Phone off hookWhat’s the quickest way to blow a deal right before the finish line?

Have a bad reference call.

As you’ll read in a moment, an ill-prepared reference customer or poor-form on your part might leave the sales opportunity dead in the water.

Guilty of this common faux pas?

Few things put a damper on a reference phone call than the salesperson sitting in on it. Not only does it censor the earnest flow of information, from both sides, but it also calls into question the legitimacy of the entire conversation. Furthermore, you risk stirring up more than a fair amount of resentment: salespeople don’t like having to sit as a fly on the wall, and frankly, most prospects don’t want them there (and won’t be shy about saying so.)

That said, very few of your customers are going to want to be thrown into a reference call without some kind of preparation.

It’s all about the prep work

In order to make sure they are comfortable enough to have a forthright conversation, you should at a minimum take the five steps below.

1. Ask your customers to be references

Yes, I know this seems obvious, but many organizations (particularly large ones) have reference agreements built into contracts and service agreements, so people can just assume at some point someone discussed this with them. That’s not necessarily so. Don’t just assume that your customers know that they’ve agreed to be a reference or that they are happy customers. Verify both. On a regular basis.

2. Make it clear what will be expected of them

Everyone’s time is precious and increasingly so. When a customer, even when contractually obliged, agrees to be your reference they are doing you a favor. Be respectful of this by making it clear what’s expected of them – the amount of time, level of detail, what aspects of their business relationship they’ll need to discuss, and anything else pertinent to the discussion(s) they’ll be having. Once you’ve set these expectations, don’t change them without letting the reference know.

3. Make sure that the reference is a good fit for the sales opportunity

If the reference and the sales prospect don’t have anything in common, the discussion will most likely be a waste of time for both parties. Make sure there’s a good match in at least one, but ideally all, of the following categories: Industry, company size, the problem your organization is trying to solve, or that the decision-maker is speaking to a peer in a similar position, and/or competitor.

4. Familiarize your customer with the types of questions and topics that will be covered

While no one wants a reference phone call to be a scripted event, your customer should have a fairly solid idea of what the prospect might ask. If possible, find out your reference’s favored way of absorbing new information and deliver it to them in that fashion. For example, if they prefer a verbal conversation, call them; if they are more introverted and organized, consider emailing them a bulleted list.

5. Avoid burnout

As far as preparation goes this is a bit of a chicken and the egg scenario, but before tapping a customer for a reference event make sure that they haven’t been used too much. Tracking this can be as simple as using a tally column in a spreadsheet or though an automated system (hint – use a system). Bottom line – make sure you know the last time a contact was used before putting them up to bat again.

If you follow these simple guidelines then your reference customer and prospects are going to be happier and the reference call will go well. And if it goes well, you’ve moved the ball closer to the goal line.

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Matthew McLean
Matthew McLean is a Program Manager at RO Innovation. He has a passion for helping organizations and individuals increase sales and market share through the design and application of software. With over 15 years of experience in customer relationship management, project management, and product management with companies ranging from startups to Fortune 500 in a variety of industry verticals, McLean can help your company grow via sales and marketing best practices.