Lean Six Sigma for Sales: How to Easily Improve Your Customer Reference Process

Originally Published by The Capterra Sales & Marketing Tech Blog

Most CMOs readily acknowledge that having customers refer their company is key to closing sales. And yet, the process at most organizations is informal and inconsistent. While there are many ways to approach the problem, smart marketing leaders are stealing from the playbook of formal process improvement methodologies to get their organization on the right track.

Here’s how Lean Six Sigma can get your company more customer references.

Lean Six Sigma

The benefits of Lean Six Sigma are well-established in its origins as a formalized approach to business performance improvement, blending the two individual specialisms of Lean (from Lean Manufacturing by Toyota) and Six Sigma (developed by Motorola). Both strategies are among the most used worldwide and have experienced proven success. Although it’s common to think of engineers, scientists and analysts when Six Sigma is concerned, Six Sigma has evolved to encompass all things business, including sales and marketing.

Lean Six Sigma is a formalized approach to eliminating defects and removing non-value added steps in a process.

And it doesn’t take years of training to understand how the three key tenants can be used to drive improvement:

  1. Document the business process and identify the process defects,
  2. Determine characteristics for measurement and ongoing control,
  3. Quantify the business impact

Here’s how to take the key aspects of Lean Six Sigma to the customer reference process.

Identifying the defects in the process

Prior to thinking about solution, Lean Six Sigma suggests analyzing the current process for defect. In the case of customer references, the defects were anything that leads to dissatisfaction from customers, prospects, or the sales team.

A simple approach is to use surveys and interviews with the sales team and customers.

These surveys might reveal certain defects in your sales process that could be negatively impacting your reference rate. For example, executives often waste time by trying to save it. They will sometimes, for instance, send requests to multiple sales teams, sales managers, or even product managers at once in an effort to get a response from someone immediately, instead of targeting a specific request to a specific person.

The shotgun approach leads to either multiple people duplicating efforts trying to satisfy the request, which is inefficient, or no one would responding at all, which wastes opportunities.

Measure and control

Ongoing measurement and control are required for a Lean Six Sigma project. A commonly selected metric is turn-around time on customer references.

Again, surveys help determine acceptable tolerances. You need to know how long you can wait to follow up with a reference before the conversion rate dips precariously. So, for example, you might find that a telephone reference needs to be followed up with in two days and onsite visit within four days. These become the thresholds for a successful process.

You also want to make sure that you are not abusing customers with too many requests. The research phase is also used to determine the requirements for a new process.

In a Lean Six Sigma approach, these requirements then demand control metrics. Stated plainly, you need to ensure your ultimate solution gives you a way to monitor and measure whether you are meeting these standards going forward. Here’s where tools such as an automated customer reference system improve the process on these dimensions and make documenting your measurements easier.

Business impact

Lean Six Sigma is not process for the sake of process. Built into its DNA is the need for everything to be relatable back to the business results, and part of the effort must involve determining how the business results can be quantified.

Business impact is often determined based on formulas related to 1) operational efficiency and 2) revenue impact.

Here is an example of a formula for using Lean Six Sigma to improve the customer reference process. It uses improved operational efficiency as a business metric for success. The purpose of the formula is to reveal how much creating one common process throughout the organization decreases costs.

Cost decrease from operational efficiency = Number of reps * Reference requests per rep per year * Hours per request spent on research (not selling) * Hourly rate of rep

This formula shows how much bringing more customers on board sooner impacts revenue.

Revenue increase from new sales = Number of deals * Increased close rate % * Decreased sales cycle duration

This formula shows how much bringing more customers on board sooner impacts revenue.


Especially in industries with complex sales cycles, the benefits of an effective customer reference process are substantial. These include large technology, financial services, telecommunications, and SaaS companies.

Applying the Lean Six Sigma approach to customer reference management gives marketing organizations the tools to both streamline the process and measure the impact of changes to continually improve. Knowing what works means you get the most out of customer references.

Do you use Lean Six Sigma in your sales process? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments!