Yes, Sales Needs Customer Reference Training

The title, “Yes, Sales Needs Customer Reference Training,” sounds crazy, doesn’t it? The people who always seem to need customer references, and often at  the 11th hour, may not be following best practices. How could that be?

Think about how many companies you’ve been at where customer reference training was part of Sales onboarding/orientation. One? None? The result of omitting customer reference from sales training is that junior salespeople learn by watching what the Sales veterans do, who learned from salespeople they emulated when they were junior, and so on and so on and so on. And often, none of the salespeople in that training chain were doing it right.

In an earlier post, Are Your Salespeople Customer Reference SMEs?, I broached the notion that reference program managers are the SMEs rather than Sales as one might expect. In this post, I’ll provide what would make sense to include in customer reference training. The goal of offering, even requiring this training, is to close more deals and increase Sales. Here’s how you might organize the class.


Most Sales and Marketing pros would agree that references should not be provided after, say, the first call with a prospect. That’s clearly too early. Consider the following:

  • There’s rarely a glut of reference customers, so call on them judiciously.
  • As a precious resource, you want to respect their time. Furthermore, many customers want to know if their assistance made a difference. The answer should be Yes! 90% of the time. Don’t use them where it doesn’t make sense.
  •  The sales situation needs to meet certain conditions before considering a reference request.  The criteria should include the sales stage, sufficient buy-in from relevant decision-makers, technical influencers approval, budget confirmation, and/or your solutions’ status as a finalist.
  • You’d think that buyers would have empathy when asking for a reference if various logical conditions aren’t met yet. But generally, they don’t. It’s helpful to explain to prospects that they will be treated with the same respect once they’re a client. It’s hard to argue with that (i.e., “No, I don’t want respect if I become a client, I want a reference customer to talk to now.”)

How often does a cry for references include “ASAP” and “URGENT” in the first line? I’d venture to guess that most of these requests result from putting off the reference search until it becomes an emergency. It’s crucial to teach salespeople that reference customers aren’t waiting by their phones. They take vacations, have family emergencies, travel for business, and attend conferences. Leave a reasonable amount of time to secure references. It’s a matter of courtesy to their peers and the customers. Reference requests need not be an emergency that ends up with an “I’ll take anyone at this point” situation.


It’s hard to imagine this needs to be said, but reference customers and prospects should be comparable in terms of accounts and contacts. Your organization might include any number of the following considerations and some that are unique to your ideal reference profile: revenue size, number of employees, geography, using the same solution of interest, industry, use case, and contact seniority or persona. It’s not unusual to compromise on one or more of those criteria, but the initial request should start with the ideal reference profile. Salespeople would be wise to factor the following into their choices:

  • The prospect must relate to the reference customer, or they won’t feel 100% comfortable. Scale matching is a basic need.
    “The solution is working great for AWS, but I’m not sure it will work for us, ABC Hosting of Ketchum, Idaho.”
  • Some solutions are deployed differently around the globe. A reference in the US may not be in any way relevant to a company in France.
  • The use case can be night and day even though it’s the same product. Think about Slack used by HR versus Slack used by the software development team.
  • Does a VP-level decision-maker want to speak with a manager-level reference? Not typically, unless the titles are misleading relative to the company sizes involved. A VP’s areas of interest and perspective are usually quite different from a program manager’s.
  • The topics of discussion drive the need for a specific contact. That may be as simple as connecting a business user with a business user rather than a technical user. Or it may be a need to get comfortable with the implementation process, the long-term administration of a solution, integration with other technologies, etc. Make sure the customer contact can address the primary objectives of the prospect. The goal of one or more reference calls (fewer the better) is to put all issues to rest. So why waste the customer or prospect’s time if they aren’t a good match?

Every company’s reference management processes and practices are specific to that organization to some extend, but whatever your established practices are,  communicate them clearly. Deviations from those prescribed practices should not be supported by peers, program managers (if applicable), or managers. Typically the reference account is identified, the relationship owner (e.g., customer success manager) is consulted, a customer contact is identified and secured, and the salesperson coordinates the call.

That doesn’t seem like an unreasonable approach, yet we still hear stories of salespeople trolling through the CRM system, identifying desirable references, and using their contact information to reach out directly. That’s going “rogue” and a real novice move. Put an end to this behavior.

We’re biased, of course, but this process, start to finish, ought to be in a system, tracked and quantifiable. That’s the logical way to ensure repeatable best practices and the most favorable outcomes of reference use.

Close the Loop

Salespeople need to know when a reference activity, such as a reference call or site visit, occurs, and they should follow up with both parties for a debrief. Here are some key reasons to debrief and track reference activity:

  1. Did the activity meet the prospect’s needs? If not, a re-do may be necessary and it needs to be done quickly.
  2. Does the customer have any insights that may provide a sense of the buyer’s proclivity to make a decision, or did they express any lingering concerns?
  3. Did the activity happen? Sometimes they don’t, and the salesperson has to reconnect the two parties or execute on plan B, whatever that may be.
  4. To prevent customer overuse,  capture a record of the activity having taken place somewhere.  If you have a practice of showing gratitude for an advocate’s efforts, then it’s important to log the use and the “thank you” as well.
  5. If a customer is willing to be an advocate, then 9 times out of 10, they’d probably like to know if they helped close an opportunity for you. They’re invested, so take the time to tell them. It feels good to know your efforts made a difference.

Consider building your customer reference training module and adding company-specific elements that your salespeople relate to. I’ll bet just about every salesperson can tell stories about poorly executed reference practices (maybe not their own, but someone they know :-)). You can use those stories to further flesh out your training. There’s nothing like storytelling to reinforce learning. New hire training is the obvious point to introduce this material, but don’t forget about the existing team. When you take on this training responsibility, you become a more strategic advocate consultant, and executives notice.

Learn more about why your sales team needs your expertise in our blog, Are Your Salespeople Customer Reference SMEs?