I like to segment reference customers into three types: Strategic, Marketing and Service/Solution References.
Strategic References are created because both you and the customer need/want to work together closely to achieve key business outcomes of mutual value. This common interest is key to a long term "profitable" partnership where you work together to develop new solutions and markets. This is accomplished by jointly conceptualizing, implementing and then promoting the solution to generate awareness, word of mouth and to advance each others strategic objectives (translation: competitive advantage, sales, productivity).
This is at the very early adoption stage but it is now being taught to healthcare professionals in classroom settings to teach microscopic (say that three times fast!) diagnosis. We wanted to show this technology to various healthcare stakeholders to demonstrate its potential in improving healthcare during the education and healthcare delivery stages (by the way we put in the communications and storage technologies that enable this solution to perform properly and securely).
The customer gathered feedback and generated awareness about this solution now being used to teach their students. It positioned them as unique and innovative. From our perspective our customer advocated our company as a key stakeholder in developing, implementing and supporting the technology that enables students to learn using this solution. Prospective customers heard firsthand what it is like working with our company and how we are solving their problems and in this case helping them innovate. The results were positive for our customer and my company both during and after the show. In fact two articles will be written about this solution in Canada's largest circulated Healthcare Technology Magazine.