“I know someone in a similar position that is facing this same kind of problem.  Would you like to talk to them?”

These two sentences are like gold coming from a sales rep and sum up everything a sales prospect wants from a reference.  In short, it tells them that as a sales rep you have:

  1. Developed an understanding of the prospect’s issue(s)
  2. Helped another client through same said issue(s)
  3. Understand the role that the sales prospect plays in their organization

man-looking-through-binoculars-600x360I know this is a stunningly obvious statement, but the Internet has changed everything, even a profession as venerable as sales.  Well, perhaps it hasn’t directly changed sales directly, but it has changed how buyers buy things.  From the Zappos shopper looking for a single pair of shoes to the B2B supply chain manager, all have more information than ever before and have likely done extensive research before even narrowing their purchase choices.  As such, by the time a sales lead has been qualified and handed off to a salesperson, chances are the prospect knows more about you as a supplier than you do about them as a buyer.  Which means they have a pretty good idea of what you’re offering or they wouldn’t be talking to you.  So behaving in the classic salesman style of pushing products to the prospect will, at best, bore them and, at worst, annoy them.

It is important to demonstrate an understanding of the prospect’s business needs and the problems they’re facing before talking about the wonderful solutions you and your company offer.    One of the best methods of doing this is to suggest that the prospect speak to an existing customer of yours that has had similar (preferably solved) issues handled by someone in a similar role as your prospect.  This not only shows that you understand the business problems the prospect is facing, but also the responsibilities of their specific position.  That’s powerful stuff.

To aid both your reference and prospect, it is a best practice to speak to the reference beforehand and let them know about the common ground they share with the prospect.  Do not try to instruct the reference on product-oriented talking points.  This will only rankle your reference. Plus, if the subject does wander away from your offered solution(s) then it will cement you in the mind of your valued reference as someone truly interested in solving the problem, and not someone who’s only interested in pushing product..

The prospect’s motivation to talk to your customer reference is a buying signal that they’re probably moving further down the funnel.   The reason for this is: again, relevant decision-making information.  With so much information at their fingertips some of it is almost assuredly junk.   Speaking with peers who have dealt with similar problems earlier in the process may help prospects sort through it, aiding in the separation of useful data from trash talk.

As a sales rep this means that when you’ve qualified a lead as serious, you should be the one to suggest bringing the reference in, rather than wait for the request to come from the prospect.  This demonstrates the knowledge mentioned above and a certain level of confidence.  And appearing confident enough to volunteer one of your customers to speak to a prospect unsupervised isn’t going to hurt you on the buyer’s trust meter either.

All of this, of course, is an ideal situation.  If you can’t find a reference that fits the above description, stick to the rule of thumb that prospects want to speak to references that looks like them.  If nothing else, try to find one that is in the same industry and geographic region.  If they ask you for a reference before you’ve lined one up, ask if they have anyone in mind.  Even if they don’t, the conversation driven by their answer will most likely shed some light on the type of reference your prospect is looking for.

The ultimate goal is to have the reference help demonstrate that they were once in your prospect’s shoes and that you will provide a repeatable solution to these problems.  It’s usually once that peer message has made its way through that prospects may be willing to listen to sales reps discuss products & company specific solutions.  But that’s a subject for a different time.

If you have any questions about this post, or other customer reference subjects, feel free to email sales@roinnovation.com.

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.