Just when the finish line of your sales cycle is in sight, your prospect asks you to jump over one more hurdle. They like to speak with one of your customers to get unbiased feedback on your offering.

Even though it’s quite a common request, organising such reference call often causes unnecessary angst. Stumbling here could jeopardise the momentum of the evaluation, or worse, put your whole deal at risk. The 7 steps below help you get the most out of this important step to seal the deal.

As you go through these steps, you’ll see that while they are written for sales people, they also apply to a reference request during an interview process for when you, well, sell yourself.

Step 1 – Keep them warm

You’re going to need to dip into this powerful source of validation regularly, so don’t be that person who only pops up when you need something from others. Make sure you develop and maintain a community of references whom you have regular contact with. Find one or two references for each of the most common topics.

Step 2 – Find ‘the why’

Prospects don’t always have a clear idea why they need a reference call, or what specifically they want to get out of it. To avoid wasting time or even losing control of your deal, you will need to get this clarified. A consultative line of questioning could be: Sure, I can help you with that. Just to make sure I guide you in the right direction, what insights would you have gained after the call that would have made it a valuable use of your time? Don’t do this over email as nuances can easily get missed – both ways. Answers tend to fall into one of three categories:

a) “We’re just exploring”. Such a scenario does not warrant a reference call, so you’ll have to push back. Once your solution, integration, services, pricing, and contract have been evaluated, reference calls are a valid final check, but if they’re still exploring, you’ll need to guide them to alternative sources. Often, an underlying distrust towards sales people is at the heart of such thinking, so find out how you can better position yourself as a trusted advisor. A friendly way to push back is to explain that you want to avoid your customers get overwhelmed with requests, just like when the prospect would become your customer, they wouldn’t want to get a call every day. Offer case studies or videos from your annual customer event instead, or invite them to a local event where they can learn more about your offering, and informally meet other prospects and customers. Non-committal reactions point to the need to build more urgency or even a re-qualification.

b) “We need to validate what you’ve been presenting”. Assuming this happens towards the end of the cycle, this is a fair request. Ask what specific topic they like to verify and find out if there’s an underlying concern that ‘requires more selling’. Topics typically involve a function of your product, a specific use case, the architecture or eco-system integration, the user friendliness, the services involved from you as a vendor, or the work required at the prospect’s side. For instance, if it’s about your services, is it the initial implementation, the integration, or ongoing customer success? Get to the bottom as concerns are often based on seeds planted by competitors.

c) Sometimes, the answer points to a formality. “Procurement stipulates that we need to do a reference call with every new contract – it’s just our process”. Don’t be afraid to push back and turn this into something more constructive – they’ll not only get more out of the call, they’ll see your prodding as a value add. For instance, if your USP for that prospect is your ability to automate their processes, suggest that similar prospects have asked questions around that, and link them up with a customer who sees great value from that aspect of your solution. Guide them so your customer doesn’t perceive the exercise as a mindless tick of the box.

Step 3 – Negotiate

To maintain momentum, put forward a counter demand. “Once this is done, do we have a deal? Can we go to redlines? If not, what is the process at your end?”. I often see reps who are nervous to rock the boat by asking such action oriented questions, but when you’ve been asked to involve your customers, it’s completely fair to ask for something in return. A non-committal answer will expose other gaps that will need to be addressed, before you commit to a reference call.

Step 4 – Prepare your customer

Depending on the topic, determine which customer is most suitable. Also make sure you find the right person to address the topic. Call your reference in advance, and tell her what your prospect is trying to do, what their current limitations are, and specifics they like to see validated. The prep call helps avoid surprises that can kill your momentum. For instance, I once had a prospect who specifically wanted to learn about migrating from a competing platform which my customer also had been on. This had happened before my reference worked there, so after my prep call, she pulled in someone from the IT team to ensure these questions could be answered straight away. When you summarise the details in a brief email after the prep call, include your key sales messages in the lingo you have been using with the prospect.

Step 5 – Prepare your prospect

To avoid last-minute nervousness in these final stages of the deal, it’s key the call doesn’t produce anything alienating. Call your prospect to explain your customer’s configuration, their ecosystem, and the reason why they get so much value out of your solution. Provide details about the role of the reference, including the similarities and differences from the prospect’s role. People don’t often explain their technology stack or processes to outsiders, and unconsciously end up using internal acronyms, system names, and role titles that can sound irrelevant and foreign to your prospect. Make sure to ‘translate’ all of that – both ways. Summarise it via email so all information is in one spot. It’s a great opportunity to re-affirm your key sales messages as well.

Step 6 – Hook them up

After your prep calls, send a brief email to both the customer and the prospect. Share their contact details, links to their Linkedin profiles, and briefly confirm the topics of the call to guide the conversation. To avoid full agendas slow things down, suggest a time slot that you know your customer can make (within the next 24 hours), and let them work it out directly. If your reference is in a different time zone, include a link to an online time zone scheduler to avoid delays.

Step 7 – Close

After they’ve had their call, check in with the customer to thank them for their time. Do a quick run down to see how the conversation went, and whether any questions were left unanswered. Write notes and share these with your wider sales team: you will pick up on landmines from competitors that help you be more proactive on these with your next cycle. Provide something of value to the customer, like a 3rd party white paper, a ticket to an event or a chance to speak at one. Then, follow up with the prospect to see whether they’re ready to move onto the action you agreed upon before. Sometimes, minor additional clarification is required, but in my experience when you go through above effort to make it all happen, prospects don’t come back with new requests. You can keep the foot on the gas and move your deal to a close. And once that has happened, don’t forget to close the loop with your customer and tell them about the good news! 


Like to get more tips on how to get to target with a calm mindset and a smile on your face? In my new book, In the face of challenge: Perseverance in sales, I tell the story of my life-threatening kitesurfing accident that left me in a coma, and explore what my two-year recovery taught me about perseverance. I share over a hundred practical tips for AEs, CSMs, SCs, SDRs and their managers on how to deal with challenges in sales, and how to avoid them in the first place. For more details and a list of retailers who carry the paperback and ebook, see here.