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How to Respond When Prospects Ask For Customer References: 12 Strategies

Customer references can make the difference between a closed sale or a lost one.

But there's a time and a place to introduce your prospects to your customers. It's not in the beginning of the sales process, when many prospects ask. It might not even be in the middle of your process if you haven’t already done a good job addressing their concerns.

In fact, most of the time, salespeople should rely on references only as a last resort and toward the end of their sales process. As Dave Kurlan, best-selling author, top speaker, and sales development thought leader explains, “Any reference request is a momentum stopper and at best extends the sales process. At worst, it will delay it indefinitely.”

So, how should you handle prospects who ask for references, especially if it’s too early in your sales process? 

Customer Reference Requests: 12 Ways to Respond

1) Acknowledge their request for a reference and understand their reasons.

Don't ignore your prospect's reference request. Prospects ask for references for wildly different reasons. When it's early in your sales process, they could be trying to blow you off, or it could be a buying signal. When it's closer to the end of your process, it might just be out of habit or because their company requires them to talk to references before making any purchase. No matter why they may be asking or when, it's important to first acknowledge their request.

When you get a premature reference request, ask, "You'd like to talk to a few of our customers?" Chances are they'll say "Yes" and explain why. But if this doesn’t prompt their reasoning, don't be afraid to ask directly. It's critical to understand why your prospect is asking for references so you can differentiate between legitimate requests and ones intended as put-offs.

Here’s a way you can ask directly while keeping the mood light: "Usually, when prospective clients ask for a reference, it's because they are serious about moving forward with me, or it's because they don't trust a word that comes out of my mouth and want to talk to someone else who is more trustworthy than me. Which scenario describes your reasons better?"

(It's important to chuckle a bit when you you refer to yourself as untrustworthy, otherwise this strategy might backfire.)

2) Don't be a pushover.

While it's okay to provide references at the end of your process if they are absolutely needed to close a deal, most of the time they are unnecessary. Your sales process should help you build trust with your prospect. Ask the right questions, listen effectively, and position your service as a way to solve their most pressing challenges. Do it well and your prospect shouldn't need anyone else to tell them they're making the right decision. While it might be tempting to let your customers do your selling for you, don't be dependent on it.

The better approach is to "sell from an abundance mentality" says Mike Weinberg, author of New Sales Simplified and Sales Management: Simplified.

"One of the things that gets us relegated to 'vendor' status is when we become yes men and do everything our prospect asks us to do" Weinberg explains. "You're good and you know it. You've got lots of work and you're okay if they don't hire you. You have a sales process that works and you're sticking with it." This level of confidence makes prospects respect that you've done this before and you're going to guide them in making a smart decision.

Many salespeople are reluctant to push back on prospects. But if they can suppress their need for approval and respectfully question the prospect's need for a reference, they'll start to earn respect.

Having a documented sales process that you follow is key to having this confidence and earning this respect, however. The main purpose of a sales process is to build trust so that a prospect can make an informed decision. Prospects often believe that a third-party reference request is a quick way to learn whether someone is trustworthy or not. It's not. You and your process are the best way to learn whether you and your company are trustworthy or not. Don't shirk your responsibility.

3) Ask them what questions they would like to ask your customer.

Try something like, "I understand that you'd like a reference or two. So that I can get you introduced to the right references, do you have a list of questions prepared?"

Usually, when prospects ask for a reference early in the process, they haven't thought through the specific questions they'd like to get answered. If they don't have a list of questions prepared, make it simpler for them by asking them if there are any top-of-mind concerns they have about a product or service like yours: "When you've used products or services like ours in the past, did you run into challenges you're afraid of repeating?"

If they still can’t seem to come up with specific questions or don't seem to want to divulge them, be prepared to suggest a few issues they should be concerned with. Say something along the lines of, "Would you like me to suggest some questions you could ask them?" and then use your knowledge of their current situation to propose a few. For example, if your product requires a certain amount of time and effort before ROI is realized, suggest that they should be asking, “What kind of internal resources do I need to dedicate to ensure our purchase achieves a quick ROI?”

4) Apologize for not proactively addressing their issues earlier.

Once you've uncovered a few questions they’d like to ask a customer, apologize for not proactively broaching these sticking points earlier. After all, the reason they're asking for a reference is because they don't feel comfortable asking you, or worse: They don't trust you to give an honest answer.  Try, “I’m sorry that I haven’t addressed these questions and issues with you earlier.”

While not always easily achievable, building trust is the salesperson’s responsibility. An apology will disarm your prospect and make them realize that you're going to do your best to understand what they need, not just what they want -- and definitely not just what you want to sell them.

5) Suggest talking through their questions first before bothering a client.

Next, suggest that you might be the best person to help them answer their questions instead of a customer. According to Kurlan, many times prospects are just trying to understand what to expect from you and your service when they ask for a reference. Who’s the best person to clarify expectations? (Hint: You.)

