Imagine if you could turn passionate customer interactions into a strategic and competitive differentiator? If you could package those interactions and integrate them into your business, how much additional value would you achieve?

As a passionate customer evangelist I’m excited to see customer advocacy reach a tipping point. I have a long held belief that customer advocacy is a strategic practice and function that is critical to business success. With a career that includes roles at HP, VMware and now Salesforce I’ve built innovative customer reference programs that form the foundation of customer advocacy. I’ve engaged with customers all along their journey to transform their business and witnessed the increase in influence of the customer’s voice. As social media and technology increase the power and influence of the customer voice there is a push toward new ways to engage with customers. Companies want to connect with their best customers and leverage those relationships into increased revenue and profitability. They can no longer afford to ignore the importance of customer advocacy.

Before we dive into the changing landscape of customer advocacy, let’s first establish what it means.

Customer advocacy is active engagement to build a trusted, authentic partnership with customers, employees and partners. The ideal advocate is a person emotionally invested in both the product/solution and the company. The advocate actively seeks out opportunities to share their positive experience with peers. Done well, customer advocacy is a way to build long-term customer partnerships that result in lasting business profitability.

I see customer advocacy as a journey based on four key pillars: people engagement, interactions, technology and implementation.

1. People Engagement: Engage with the right people: your employees, your customer and your partners. The engagement needs to be transparent in order to build the trusted relationships necessary in a customer-centric culture. Engage by building long term customer relationships that are aligned to the customer’s buying journey end-to-end. Educate your internal stakeholders on the power and value of advocacy by managing a transparent function and communicating regularly.

2. Interactions: Interacting meaningfully and consistently with customers is a must-have to build the customer advocacy function. Tracking and measuring customer interactions, as well as pulling together the interactivity data, provides insights into program value and the voice of the customer.

3. Technology: Automate, automate, automate! Automation is no longer a choice if you want to ensure efficiency and scale of the function. Social and mobile are also required for a best-in-class customer advocacy platform. There are a diverse and ever growing set of technology options.

4. Implementation: So you have tackled people engagement, interactions and technology. It’s time to implement and operationalize the customer advocacy function – this is heavy lifting and, to be honest, it’s not easy. Customer advocacy is a holistic function that spans across the organization. It is the complexity of implementation, operations and management where many organizations struggle. Start with the basics: document processes, and track engagements and customer interactions. Once you have mastered the basics then create a plan for scaling the function across your organization.

Customer Advocacy is more than a program or a technology. It’s the ultimate relationship with customers, employees and partners that evolves and grows over time. It’s an exciting and sometimes bumpy journey that creates an emotional bond, trust and mutual respect between you and your customers, and drives value for your business. Customer advocacy is about building deep customer relationships, exceeding customer expectations and enabling customers to transform their business. We’ve reached a tipping point and companies that fail to act risk being left behind those that act quickly to establish a customer advocacy function.

Harnessing the power of customer connection is the new imperative.