He Said What? Managing Your Customer References

By Andrew J. Birol, President, Birol Growth Consulting, Inc.

Your hottest prospect calls you and says, “I was just speaking to one of your clients and guess what I heard?” Which of the following goes through your mind?

  • "Oh no, of all my customers did he have to call that one!"
  • "Gee, I haven't spoken to them in years, what could they remember about my work?"
  • "Halleluiah! That customer loves me. I am golden and should easily close this prospect's business!"

When your references are checked are you at risk or in control? Do your customer references help you close more business or less?

Your Customer References Should be Your Personal Gold Mine

One of the reasons why your business has grown is because you have met the expectations of a majority of your customers or clients. Therefore, but perhaps unbeknownst to you, you have a silent army of supporters: those buyers who have voted for you with their wallets and budgets. Perhaps you have not ever asked your customers to be a reference, or if you have, it has been only in response to a prospect requesting you provide a list of satisfied clients. Well, as a business owner, your efforts to cultivate satisfied customers are just as important as your work to create a marketing identity. Customer references provide the proof, credibility, and heft that new or wary customers want to see when working with any small business. Many buyers, in fact, will put more weight on what they hear from your customers than they will on their own sense of how good you are. In a time when many people may doubt their own business judgment, the impressions of others who have hired you are never more important.

Four Reasons to Obtain Customer References. Why should you offer references when asked?

  • Prospects have a right to should speak to your customers before buying from you. Regardless of your market reputation, your prospects should exercise due diligence by having a few one-on-one conversations before making a commitment.
  • When called, your customers should not only articulate their impression of your best and highest use, but may actually steer good prospects to you and point others who are not a good fit away from you.
  • By introducing your existing customers to your prospects, you are actually expanding your network. Your existing clients will feel a sense of validation in their previous decision to work with you and might even rehire you or refer you to others.
  • Often, when a prospects check references it is after they have already made the decision to hire you. A smart buyer will talk to previous clients not to decide whether to work with you, but how to best work with you.

Making References Work for You

To make customer references become an asset as opposed to a liability to your business, take the following five steps:

  1. Ask every client and customer you serve for the permission to use him or her as a reference and post his or her company name on your Web site. When prospects want references from you, point them to specific names they recognize and provide them with contact names and phone numbers. (A heads-up call to the reference is always a good idea and gives you a chance to affirm or understand how good your relationship remains)
  2. As you build a reference list of dozens of clients and customers, begin to categorize exactly what you did for them; what kind of relationship you shared and what kind of a customer they were. Learn to match your customer's personalities and characteristics to what you have just observed in the prospects you are sending their way. Remember, the stronger connection two strangers make, the more they will influence each other.
  3. Follow up with both the prospect and the reference You will learn a great deal not just about the prospect but also about how you continue to be perceived by your references. Remember that your customer relationships are just like a marriage. If your communication with your partner declines, so does will his or her interest in you. Eventually, neglected clients may stop providing an enthusiastic reference just out of spite if they feel taken for granted.
  4. Emotions are never higher than when entering a relationship. Your best references may be those most enthusiastic or passionate, rather than those for whom you produced the best results. Prospects decide to buy intellectually but choose whom to work with emotionally.
  5. You never know who will be a good reference for you and who will not. While it is always good practice to build good bridges, realize that your references are emotional, busy, distracted people. When your prospects check references, who they actually connect with and what is actually said is often a random event. Between everyone's fear of litigation, information overload, and voice mail, the reference checking process is rarely thorough. If you provide several good references, a prospect is very likely to quit after reaching only a couple of your clients.

Customer and client references can be a great asset to your business if you have compiled a good record of performance and maintained a good database of your advocates. While your heart should always race a bit when a prospect says he has spoken to your clients, breathe deeply. If you have stayed in touch with those you count as customers, there is a high probability they will be delighted to stand up for you and if you haven’t, you only have yourself to blame.


Articles by Birol Growth Consulting are © copyrighted and all rights are reserved. However, articles may be reprinted with prior written consent if attribution is included as follows:

© Copyrighted by Andrew J. Birol, President of Birol Growth Consulting, who helps owners grow their businesses by growing their Best and Highest Use ®. Andy can be reached at (412) 973-2080, by email at abirol@andybirol.com, or on the web at www.andybirol.com.

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