Try saying, "I'm uncomfortable providing references to you right now for a few reasons. The first reason is that it is my job to help you determine whether our offerings are the right ones for your specific needs. Would you be willing to schedule a longer conversation with me where we can thoroughly determine your needs, if and how we can help you with them, and what you can expect if you choose to work with us?"

In case this prompt doesn’t jibe with your process, Rick Roberge, partner at Unbound Growth (and my personal sales coach) suggests a few alterative ways to deny the prospect’s referral request.

If you think blunter is better, Roberge suggests, “I’m not there yet. Let’s see how our conversations go. If they go well, then we can meet each other’s friends."

Another of his methods uses humor to deflect. He first says, “No problem -- call 555-555-5555. Ask for Phyllis.” When they ask who Phyllis is, he answers, “That’s my mom’s cell phone number. She’s a little hard of hearing, but if you speak up, she’ll give me a glowing recommendation.”

Once they laugh, he follows with, “Sometimes when people ask for references at this point in the conversation, it’s not a serious request. They’re just looking for a reason to end the conversation. I don’t seriously expect you to call my mother, but I am interested to know what I said that made you ask.”

If they give up their quest for a premature reference and tell you what their real issues are, you're off and running. Set an agenda for your call and make sure you have a sales qualification framework for your next call that helps you and your prospect determine whether a mutual fit exists.

6) Tell them you try to avoid burdening your clients with referral requests.

If they are still insistent that you provide a reference, tell them that you don't burden your clients with reference calls until you've determined the likelihood of the prospect buying.

Perhaps the main reason you shouldn't provide referrals to every prospect who asks is out of respect for your customers. They have jobs that don’t include selling your product for you, and their time is valuable.

Try a short and sweet, "I'm not able to oblige your request right now because it is unfair to my clients."

Alternatively, Weinberg suggests the following longer, more explanatory version: "That is not something I can give you at this stage of the process, because we are at this stage with a bunch of prospects. If you were my client, you wouldn't want to take a call every week -- or more than one phone call a week -- to serve as a reference, right?"

7) Tell them you're willing to offer a reference at the right phase of the sales process.

Sometimes you won’t be able to avoid providing a reference entirely, but you should only give it after you’ve determined the prospect is a serious buyer and you’ve done your job to help them understand how you’ll work together to their benefit.

At this point, Weinberg suggests the following: "We're happy to give you a handful of appropriate references at the right phase in this process. Because of our situation in the market and as popular as we are, I can't have my best clients having four conversations a week with our prospects or they wouldn't be happy to be references for us. When we get to a place where you're considering one or two providers, or you're at the point of deciding to use us, we're happy to give you a significant list of our longer-term or shorter-term clients."

Are they still pushing back and asking for a reference now? Don’t be afraid to be firm: "While I'm willing to give you a reference after you and I mutually agree that we're a fit, I'm not willing to oblige your request right now."

Listen to how Weinberg handles reference requests in this podcast (starting at 11:15). Pay close attention to his voice tone (something that doesn’t come through so well in blog posts).

8) Offer case studies, research reports, and third party reviews instead.

Once you understand what your prospect hopes to gain by checking references, you can probably provide it for them in a different form.

Perhaps the best approach to deflecting early reference requests is to use published proof of the value of your service via case studies. If your sales team is frequently asked for references early in your sales process, you might want to consider publishing case studies (like yesterday).

Putting together an arsenal of solid case studies doesn’t have to be difficult -- get your best customers on a video conference call, press record, and hire a transcription service and editor to put together the finished product(s). At HubSpot, our marketing team is responsible for producing and updating several case studies every month. We now have hundreds of them that feature customers of different sizes in a variety of industries.

Research reports are another way to address a prospect's skepticism. For example, every year, HubSpot produces State of Inbound, a survey report that examines the ongoing efficacy of inbound marketing and sales tactics and how they produce results for customers and non-customers alike. In addition, we also study the impact our software has on customers’ marketing and sales success on an annual basis, and share the findings in an ROI report. Our salespeople use these documents early and often in lieu of reference requests.

Over the last few years, review sites that aggregate customer reviews have grown in popularity too. While most of us are familiar with companies like Yelp, Foursquare, and TripAdvisor for our consumer purchases, sites like G2Crowd, Capterra, TrustRadius, and SoftwareAdvice collect B2B software reviews. Review sites like these exist in many (if not all) industries. Encourage your best customers to leave reviews on these sites and point reference requests there as well.

9) Offer to talk through why customers fail to be successful with your service.

Prospects who seek referrals early on do so because they want to get an unbiased opinion. They might even specifically ask to speak with an unhappy current or former customer.

