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How to Elegantly Handle a Request for References

Prospects who are talking with your consulting firm about your services will commonly ask to speak to your past clients. You could simply hand over a few names with contact information, or you could take a more nuanced approach.

There’s nothing untoward about a prospect asking for references. Prospective clients need information and reassurance before signing an engagement with your consulting firm.

Will the outcome be worth the investment? How much of their time will be required? Will you be sending pralines to their entire team or just the decision-maker?

Fortunately, when you have a strong track record of performance, the best marketing you could ever wish for is provided by your past clients.

However, you need to protect your valuable, client relationships from tire-kickers—people who gather information before they’ve fully made a decision to move forward with a project.

A prospect who talks with your reference then doesn’t move forward is needlessly wasting your past client’s time. Worse, that scenario generates negative social proof—indisputable evidence that at least one prospect didn’t think highly enough of your consulting firm to move forward with an engagement.

Therefore, your consulting firm’s general approach to a request for references should follow three steps.

3 Steps to Handle Reference Requests

1. References Last

Confirm all other concerns have been surfaced and addressed before you supply references. Your response can sound something like this:

We’re happy to give you as many references as you could possibly want to talk with. Our policy is to put you in touch with references once all your other questions have been answered and you’re otherwise sure you want to move forward.

What other questions do you have about this project, or what other information would be helpful for you?

2. Choose Carefully

Ensure you know what your prospect is looking for from the references; i.e., identify any lingering concerns. This will help you choose the best advocates for your consulting firm.

We have scores of past clients you could talk to, of course. Tell me what types of questions you have for them, then we can point you to best references to help you make your decision.

3. Offer Multiple Contacts

Offer more than one reference, and give a reason behind each. Your rationale provides a subtle clue that the prospect may not need to call your reference at all and, instead, can simply move forward with your consulting engagement. For example:

Mia Bestbud is the CEO of Cameroon Candies. Like you, Cameroon was converting from physical candies to chocolate NFTs. Based on our work together, Cameroon now makes millions selling digital images of a truffle. Mia can be reached at [contact information].

If you’re a bit concerned about whether a prospect will move forward with your consulting firm, or you’re not totally confident in what your past clients will say, provide 10-12 references.

Ironically, prospects are less likely to call references when you supply them a long list. The sheer number of choices provides the little bit of extra friction needed to make them skip the reference-check step.

How do you handle prospects’ requests for references?

  1. Praveen Puri
    December 22, 2021 at 10:17 am Reply

    It’s also important to pay attention to any feedback from prospects about your references. I had one prospect come back to me that the reference I provided was so secretive and paranoid, that he was too vague about our work together. I had another case where the reference, who is normally dependable, didn’t return the prospects calls. So now I don’t use either of them as references.

    • David A. Fields
      December 22, 2021 at 10:56 am Reply

      Excellent points, Praveen. Not every past client is a good reference. And not every reference who was good continues to be good.

      Very well said, important additions to the discussion, Praveen. Thank you!

  2. Dianna Rudd
    December 22, 2021 at 10:55 am Reply

    Instead of giving a list of references, I often give a few examples of assignments that are similar to the one I am bidding on. I name the company and a brief description of assignment – most often, they never again ask for references. OR I have written up a few mini white papers that I can provide them – again, they never ask to talk with references.

    • Jenn
      December 22, 2021 at 11:04 am Reply

      Whenever possible I ask clients for testimonials on LinkedIn. It’s “public” by nature of the platform so eliminates the “may I use you as a reference?” step. You can take a screenshot of the references from LinkedIn and provide in nice document. 9/10 times that’s been enough and nobody has even called the references. And I won the engagement.

      • David A. Fields
        December 22, 2021 at 12:14 pm Reply

        Another excellent idea. Thanks for contributing it, Jenn. A “book” of testimonials can absolutely meet the needs of many prospects who ask for references. Collating that book from LinkedIn testimonials isn’t an approach I’ve seen often; however, it’s well worth considering for many small consulting firms.

        I’m grateful you took a minute to share that idea, Jenn!

    • David A. Fields
      December 22, 2021 at 12:06 pm Reply

      Case studies can absolutely work as a substitute for references in many cases, Diana. That’s a terrific point and an outstanding contribution to this conversation, Dianna!

  3. Dan Janal
    December 22, 2021 at 11:18 am Reply

    I have testimonials on my website. I think that does the trick for most people.

    I love your advice to handle the others.

    I find that so,e people ask for references just to delay a decision they really don’t want to make. Analysis by paralysis.

    • David A. Fields
      December 22, 2021 at 12:16 pm Reply

      Exactly, Dan. As a few other folks have pointed out, testimonials and case studies can substitute for references in many instances. And your experience with folks who are trying to delay the decision underscores the importance of offering references at the very end of the process.

      Great addition, Dan. Thanks for chiming in today!

  4. Lisa Feldman
    December 22, 2021 at 11:19 am Reply

    I also let the references know in advance that a potential client may be calling them and what I understand the potential client’s questions to be. And express lots of gratitude at our prior partnership. It ensures that they are willing to provide the reference and gives them time to reflect on what they might say. It also engages them as partners in my ongoing success — and reminds them of the great work I did for them.

    • David A. Fields
      December 22, 2021 at 12:18 pm Reply

      You’ve brought up an interesting side-benefit, Lisa. Since most references want to (generously) offer a glowing picture of your consulting firm, they reconnect with all the positive aspects of working with you. For clients who are no longer working with you, that could spark some desire to re-engage.

      I love that idea, Lisa. Well done!

  5. Joe Gregory
    December 22, 2021 at 12:15 pm Reply

    The best way to handle this is to deliver great value so you have a business built on client introductions.

    • David A. Fields
      December 22, 2021 at 12:21 pm Reply

      Creating value for clients and being someone that clients are happy to refer is, of course, an important cornerstone of creating a thriving consultancy. You’re right on the mark there, Joe.

      That said, even firms that attract plenty of inbound inquiries and introductions from past clients will typically be asked for additional references. Handling those requests elegantly is part of the success mix.

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Joe!

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