How to Close a Deal Without Customer References

Chase Norfleet
Chase Norfleet




B2B buyers are becoming increasingly risk-averse. A sales rep’s assurances that the product or service works isn’t enough for most prospects to sign a contract. They want evidence that it does what you claim, and not from you -- from another customer.

But what if you don’t have a reference customer for a specific product or service line? Or in the case of a startup, if you don’t have any customers at all? It’s a rare company that lives on the bleeding edge of adoption. They might be willing to take a chance on your offering after a few others have -- but nobody wants to go first.

At Jitterbit, we deal with this problem every day. Our integration product connects virtually any systems you’d like to integrate. While there are many common integrations we handle (Salesforce, Netsuite, MS Dynamics, SAP, etc.), prospects often come to us seeking to connect industry-specific systems or homegrown applications. And we don’t always have a reference customer to speak to the unique integration they’re requesting.

How do we get around this? I have a few tricks up my sleeve.

1) Do a proof of concept.

A proof of concept is sort of like a test drive. At Jitterbit, 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. If they decide to buy from there, it’s a simple signature on a contract and the flip of a switch.

But with that said, it does take time and effort to engineer a proof of concept, so I try not to do them unless I’m fairly confident a prospect will buy or advance in the sales process. I ask for a verbal reassurance to this effect up front before proceeding.

For non-tech companies, a proof of concept might look like a product or service trial period for your prospect. If you allow your buyer to test out your offering themselves, they’ll be less likely to need a customer reference.

2) Show a live demo.

If a proof of concept isn’t an option, a live demo is the next best thing. By this I mean a demo that demonstrates the product live -- not through a video or PowerPoint presentation -- and uses real customer data. Let the buyer ask you questions, and demonstrate how the product would handle the functions they’re most interested in.

3) Exhibit exceptional selling skills.

When you don’t have a customer reference to rely on, excellent salesmanship becomes all the more important. You need to be on top of your game to earn your buyer’s trust, and convince them that you are credible and your product is reliable.

Respond to questions and comments quickly and courteously. Act like a trusted consultant, and bring fresh insights and ideas to your prospects. Build rapport. These things are table stakes in sales, but they take on extra significance in the absence of peer evidence.

4) Prospect in your industry.

If your company is launching a new product or service, it’s wise to seek your inaugural customer in the same industry. For instance, if it’s a tech product, start pitching to tech companies first and hold off on other industries for the time being. Odds are, people within your industry will be a more receptive and understanding audience than those with a dramatically different mission.

5) Call your friends.

Relationships are salespeople’s capital. Think back on the customers you’ve served in the past, either in your current job or a previous role. Could any of them benefit from your new offering? Because you already have an established relationship, it’s more likely that your contact will take a chance on a new product or service based on your word alone.

If you’re representing a new product or service within an established company, recruit existing customers of other product lines to become beta testers. Who knows -- they might even agree to be a reference if all goes well.

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