To handle this request, tell them that you are committed to helping them determine whether they will be successful or not with your service. Sidestep the need to directly connect them with an unhappy client by proactively offering to discuss the reasons former customers left you, as well as helping them build a plan that will help them avoid the same fate. Try saying something like, "Do you think it makes more sense for us to just talk about the characteristics of successful and unsuccessful customers first?" Coupled with the tactics above, this is usually enough to get the prospect to shelf the referral request at least temporarily.

If they insist on talking with a former customer before making the final purchase decision, you’ve ensured that they hear the gory details from you first. They’ll trust you more for being forthright and you’ll have an open line of communication on a subject they were formerly reticent to broach directly with you.

10) Proactively build a community of customer advocates.

“If you’re talking to a decision maker at a qualified, great fit company, you shouldn’t hesitate to make the introduction,” argues Emmanuelle Skala, VP Sales at customer advocacy platform company Influitive.

To be able to handle a volume of reference requests, you need an abundance of at-the-ready customers who are willing to speak with prospects.

“If you mobilize a community of advocates and give them a purpose, they will be more than happy to connect with prospects," Skala says. "The key is not having these reference requests feel like a ‘request’ that burdens your customer. If you ask, you’ll find that plenty of your customers want to make new connections so they can expand their personal network and learn from peers. Once you’ve built this community, you don’t need to worry about ‘reference burnout’ and you can oblige more and more requests.”

Skala disagrees with some of the advice earlier in this article. She argues that prospects have plenty of ways to get references without going through the salesperson: “Other than burdening your customers, the only reason salespeople say 'no' is because they don’t want to lose control of the sales process. But salespeople should face the fact that they can’t stop a determined prospect from finding references, since we live in such a connected world. And if you say ‘no’ to a reference request and they find a reference without your help, you’ve lost even more control.”

So be careful deflecting reference requests too aggressively. After you’ve done your best to make them feel comfortable talking to you about their concerns, be ready to oblige if they still insist. 

11) Invite them to an event where customers will be present.

One way to retain control of your sales process while reducing the burden on your customers is to create opportunities for prospects to interact with customers. For instance, consider hosting an in-person or virtual event, or by asking your customers to publicly publish a post or comment on how you’ve helped them.

I’m personally a big advocate of events, having hosted hundreds of them. There’s no better way to convince a prospect you can help them than to put them in a room with customers who you’ve helped. As an example, I recently spoke at "Brewing Marketing and Sales Success" hosted by Impact Branding & Design, a HubSpot partner. They had a number of their customers give presentations at the event. These customers did a better job selling value than I or Impact founder and president Bob Ruffolo could ever do. While it's expensive and time-consuming to host events like these, if you sell to local businesses, think about how you can host a regular networking lunch or dinner for clients and prospects.

If your clients and prospects are geographically dispersed, making in-person events less practical, host a regularly occurring webinar that features your clients and allow prospects to ask them questions.

Roberge uses an interesting spin on this technique: “We invite our clients to write about their experience on our or their blog. When a prospect searches my name in Google, they find articles like, 'Need to Increase Sales? Hire Rick Roberge.'; 'Are You Having Conversations with People or Prospects?'; and 'Inbound Sales Rockstar? My Experience with Rick Roberge.'"

12) Offer a proof-of-concept or trial.

Have I given you enough ways to deflect or handle a reference request? No? Okay, here’s one more -- and it’s a surefire way to avoid a reference request and clinch a sale. But be warned that this one requires a lot more effort and won’t work for every product or service.

Drumroll, please: Offer a proof-of-concept and/or trial. A proof of concept is a test drive that allows your prospect to experience firsthand what it’s like to be a customer, making it unnecessary for them to talk to one before they commit.

As Jebbit sales development manager Chase Norfleet explains, “A proof of concept entails our team actually implementing the product at the prospect’s organization and letting them play around with it. In the absence of a customer reference, this helps the buyer gain assurance that the product works in the way they expect it to, and enables them to identify any sticking points early.”

A live demo can also work if you use real customer data -- not a dummy environment. Trials and demos require a significant time commitment from you and your prospect -- much more than a reference request call. To ensure it’s time well spent, don’t skip the qualification steps laid out above.

Beware of Reference Request Red Herrings

When a prospect asks for references early in the buyer-seller relationship, it's often a red herring. The real issue is that they don't trust you. Some prospects inherently distrust salespeople and some might not trust you or your company. Either way, the key to maintaining control of your sale is to acknowledge the request, understand the reasons for it, offer to address the reasons yourself, reset expectations, and have additional ways of deflecting the request at the ready.

But in some cases, reference requests are unavoidable or should even be embraced. And if that’s the norm in your sales process, be prepared to give them. Build a program -- even if it’s an informal one. Learn what types of customers value introductions to your prospects, and understand how your references will answer specific questions, so you know who to match them up with.

How do you handle reference requests? I hope these 12 expert-approved guidelines will help you handle the next one. Follow even part of this advice and you’ll avoid losing control of your process. Do it right and I bet you’ll find that a reference request is a great opportunity to develop a deeper relationship with your prospect.

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