How to Deliver Impactful Customer References

Every product manager eventually gets an urgent customer reference request from a sales rep looking to help them win that key deal. And if you haven’t yet, it’s only a matter of time. Knowing how important these can be, we often make it a priority to support them as quickly as possible.

But customer references don’t automatically lead to wins. In fact, sometimes they will have the exact opposite effect. An experienced product manager will know when to support the request and when—if absolutely necessary—to politely decline it.

To help make that decision, it’s worth understanding why prospects ask for these in the first place.

The Reference Process From the Buyer's Perspective

A B2B sale typically requires a sales reference at some point in the buying process. Knowing when and why the prospect makes the request, as well as when to provide the reference, is critical to helping your company win the opportunity.

Your marketing team will often have a customer case study or success story available on your website already. Prospects will typically review these in the early consideration phase of their vendor selection cycle. These types of cases serve an important role—they provide you with initial credibility and help ensure that you don’t get weeded out at the first pass before the prospect even contacts you.

But a complex sale almost always requires a live customer reference as well. This may come directly as part of a standard request for proposal (RFP), or perhaps later in the selection process, when only a few vendors remain.

The B2B sale is characterized by a structured buying process. The evaluation is made either by a corporate procurement office or a cross-functional buying committee that consists of users and various other stakeholders. A number of predefined steps guide them through the selection process.

The order may vary, but depending on the complexity of the solution and the sophistication of the buyer, it will typically include:

  • Defining solution requirements
  • Identifying possible vendor candidates
  • Making an informal initial assessment that also includes searching for third-party reviews and/or case studies
  • A first-pass selection in which viable vendors will receive a request for information (RFI) document
  • “Discovery” discussions (typically vendor-driven)
  • A formal RFI review, followed by a second-pass selection
  • Issuing an RFP to the remaining vendors
  • In-depth solution and vendor evaluation
  • Vendor selection

Corporate procurement departments often set strict purchasing protocols to ensure fairness, compliance and selection of the most cost-effective solution. These require assessments of multiple vendors, even if the buyers really have absolutely no intention of selecting them in the first place. Obtaining live customer references are usually also a mandatory part of the selection process.

Unfortunately, the goals of the procurement manager are often not aligned with the needs of the users. Whereas users are biased to seek the best solutions to meet their needs, with less consideration for costs, procurement is incentivized to select any viable choice at the lowest price—even if that choice results in the selection of an inferior product. (This is one reason why so many companies get saddled with bad products, but that’s a topic for another post.)

As a result, buying committees often game the system to quietly bias one vendor over another well in advance of the formal evaluation. For them, getting customer references from all vendors is simply a defined step mandated by procurement, even though they have secretly pre-selected their preferred vendor already. The selection may have been made a long time ago—everything else is merely a checkbox exercise.

References Are a Burden on Y
our Customers

It’s important to realize that references also burden customers. Your pool of reference customers is likely already limited because many companies have policies that prevent them from participating in them. In other cases, you may not want a specific customer as a reference because they may not be a good fit, or because they are unlikely to help you. Even satisfied customers can only provide so many references before they burn out. That’s why it’s critical to only request a reference from your contacts when absolutely necessary. You only have a few high-quality references, and you want to save them for when you have the highest likelihood of success.\

5 Questions to Ask Before Providing a Reference

To understand this background, and the informal biases that may occur inside the prospect’s minds, it is important to know what questions to ask to help identify the right reference customer. An experienced sales rep will already know the answers to the following questions, but it is on you to ensure that they have been asked:

1.  What is the objective of the reference? 

Does the buying company really know why they want a reference? Knowing this will help you identify the right reference. And if they don’t know, perhaps you can help them define an objective. Or is this request simply part of that “check the box” exercise? If so, watch out.

2.  What type of reference do they seek? 

The request should specify a profile to connect with. It could be someone from the business team, it could be IT, procurement, legal and compliance or any of a myriad of other departments. Alignment is important. You want to connect the prospect with a person who can provide them with answers to the types of questions they will ask.

3.  Are they also asking to speak to dissatisfied customers? 

It’s not unusual at all for a prospect to ask for one satisfied and one dissatisfied customer reference. If you can’t avoid this type of request, you should seek to understand what drives the prospect to make it in the first place, then have the sales rep talk them through why the customer is unhappy. Only then should you oblige the request to connect the prospect with the negative reference. At minimum, you have provided them with your company’s perspective beforehand. And ideally, you’ve proactively neutralized any criticism by providing a full picture of the situation.

4.  What is the timing of the request? 

Timing is crucial. If the reference request comes as part of the RFP, provide your marketing team’s pre-written customer success story instead, accompanied by a promise to connect them with a live reference if there’s a mutual fit. If the prospect never had any intention of selecting you, and requested the reference only as part of the RFP template or purchase protocol, you’ve just saved yourself time and effort in what would’ve been a losing situation anyways. And you didn’t waste your valuable reference, either.

5.  Have they emotionally committed?

Don’t be afraid to insist that the reference call be the very last step of the process. Again, an experienced sales rep understands that your organization should not provide a reference unless the customer has emotionally (and verbally) committed to you already and is just looking for that final confirmation in their selection process.

When to Say No to a Reference Request

It may feel counterintuitive to decline a prospect’s reference but there are times when it is the right decision. If you suspect that the prospect secretly has already settled on your competitor, and is just following their purchase protocol, you should politely decline the request. There are many indicators in the sales cycle that can give away your prospect’s true intentions—the sales reps should know how to uncover them.

Collaborate with Sales to Deliver Winning References

From your company’s perspective, it’s best to proactively work out a structured reference process with your sales leaders, rather than dealing with them on an ad hoc basis. Set common criteria for providing references, what questions should be answered in advance, and when to decline participation. The sales leader should require their team to follow this process. This helps your company get engaged in reference requests only when you have an opportunity you can actually win.

Abdul Rastagar

Abdul Rastagar

Abdul Rastagar is a B2B marketer, fierce customer advocate, digital and future enthusiast, and an all-around curious guy. When not expounding about all things marketing, he can usually be found outside climbing trees with his kids. Connect with Abdul at

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