Question: Lately, new potential customers have requested references from me early in the sales process. When and how is the best way to approach this?
It’s important to understand why your customers are asking for references. Simply providing references may or may not address the issue. Additionally, if receiving this request is out of the norm for you, you may want to examine any changes you have made to your sales interactions. In other words, are you doing something to cause concern or prompt the request?
Generally, when a customer asks for references, there is uncertainty or doubt about what you or your company can do for them. Do they doubt that you can do what you say? Or do they want reassurance that you will service what you are providing? Anytime you experience doubt in a sales situation, you need to prove that there is no reason to be concerned. Before you do, make sure that you understand what the true concern is. You may simply ask your potential client, “What do you expect to learn from the references that I provide?” How they answer may reveal a concern that you can answer on the spot, and may give you an opportunity to resell your product.
Your proof sources should be someone other than yourself. Think through all of the possible situations where you may experience doubt on sales calls, and collect proof sources to handle these. Make sure you carry your proof sources with you on all of your calls so you can eliminate concern as they occur.
Here are some examples:
The Potential Customer is Concerned: …that your product will not perform as well as what they are currently using.
Potential Solution: Conduct a side by side demonstration. Or, allow the customer to utilize the product for a short period of time.
Concern: …that they may not get the results that you claim.
Solution: Publish reports stating exact results that other customers have experienced by utilizing your product/service.
Concern: …about being over billed. They have had a bad experience in the past.
Solution: Provide written policies describing billing procedures.
Concern: …about quality or service issues.
Solution: Present awards that you or your company have won for outstanding service or quality. Certifications such as ISO may also help in this type of situation.
Concern: …about relationships and wants to make sure that you’re not going to “take the money and run.”
Solution: Supply testimonials from satisfied customers with whom you have developed strategic relationships.
Concern: …that, while they would desire a new business resource, the thought of changing suppliers is too much trouble.
Solution: Winning new potential business is sometimes a matter of developing a relationship prior to supplying product or service. Be willing to take small pieces of the business that allow you to demonstrate how good you are. If you do what you say you will, you’ll win the customer’s trust and more of the business.
No matter how prepared you are for the skepticism and doubt that you will encounter, some customers will still need references. Here are guidelines for utilizing them:
Be Respectful of Your Reference Sources – It’s perfectly acceptable to share an established reference list with serious potential customers. However, be careful not exhaust your current references by responding to every request with a complete list of phone numbers and contact names. Give potential customers a list of current successes and a list of client companies. Explain that once you get closer to an agreement, you will supply phone numbers and contact names. Don’t be afraid to tell them that you respect your references and don’t want to overwhelm them.
Call Your References – If you are placing names on a reference list, make sure you call each and ask their permission to do so. When a potential customer asks for references, determine who would be the best resource for the concern that the customer has. Try to give no more than two or three names and phone numbers at a time. Then, make contact with the reference to let them know that they will be called. Briefly review the purpose of the call and what you would like them to stress. And, be sure to thank your references! A handwritten thank you note is a nice touch.
Ask for Written Testimonials – It will be important for some potential customers to make direct contact with your reference sources. However, most will be satisfied with written testimonial letters. There are several advantages. First, written testimonials eliminate the amount of calls that your references are exposed to. Secondly, using written testimonials will enable you to control the quality and content. Collect written testimonials whenever a customer raves about you! You may simply say something like, “Thank you so much. Would you mind if I shared your experience with our company with others whom are considering using our services?” Then, offer to draft a letter recapping what the customer stated and send it to them for approval.
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