Fishing for Compliments: How to Land Great Customer References
Partners and marketing experts answer five frequently asked questions about using a powerful piece of sales gear: the customer testimonial.
- By Rich Freeman
- March 01, 2006
Ask anyone: Customer references are among the most valuable sales
and marketing resources for businesses of just about every type
and size. How valuable? "We've done mergers and acquisitions
just to get the reference accounts," says Jeff Rudolph, president
of ICS Advantage LLC, an Aurora, Ill.-based solution provider and
Microsoft Gold Certified Partner.
References play an important role in the Microsoft Partner Program,
too. You need at least three to qualify for a competency, and each
reference earns you two qualifying points (up to a maximum of 20)
toward Certified or Gold Certified status.
So it's no surprise
that partners and marketing pros have a lot of practical (and sometimes
contradictory) advice about how to get, use and manage customer
references. Following are from-the-trenches answers to five frequently
asked questions on the subject (also see "Reeling in Customer
References" below). Should
I request a customer reference before or after we do a project?
Unless you've already worked successfully with the customer several
times, wait until the engagement is over, recommends April Balsamo,
marketing and alliances manager at Intrinsic Technologies LLC, an
infrastructure solutions provider and Microsoft Gold Certified Partner
headquartered in Lisle, Ill. "It's kind of premature, if a customer
has never used you, to have them comment on how successful the engagement
is going to be" before it even begins, Balsamo points out.
Andrea Conway disagrees. The founder and CEO of Conway Marketing
Associates Inc., a technology-industry communications firm based
in Glendale, Colo., advises clients to include a requirement for
customer references in the sales contract. That clause may be the
first one your customer crosses out, but you can always ask for
a concession in return -- and still request references later.
Conway, who includes client testimonials on her company's Web site,
also recommends issuing a press release immediately after closing
a deal, rather than waiting for results to report. Results may not
be available for months, she notes, and almost anything from a buyout
to bankruptcy can happen during that time.
The bottom line: The deeper your relationships with your customers,
the sooner you should raise the reference issue with them.
in Customer References
Following are a few more tips from
veterans of the reference game:
- Aim high. When requesting
a reference agreement, approach a senior leader,
such as the CEO, COO or CIO, rather than a mid-level
manager. Executives are more likely to welcome
press exposure, and they’re usually powerful
enough to overrule a skittish legal or communications
- Stay current. Don’t
use testimonials that are more than two years
old, and be sure you’ve got up-to-date
names, titles and contact information. Your
prospects shouldn’t have to work to find
the right person.
- Monitor usage. Make
sure you’re not bombarding your best client
with several inquiries per week. Use references
only with well-qualified prospects, spreading
the reference work among several customers and
be sure to track how often each is contacted.
- Avoid anonymity. Anonymous
references simply don’t carry the same
weight as those using an executive’s name,
title and company affiliation, says tech marketer
Andrea Conway. While no-name testimonials may
be the only option in industries where most
players simply won’t comment publicly,
she and others recommend attributing comments
- Be flexible. There
are lots of ways to use references. If a customer
says no to a press release, consider inviting
a company official to speak at a conference
or user group meeting instead. Sharing experiences
with peers in a less public setting may be more
acceptable to them. -- R.F.
What if customers are
reluctant to serve as references?
First, don't take the initial "no" for an answer. Try
to pinpoint what's behind your customer's reluctance and then address
it. Often, the underlying problem is a perception that being a reference
is more effort than it's worth. In such cases, emphasize the benefits
of participation, advises Sandy Bateh, vice president of Idea Integration
Corp., a Jacksonville, Fla.-based solution provider and Microsoft
Gold Certified Partner that focuses on the state and local government
space. A press release celebrating the successful launch of an innovative
solution, for example, can help your customers impress their own
customers (not to mention their investors) -- as long as the statement
doesn't read like a blatant vendor endorsement. A properly worded
release describes a successful project implementation -- rather
than merely plugging your own company -- an approach that's likely
to enhance the clients' own public image as well.
"Even if you’ve used a reference
many times before, always give a point person a quick
call before mentioning the company to a potential
customer -- and not just because doing so is courteous.
That brief chat is also an opportunity to make sure
your reference is still an advocate."
Should I compensate customers
for serving as references?
That depends on how badly you need a reference, says Rufus Connell,
a research director for information technology at Frost & Sullivan,
a San Antonio, Texas-based marketing consultancy. New companies,
with fewer success stories to tout, should offer discounts in exchange
for reference agreements. "This should be a line item in the
contract," he says.
More established firms, however, such as Serenic Corp. of Lakewood,
Colo., often do just the opposite. Serenic, a solution provider
and Microsoft Gold Certified Partner serving the government and
not-for-profit sectors, reverses the price-cut equation. Chris Stevenson,
vice president of sales and strategic alliances, says Serenic doesn't
offer discounts in exchange for customer references. However, if
a customer negotiates a price break for some other reason, Serenic
requests a reference agreement in return.
What's the worst reference-related
mistake you can make?
Failing to contact references before giving their names to prospects.
Even if you've used a reference many times before, always give a
point person a quick call before mentioning the company to a potential
customer -- and not just because doing so is courteous. That brief
chat is also an opportunity to make sure your reference is still
an advocate. It's a lesson ICS Advantage's Rudolph learned the hard
way. He once failed to check before directing a customer to a formerly
reliable reference who, unbeknownst to him, had recently opened
his own IT consulting business. The ex-reference "didn't say
very good things about us," Rudolph recalls -- but was more
than willing to tackle the customer's project himself.
Jeff Grell, senior vice president of consulting services at Lincolnshire,
Ill.-based Junction Solutions, a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner
that markets customized versions of Microsoft Axapta for the retail,
food and beverage industries, spends an hour of prep time with references
before a prospect calls them or tours their facility. If limited
scalability, for example, is an especially sensitive topic for a
particular customer, "make sure [references] are aware of that
so they don't say things that can adversely affect the process,"
he suggests. What
are some best practices for managing reference information?
Be organized and methodical, says Balsamo, of Intrinsic Technologies,
who e-mails customers a six-question survey after every engagement.
"If the quotes are favorable, we then work with the customer
to get a reference agreement," she says.
Balsamo also maintains
a master list of customer references, broken out by industry and
location. That list includes previously approved customer statements
so that a sales rep can easily find an appropriate reference, copy
the authorized text and paste it into a proposal. Maintaining the
list also helps her spot references that have grown too long in
the tooth. "You don't want a reference that's three years old,"
In the end, though, what's most important about
references isn't how you track them but how you get them. The key
to getting them, of course, is to keep your customers happy. Doing
so often pays off, says Junction Solutions' Grell: "References
flow from doing a good job for your customers."