Sales and Sales Management Blog

December 16, 2007

Guest Article: Be Strategic About Customer References by Linda Richardson

Be Strategic About Customer References
By Linda Richardson  

A great client reference often can be more powerful than the best sales pitch. An excellent reference can tip the scales in a competitive situation in your favor and a bad or not stellar reference can cost you the deal. 

Clients respect and listen to one another and, therefore, invariably ask for references. And even when they don’t, you can offer references to help you win. 

1. Line Up Your References 

Before you provide a reference to your prospect, be 99.9% certain of the kind of reference you will get. Do this by earning the right to use clients as references long before you need them. Consider the criteria important to the prospect in selecting which name(s) to give and don’t provide more names than necessary. 

“Nurturing a relationship takes time, not necessarily large blocks of time, but consistent responsiveness, attention, and flawless execution.” 

Nurturing a relationship takes time, not necessarily large blocks of time, but consistent responsiveness, attention, and flawless execution. For example, things such as the proactive call after the product is delivered to check on satisfaction and quality, a voice mail at New Year’s with a wish for a Happy New Year and a thank you for the opportunity to work with him/her, a year-end letter summarizing and thanking the client, consistently knowing and responding to what the client wants and likes, and bringing value-add ideas. When you develop strong client relationships you are poised to get the GLOWING references you need. 

2. Prep the Client Who Will Provide the Reference  

Once you are positioned to ask a client to be a reference, take the pre-reference steps needed to help you get not a good, but a superb reference: 

* Call the client to get his/her OK. 

* Most importantly, use the call to tee up what the prospect is most interested in so that your client can position points that are most important to the prospect and know which capabilities and benefits to emphasize.  

* Check in to make sure your prospect is able to reach the reference(s) and use this call as another reason to make contact, gather more information, continue to position, and reinforce what a great partner you would make. 

3. Prepare the Prospect 

* Give your prospect some information about the reference and how your work with this client does and does not apply to the prospect’s situation so there are no surprises. 

4. Follow Up 

* Follow up with your client reference to thank him/her. During this call, you can often get invaluable feedback and insights on how the prospect feels about you, your competitors, and his/her needs. Be sure to express your appreciation.  

* Follow up with the prospect to check that he/she has connected with the reference(s) and gotten what he/she needed. Use this call to get feedback you can use to move to the next step and learn more. Reinforce your value – or make adjustments based on the feedback. 

Avoid providing references that may even be partially negative. If you personally don’t have an appropriate reference, e-mail your teammates or colleagues to leverage their relationships. You can use an organizational reference when one of your own clients doesn’t fit the specs. For example, you may say “I need a reference in the insurance industry, ideally personal lines. Please let me know any names I might use.”  

And then ask your colleague to tee up the reference or get an OK for you to call. You can also leave a voice mail thanking the client for agreeing “to take the call” and concisely position the specific interest of the prospect. Be sure to thank your colleague.


Linda Richardson is the Founder and Chairwoman of Richardson, a global sales training business.  Linda is the author of nine books on selling and sales management, including her most recent works, The Sales Success Handbook — 20 Lessons to Open and Close Sales Now, Sales Coaching — Making the Great Leap from Sales Manager to Sales Coach, and Stop Telling, Start Selling.  Her company’s website is


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