In a meeting with a very large client last week, we asked a VP there what kinds of collateral his sales team finds most useful. The VP’s response was immediate: “Case studies, no doubt about it.” His answer reinforces what TDA has come to know over the years. In survey after survey, salespeople invariably say they want more case studies. Why? Because they know firsthand that customer testimonials radically shorten sales cycles. Prospects find real-world examples of product and service benefits relevant, credible, and compelling.

Understand the “1-in-10” rule 

So, given the value they place on case studies, why is it hard to get salespeople to help generate leads? After all, sales folks are closest to customers, maintain relationships, and can best navigate the geopolitical customer landscape. They are in a prime position to know exactly whom to contact to about a customer case study, and when.

And that’s critical. TDA’s experience shows that only 1 out of every 10 case study leads actually makes it through to publication. Some customers decline to participate outright, while others drop out along the way for a variety of reasons. Just like the sales process itself, customer reference programs need a pipeline. The more story leads you generate, the more case studies you’ll create. Without a robust pipeline of potential customers, the efforts of well-intentioned marketing departments can stall before they even get started.

Use this checklist to get started

Thankfully, there are a number of ways to help generate leads for the case study pipeline. Here are six of the most important:

1. Get it in writing. Yes, it is possible to establish contractual language that requires participation in customer references. This may seem elementary, but many organizations fail to include boilerplate terms about customer reference participation into standard contracts. This is especially important for case study leads because it’s harder to get permission later on. Of course, deal negotiations sometimes result in this clause being removed, but other times it flies through unscathed. That’s why it should be in the boilerplate contract. Assume that every customer will be a reference until they tell you otherwise.

2. Regularly update sales staff about case study goals, progress made, and what you need from them. From a sales perspective, marketing has one job: make sales easy. One way of garnering support is setting and sharing goals for how many case studies you plan on publishing over the course of a month, quarter, or year, and how many story leads you need to make it happen. Make sure you let salespeople know the plan—if they don’t know, they can’t help you. Include program updates in whatever field communications are most effective. Some organizations share updates through sales team conference calls, others use internal e-mail newsletters, and still others post to the sales intranet. And ask this key question: What communications channel does the VP of sales or CEO use to get a strategic message to the field? Whatever the answer, that’s the channel you want to use for your program updates.

3. Share the love: make sure sales incentives align with the customer reference program. Sales professionals, as a rule, want to know what’s in it for them. Because their income depends on performance, good salespeople focus their time, attention, and efforts on their quota. You can use a similar incentive to enlist support for your reference program. Establish the number of leads you need and the number of stories you’re looking to publish, and then set reasonable expectations. Work with your sales compensation architects to see if it’s possible to reward those whose actions support program results.

4. Provide comprehensive program management support. While salespeople have great insight into potential case study leads, their priority is closing new deals. Your team needs to allay the fear of distractions. Make it easy for salespeople to help with case study leads, and make sure your interactions with customers are always courteous, professional, and even fun for the customer.

5. Track and share performance data. Consider putting up a leaderboard that ranks salespeople and/or departments with a point system for story leads and completed case studies. These metrics can be posted on sales intranets, on posters in sales breakrooms, or other public areas. When they see how their efforts compare against their peers, salespeoples’ competitive natures will help motivate their support.

6. Use expert assistance to juice up your organization’s case study program. For the details on this one, you’ll have to contact me. But most enterprises have more case study prospects than they realize. With help from an outside organization that specializes in working with people in the field who best know customers, reference programs can take off—and marketing can beat goals and expectations.