that. We haven’t worked on actually measuring the impact of that. We’ve invested a lot in our video content over the last year or so. One of the things I’m actually still working with the AE team on is can we insert into the general flow that they send these sorts of content ahead of time so that we can see if that helps to kind of self-manage deflection. We’re not quite there yet, but I’m hopeful that it does serve that because it’s so powerful, right?

It’s like if you got a bunch of this content ahead of time and you’re making a buying decision, you see all these people, they’ve got like the right title, they look friendly and knowledgeable, you can look them up on LinkedIn, so maybe we don’t need to kind of go through the whole rigmarole of the one-to-one reference. But I don’t have data on that yet. Yeah?

QUESTION 4: Does your CSM teams, do they own renewals and upsells and if you can talk briefly about the comp plan that you follow?

Yeah. CSMs do own upsell and renewal. We have a bonus program. It’s not commissionable, but we’ve got a percentage-based bonus that is entirely focused on retention, so what’s the logo retention and the revenue retention. Yeah?

QUESTION 5: At what point in time did you implement reference program in terms of the size of the company and revenue or employees?

I joined in April 2017 and we’re already doing references, but we weren’t calling it a reference program yet, right? It was literally what I talked about, someone sends a Slack or an email or a text and we just kind of shoot an email out. We weren’t measuring it. We also weren’t really thanking our customers, which was a problem. We would implicitly, but we didn’t have any gifting strategy. We really started to invest in customer marketing at the end of 2017 and that’s when we started to look at software options. We gave a dedicated headcount to all of our customer marketing activities. That’s now a five-person team, so we’ve seen the benefit of that investment. But that was when we started their nesting.

I would say I feel like we’ve really started to get good probably like the middle of 2018. It takes some time.

QUESTION 6: At what stage were you or what percentage of the employee population did that make up?

We hired customer marketing when we were about 400-500 employees.



That’s helpful. Thank you.

Yeah. Yeah?

QUESTION 7: We’ve talked about net retention and local retention. Do you guys set goals for net retention and logo retention and has it changed over time?

Yeah. We set goals for net retention and logo retention. I talked about our enterprise segment being really high growth. Our logo retention target on the enterprise side is 100%. We work really, really hard to retain those customers. Our net retention targets are probably between 120 and 130% with some benefit to the customer success manager if they’re able to exceed that. Yeah?

QUESTION 8: Who really should be making the ask, is it sales or marketing?

Or customer success.

Okay. It really depends on who owns the relationship, right? Ideally, you get to the point where customer marketing is able to make that ask, right? But they can’t go in cold, right? If you’ve got an AE that owns this relationship and they talk to that customer let’s say a couple of times a month, like some random customer marketing person making that ask is going to have a lower yes rate than the AE. What you have to do is invest in that team, start getting them into the mix on customer engagement. It’s like maybe they’re attending conferences with your customers, they’re doing a customer advisory board, they’re building trust somehow. Maybe they’re sending out the customer newsletter so it becomes a name that they get used to, then they can start kind of being empowered to make that ask. Yeah?

QUESTION 9: How does that relationship work?

We have customer success managers and we have account executives. We don’t have an account management function. I was more meaning, whoever owns the relationship is often the one who starts to promote the advocacy program.

QUESTION 10: You were talking about the references and getting them ready, but let’s say if an AE has all the accounts, does it often happen that the AE actually bypasses you guys and reaches out to their accounts directly? 

The question is does the AE sometimes bypass the program and make the ask directly? The answer to that is yes. That’s why the measurement piece is so important. What we try to instill with the account executives is trust, which is okay, I know that sometimes you’re not going to want to follow our process. That’s okay. At the end of the day, what we want is to connect the customer to the prospect, but you have to tell us. Where all of this falls apart is if you don’t tell us, then you get reprimanded, right? Otherwise, as long as you’re being honest with us, we’ll be okay.


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