It seems like a question that doesn’t need to be asked, right? Salespeople live and die on references to make quota. No, the question is really whether your salespeople use references, but are they effective in their practices?

Have you ever heard of sales training, like a module in new hire onboarding, just on the topic of customer references? I’ll bet not. Salespeople generally learn on-the-job, as part of various sales positions, how to field customer reference requests. They watch and learn, but the quality of this informal “training” may not follow best practices.

We would suggest that customer marketers/customer reference program managers/advocate managers—whatever the specific title is—are the most obvious subject matter experts in the art of customer reference practices. Personally leading this training segment is also an excellent way to build relationships with the most populous group of most program stakeholders.

Reference Management Particulars


Beggars can’t be choosers is often the mindset regarding references, especially when recruiting customers. However, not all references are equal in the mind of a buyer. Companies are getting more adept at supplying references. Still, relevancy correlates with influence impact. All other things being equal, “their references were better,” is one reason deals are lost. “Better” means more relevant and relatable. Can the buyer relate to the reference’s story and envision similar success in their future after reading, watching, or listening to that story or talking to that customer? Relevancy isn’t just about matching up industry, products, and geography. Savvy salespeople, analyst relations reps, and PR managers must consider use cases, equivalent vantage points (job title is just one indicator), and even personality.


What’s more impressive to a buyer, getting references only after asking or a seller sharing customer stories throughout the sales cycle? A thoughtful program provides reference assets (customer content) for early, middle, and late stages of the sales cycle. Being exposed to customer stories early on gives buyers confidence in their judgment and often leads to less discounting. Salespeople commonly wait too long to start a reference search. You’ve probably seen “Need ASAP” or “Help please! Need by EOD tomorrow!” in the body of a message. This is just poor planning and doesn’t acknowledge that reference customers aren’t sitting around waiting to help one vendor or another close a deal.


Salespeople have less interaction time with buyers now that so much of the buying process occurs online. Once looped in, salespeople need to be consultants, which means sharing customer stories that address any buyer’s concerns: product maintenance, user adoption, analytics, etc. Properly “tagging” both reference customers and customer content makes finding the right stories easy for sellers. Do they know how best matching reference is surfaced or searched?


Every company has different versions of processes related to finding and securing the use of customer references. On one end of the spectrum is the “Everyone for themselves!” approach. This looks like a continuous stream of direct messages or emails to ALL SALES or ALL CUSTOMER SUCCESS with various criteria. Then the requester waits and hopes someone replies, and with a good match. It’s an inefficient approach with little guarantee of success in the time frame required. On the other extreme is a fully technology-enabled program that removes uncertainty and bottlenecks and maximizes the use of customer references to increase win rates and revenue growth. The technology provides the process and easy access to customer reference “gold.” Consistent system use addresses the How component, but that doesn’t mean the Who, When, and What are a given.

Reference Management Training

Each company’s culture, reference particulars, and programs are different. Nonetheless, we strongly recommend providing several recent, real-world examples of customer reference success, emphasizing why and what specifically resulted in success. Think of these as references for the use of references. That’s a great place to start.

Then, walk salespeople and other users through a complete sales cycle, explaining what reference resources are available for each stage and what their colleagues have found most valuable. This introduces them to the full menu of available options and both when and how to use various resources. Study after study on content use by sales teams shows most content doesn’t get used because it can’t be found, doesn’t match their needs, or its existence wasn’t known. This is one way to avoid the first and third reasons in that list.

Training comes in different forms. You may present the customer reference training personally to both new and current stakeholders, create a course for your training department to deliver, or build an online learning system module. Regardless, you’re the catalyst and champion for providing this very specific training overlooked in most organizations. Customer reference SMEs produce higher close rates, which means you can raise below average closers to average, and average closers to star performers.

To read more about what should go into a customer reference training module for your sales team, read our blog, Yes, Sales Needs Customer Reference Training.

For more information on developing a Customer Reference Program, check out our recently updated ebook, 7  Priorities for Building a Customer Reference Program.