The Most Underutilized Strategic Advantage
By Lee B. Salz
You have been chasing this account for six months and feeling
optimistic as the buying process is coming to a conclusion. The sale
is between you and two other firms. The competition is fierce, but
you feel you are ahead. At 11am, the Procurement Agent asks for
three references to be provided to her by the end of the day. In a
panic, you send a company-wide email in search of these
client references. At 4:58pm, you get the three references from
your colleagues and quickly send them out to the Procurement Agent.
Whew! Mission accomplished! They wanted three references and you got
it done. And so did everyone else. You see the finish line,
forgetting that many a sales person has fallen one step short of
This scenario plays out in companies every day across the country.
It doesn’t matter if the company is big or small, nor does it matter
the type of industry. The request for references is a standard part
of any buying process. However, few sales people use the reference
stage of the process to their strategic advantage. They simply
desire to provide a quick response to the prospect with their
requested references. In the mind of the sales person, the speed of
the response communicates supplier performance. While somewhat true,
the discussions the prospect will have with the references carries
more weight in the selection decision than the speed of the response
from the potential supplier.
When I talk to sales people, one of their most common gripes is that
they are selling a product that is viewed as a commodity in the
marketplace. They cite “price” as their biggest bugaboo. Right
behind that they lament about their inability to differentiate their
product. (The truth is that price and differentiation are directly
related, but that is a topic for another article.) When I ask sales
people if they would like to learn of an easy way to get a
competitive edge, they are all ears. After I share with them that
they have the ability to differentiate themselves through managing
the reference selection process, they look at me in shock as they
can’t believe they have been missing this opportunity. Then the
stories start to come out. “Yeah, I lost a deal because they called
the reference and we had just screwed up their order. I should have
checked before I used them” The stories just continue from there.
But why do prospects ask for references? Webster’s defines
“reference” as someone who can make a statement about a person’s
qualifications, character, and dependability. Interestingly, there
is a perception disconnect on references between sales people and
prospects. When I talk to sales people, I usually hear that
references are just a standard part of due diligence. Some use the
term “rubber stamp” of an award. However, when I talk to buyers, I
hear a very different message. Many buyers look at the reference
step of the buying process as their opportunity to validate the
message that they have been hearing from the potential supplier. In
essence, prospects are searching to ascertain whether a supplier can
deliver on the promises made during the buying process. Can the
supplier really handle this size account? Are they really that fast?
Or that accurate? Is the service as good as they described?
many cases, the change of provider carries with it the ownership of
the supplier’s performance. If the new supplier does not perform to
the expectations that have been represented, there is risk for those
who selected it. Heads will roll! Sometimes, prospects ask the same
questions of the reference that they asked of the sales person to
see if there is a difference in response. Other times, they ask
specific questions relative to their needs that may not have been
shared with the sales person. For the prospect, this is their most
critical evaluation step of a supplier’s expected performance.
is the little things that winning sales people do that makes them
winners. So, if all of the competing sales people are going to
provide “good” references, can you provide the “best” references?
You most certainly can! However, there is a process to do so as
“best” is different for each prospect.”
The first step is a conversation with the Procurement Agent. “I
received your request for references and I’m happy to provide them.
So that I can provide you with the references that best support your
initiative, what are you hoping to learn from our clients?” If you
can gather that information from the Procurement Agent (don’t say it
can’t be done until you try it), you have the roadmap to identifying
references. Even if they can’t or won’t provide you with this
information, you have at least shown that you care. And “care” can
be the differentiator that pushes you across the finish line. All is
not lost if you can’t get that information either.
Going forward by taking a step back, think about the account and
what is important to them. Reflect on what was learned during the
needs analysis discussions. Thinking about that, imagine a different
approach to responding to the request for references. If they were
concerned about implementation, you provide an account that your
company recently implemented. Perhaps, the decision is being made by
a CFO, and you provide a reference of a CFO from one of your clients
that can speak to your performance. For the third reference, you
provide a client that is purchasing the same amount of the same
product. From the prospect’s perspective, how great is the
opportunity to speak to three clients who can relate to their needs.
They are able to gather the information they desire from someone
with whom they share something in common. They feel confident in
their ability to perform due diligence on their potential supplier.
They can make an informed decision.
take it a step further, imagine rather than simply sending the
contact names and phone numbers to that Procurement Agent, you
provide a brief narrative explaining to what each client was serving
as a reference. How many sales people are doing that?
Still raising the bar, imagine contacting each of the three
references and informing them that a call was coming their way to
discuss your performance as a supplier. During that call, you share
that this prospect is calling to discuss particular areas of the
business. Thus, when the prospect calls the reference, the reference
is expecting the call and is prepared for the conversation. What a
great experience for your prospect and your client. Keep in mind,
one great way to burn a relationship with a happy client is to
surprise them with a reference phone call. No one likes to be
blind-sided or unprepared. I’ve seen more than a few opportunities
lost where the prospect cited the reference experience as the
deciding factor. An unprepared reference reflects negatively on the
a competitive marketplace, every opportunity that you have to
demonstrate value to a prospect is critical. Leveraging the
reference step of the process can give you just that little edge
that pushes you over the top.
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