Salesperson approaches a prospect. What happens soon, if the salesperson is fortunate to advance in sales discussions, is familiar to salespeople. A stereotypical request from the potential customer is to ask for a reference. It is hardly surprising. On the one hand, humans are moulded emotionally to follow the pack. Herd mentality has been ingrained in humans since the Stone Age when moving in groups offered protection and relative safety. On the other hand, the feeling of comfort we all get knowing that others have reached the same conclusion as us is also valid. The wisdom of the crowd is present in so much we all do. Trial by jury is one of the hallmarks of civil society and is a prime example of our society being organized around the concept of popularity and plurality. It comes with its own downfalls as group intelligence is often detrimental and leads to poor decision-making. After all, Hitler was voted in by a plurality of voters. More people dine at McDonalds than at the fruit stand. More people watch Roseanne than Masterpiece Theater. OK, I am becoming subjective. Let’s move on.
One response salesperson receive from customers is a request for information. The gleeful salesperson is happy to oblige and leaves information behind or sends it off and marks one task as complete. Is the sale any closer? Unlikely, it may even be a step backwards in the sales cycle.
Back to our prospects’ asking about references. They do so for all of the above reasons as either a part of a psychological need or as a step in their formal buying process and likely both. The salesperson feels progress is being made and is happy to oblige. Well, the junior salesperson anyway. As mentioned above, references have their place, but their place is as part of a process and when the customer is ready to buy. It is one of the final steps and often just before a contarct negotiation. Otherwise, the request is premature. Customers cannot be expected to provide references and testimonials to every potential customer of the seller. They have their day jobs and limited time. They will grow weary of such requests and soon enough not be available for well-timed reference checks.
How should a salesperson handle the request?
When reference check requests have been premature, my teams have acknowledged the customer’s wishes in this regard, agreed that it is a valid one and reminded the customer that such requests should be fulfilled once the seller and buyer are closer to a decision. The seller can also point out to the buyer that the seller will be protective of the prospect’s time when they too become a customer. ‘Could we move a little closer to the sale before I provide you with a reference?’
What else can help?
In the meantime, having canned written statements from existing customers and quotations testifying to the positive about the product and service are handy. Do not forget analysts’ opinions and related case studies helps. Is a Proof-Of-Concept or trial in progress or anticipated to happen soon? That is as powerful as a reference check.
Often the prospect is fine with such an approach. For one, they can identify with existing customers’ lack of time to answer premature questions. At other times, the request for reference is being done by rote and is not actually necessary or not crucial yet.
When is the right time?
References are for when a customer answers ‘yes’ when asked, “Would you be moving forward with the purchase should the reference check be successful?” As an aside, the same concept applies to job applicants and their potential employers.
What else should salespeople know?
Once the time and place is right, instead of spontaneously agreeing to a reference find out what the prospect wishes to find out in a reference check. Understanding the specific questions the prospect would ask helps direct them to the right reference. Having a ‘go-to’ reference is too generic for most needs and may demote the seller to the status of just another vendor.
Buyers should also remember that satisfied current customers’ may not automatically translate to the availability of references. Many companies find themselves either too busy or have policies against offering endorsements.
Things That Need To Go Away: Reference Checks Without A Tangible Outcome