“We don’t do ‘customer references’ well!”

“We’re losing deals because we can’t produce references quick enough!”

“We waste a lot of time trying to figure out who is a reference, and for what activities!”

If you’re hearing these sorts of comments in your company, the opportunity cost of not having a well-oiled customer reference machine in place, while hidden, is very real. Your sales and marketing teams’ lack of efficiency means they aren’t using their time where it counts.  Worse, taking too long to produce “social proof” of the value and efficacy of your company’s products could be losing deals—or at a minimum—resulting in longer cycles and discounting that otherwise wouldn’t have been necessary. That doesn’t even take into account the marketing activities such as webinars, events, press, and social media. Inefficiency in finding advocates to support these activities means fewer leads generated.

Where to begin if you’re the one designated to fix the problem, or you’ve decided you’re going to champion the cause even when it hasn’t been prioritized? Discovery of course: understand the ailment before prescribing the Rx. You have to know how your organization uses reference before you can propose a program that solves a customer reference problem. We recommend to our clients who don’t know much about their company’s customer reference practices, that they begin with a survey to Sales (and potentially Marketing if that team is large enough). Here are the base survey questions we recommend.

Does your role include locating and providing customer references in response to prospect requests?

  • Purpose: Screen out anyone who’s job does not depend on finding/using customer references. Their responses would skew the data. If the answer is “no,” then they exit the survey.

What percentage of your deals require references to close?

  • Purpose: This provides an idea of the scale of the issue, and also a benchmark if this percentage is unusually low. Each program manager ought to have a goal of increasing the percentage as part of a formal program.

On average, how many reference requests from prospects do you handle per month?

  • Purpose: This and the next question provide the multiplier to arrive at how much “sourcing” time is spent each month.

On average, how many accounts are requested as part of each opportunity?

  • Purpose: This and the previous question provide the multiplier to arrive at sourcing time is spent each month.

On average, how many hours do you spend fulfilling each request?

  • Purpose: # of requests per month X hours spent fulfilling each quantifies lost time.

On average, how much calendar time does it take from request to reference call?

  • Purpose: This helps understand how the sales cycle may be affected by the reference round up process.

What methods do you use to line up references?

  • Purpose: Uncover unofficial “advocate managers” and identify level of disruption across the organization. This is a “select all that apply” question.

What percentage of completed reference calls have negatively impacted deals?

  • Purpose: This is a result of providing a badly matched reference, or a customer that isn’t actually a reference due to poor vetting/qualification.

Has the overuse of a reference ever caused a temporary or permanent hold on their use?

  • Purpose: This provides a sense of the damage that may be occurring due to too few customer references.

The answers to these questions, 9 times out of 10, help build the case for formalizing customer reference practices with staff, processes, and technology. They also provide a benchmark, the “before” picture. Many of the questions make sense to ask again semi-annually or annually to ensure you’re making progress.


For additional tips on building a case for a formal customer reference program, download our business case checklist.

Related to this subject is the subject of how you measure the performance of a program. For more on that topic, read this post.

A program that continually listens and adapts to the needs of its stakeholders will establish a customer reference program advisory board. For more on that topic, read this post.