My company Blue Fish is a content management software and consulting firm, and we deal with this all the time. I'd estimate that 75% or more of our clients are willing to serve as a reference of some sort. We actually have a system to track this and drive clients toward being a reference.
We track three levels of reference:
- Level 3: Will take a call from a perspective client - This is what most companies think of when you use the term reference. A level 3 client is willing to take a call from a prospective client and tell them what it's like to work with Blue Fish. They typically say good things. Often, a company will have an official policy against this, but I've found that most times our sponsor or champion (the person that hired us) will take a reference call even when their company has a policy against it - personal relationships trump company policy here.
- Level 2: Will allow us to use their name, logo, and a quote in printed materials/web site - This level is trickier because it requires some official approval, and for our clients (mostly Fortune 500 companies), it's hard to get.
- Level 1: Has participated in at least one co-marketing activity - When I say "co-marketing," I mean that our client has participated in some sort of active marketing event on our behalf. We've had clients give presentations with us at conferences, speak about our solutions during webinars, etc. One client invited us to speak at THEIR industry conference, another client had a large booth at an industry trade show and invited us to share half of their booth. These are all outstanding co-marketing activities, but they are very hard to get.
Here are some of the things we do to drive clients toward being a reference:
- Of course we always try to do a great job for our clients so that they will be more likely to serve as a reference. We try to develop relationships at different levels in the organization, with both technical people and business people. Some prospective clients want to talk to a technical person to understand how the software works, while others want to talk to a business person to understand our level of service and whether we live up to our commitments.
- During the project kickoff meeting, we define all the project success criteria (as you might expect). When this is complete, we ask the project sponsor "If we meet all of these success metrics, would you be willing to serve as a reference for us in the future?" By negotiating this at the beginning of the project, we find that it's much easier to ask them to take a reference call after the project is over. Note that this is an informal agreement with the individual that will take the call.
- Throughout the project, there are times when our team will go the extra mile for a client in one way or another. The client will say "thank you", as you would expect. But instead of saying "You're Welcome", we try to say "That's what partners do for each other." By positioning the engagement as a partnership rather than as a vendor relationship, our clients are more likely to do us a favor later on by taking a reference call.
- Our standard contract has language in it that allows us to use their name and logo. Many clients make us remove this clause, but some leave it in there. This gets them to level two automatically.
- We never offer a discount in return for being willing to serve as a reference, because my experience is that it's an individual's decision about whether or not they are willing to take a call, and they'll do it even if there is no formal agreement between the two companies. That said, whenever a client asks for a discount of some sort, we offer this as an option. My policy is never to offer a discount without getting something else in return, and one of the things we ask for is the ability to use their logo, etc. To put it another way, we don't say "will you be a reference for us? If so we'll give you a discount." but we will say "You are asking for a discount, and we'd be willing to consider that if you will agree to let us use your logo and serve as a reference."
- We survey our clients after every project, and at the bottom of every survey, we have a field that says "If you feel it is appropriate, do you have a comment about your experience that we may share with our software partners, clients, or prospects?" About 30 percent of the respondents will provide a quote, and we use these in our sales decks, etc.
- Whenever a client participates in a co-marketing activity, we go out of our way to treat them like royalty. For example, if they are speaking at a conference, we have a limo pick them up at the airport and take them to their hotel. When they check into the hotel, their is a gift basket waiting in their room for them. And after they speak, we give them a nice thank-you gift. We want them to WANT to speak again at another conference.