The Art Of Asking For A Customer Reference

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The scenario: it’s nearing the end of the quarter, and your sales team is within reach of their number. Evaluations are done, sales reps are in closing mode, and all that stands in the way of a killer three months are a few customer references. Your sales team is knocking your door down.

Panic time? Of course not.

Asking for a customer reference is tricky. It’s uncomfortably awkward for most people — after all, you are asking somebody who already pays you money to go out of their way for something you need. People assume that customers don’t want to be references, so they treat them that way: delicately, cautiously, nervously.

If you are doing this, you’ve got it all wrong.

A reference is not a favor

If you haven’t done so before, volunteer to be a reference for someone else. Find a vendor you like, reach out to them, and offer it up. The first thing you’ll find is this: you’ll be amazed at how nicely you’re treated. Honestly, it’s pretty cool. But more importantly, you’ll quickly realize that there are big benefits to being a reference for a company.

As a marketer looking to make “the ask,” these benefits are your most important asset.

What’s in it for them

It helps to know why your client would give a reference in the first place. It’s almost always for one of these reasons:

  • They love your company, the product and the people who work there. And they want to see you succeed.
  • They get to expand their network and meet interesting people who can help them.
  • They get special treatment and the opportunity to promote themselves.

Once you understand your customers’ motivations, it’s a lot easier to perfect the way you ask for their participation.

How not to ask

Here’s a typical request for a reference (caution: just reading this might make you shrivel up in second-hand embarrassment):

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 11.20.20 AM

Notice the following:

  • The request is framed around “we” and “us,” not “you”
  • There’s nothing in it for the customer
  • The requestor assumes that the customer will say no, and is clearly asking for a favor

Asking for a reference in this manner is just plain weak. No wonder people are scared to death of doing it.

The right way to ask

When I do a reference, I try to ask only the people who I think would be interested in speaking with the prospect in question. This could be because of a similar background or interest. Or because I see two people who I think might potentially get along. I also give my customers some detail about the person they are going to be speaking with.

Compare the previous request with this one:

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 11.21.03 AM

What’s different now?

  • The entire request is framed around “you”
  • Clear statements of value and benefits for taking the call
  • Tone that suggests, “I have an opportunity for you — why wouldn’t you take it?”

In my experience – they usually they do take the request. And they like you better for it.

References are about relationships

One more point: marketers often avoid asking someone for a reference because there are recent customer support tickets. It’s one of the first questions people ask when trying to identify a reference: “are they having issues?”

Being a reference is about much more than just the product. In fact, it is not uncommon for people who have placed support calls to serve as amazing references— specifically because they have stronger relationships with the company. If you take care of your customers, they will reciprocate. You need to know their disposition in advance, but don’t avoid them just because they have had a problem in the past.

One of our top advocates once revealed to me that he’d always do a reference call for one of his vendors because he likes to meet new people and learn from them, regardless of his personal feelings of the product. Proof positive: it’s not about you.

Be bold: you’ve got a lot more advocates than you think

Go for the ask—and do it personally. Because what you’ll quickly realize is that you’ve got a lot more referenceable customers rooting for you than you even thought. And there is nothing more powerful than an army of brand advocates to boost your sales & marketing engine.

Don’t be shy. It’s a win-win.

Grow Your Customer Base. Cut Your Reference Program.

Find out how other customer success, marketing and sales professionals are transforming the way their companies harness relationships with loyal customers in the age of advocacy.

Download the free eBook now

This blog post was originally published December, 2012.

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