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References And Doing Your Homework

by David Brock on February 9th, 2011

It was a dark and dreary night, suddenly the phone rang………

Actually, it was mid afternoon on a sunny Southern California day, but I’ve always wanted to start a blog post with that.  As so often happens, when I’m in my office, a sales person called. The guy had a provocative opening, so I decided to listen, more out of curiosity than anything else.  As a means of trying to establish his credibility with me, he kept dropping names of people and organizations that he thought would impress me.  He rambled on for over a minute, never pausing for a reaction or asking me a question, until he tried to close me.

About the only thing “right” about the call was that he kept me on the phone, more out of perverse curiosity than anything else.  But with every glib phrase, he alienated me more and more.  He hung up, never knowing how negatively I felt, probably thinking the call had been a wild success, without achieving any commitments from me.

References were a very strong part of his “pitch.”  What he didn’t know–because he had apparently not done his homework and because he never asked, was that most of his references had a very negative impact on me.  He dropped names of people and organizations that I have little respect for.  The more he leveraged those references, the more I associated him with those organizations that I have no respect for.  You know the outcome without going further.

As I reflected on the call, it reminded me of situations I see too often with sales people.  References can be very powerful in establishing credibility and reinforcing the value you are trying to present to the customer.  But to leverage these references appropriately, it’s critical to know that your customer respects those references.  Too often, I’ve seen sales people leverage a well known company as a reference, not knowing the customer doesn’t view them as “leaders.”  I recall doing a loss review with for a client a number of years ago, the decision-maker told me, “The best reference they used is a near competitor.  We have a very different strategy than they, we frankly think they are doing things wrong and intend to take advantage of their flawed strategy.  When your client relied so strongly on that single reference, we thought they wouldn’t really understand what we were trying to achieve and discounted them.”

Using references effectively means doing your homework.  It also starts with, as so many things do in sales, with asking your customers questions.  Who do they view as “thought leaders?”  Whether it’s in their industry, their function, or something else.  Who do they benchmark?  Why do they benchmark those organization?  Who–individuals and organizations do they respect and why?

Once you have insight into these issues, you have the ability to leverage references (and even referrals) that can be very positive for you.

Some years ago, I was trying to reach a particularly senior executive at a large corporation.  I did my homework, found he (and the company) really respected the strategies and directions of one of my clients.  When I finally contacted him, I leveraged this knowledge to immediately build credibility with him.  Later in our relationship, he reminded me of the first call, commenting that he was not only impressed that we had done work for a company he deeply admired, but the fact that I knew that beforehand had struck him more strongly than the reference.

References are tremendously powerful, but it effective use of references all starts with doing your homework and asking questions.  Are you doing your homework?  Are you asking your customer the right questions?  Or are you shooting blindly, hoping something might hit?  It’s the difference between winning and losing.

Reminder:  Join us on Friday, February 11 at 1:00 EST for Future Selling Institute’s Office Hours.  We weill be discussiong Coaching Opportunities and the Pipeline!  It’s open to everyone, but you have to register to make sure you have a slot to attend.

Book CoverFor a free peek at Sales Manager Survival Guide, click the picture or link.  You’ll get the Table of Contents, Foreword, and 2 free Chapters.  Free Sample

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  1. Great advise Dave.
    Most salesmen don’t really understand the impact of their references. They believe strong brands and well known people mean that the customer will respect the reference and believe your offer is valuable.

    References are a lot more than only names and companies, it is social proof that you are doing your job right and well.

    Helping customers that are doing something opposite from your prospect will not help them see that you are going to be able to help them.

  2. David; this post is so critical in that it addresses such a painful deficiency. References can never be underrated even if you are partially on target- what a difference maker. One salesperson called me recently and said ” I also am reading ____” I saw in your LinkedIN profile…” and heck that gives him an edge cuz’ he knows how I think. Not a reference of common client but a reference of common belief so to speak.

    Thanks for writing this.


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