Mechanics of Getting a Customer Reference during enterprise sales


We are getting close to signing our first enterprise client. Among other things, we want them to help us sell to other companies in their industry, which they indicated they have access to. In past companies I worked in (where I was involved in sales in supporting role), we'd offer an upfront discounts for being a reference.

In your experience, what kind of discounts would you offer to being a positive reference?

What do you typically expect from them (in terms of # of customer calls, analyst calls, blurbs on website, news releases, etc).

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asked Jan 11 '10 at 07:49
Jean Barmash
195 points
Top digital marketing agency for SEO, content marketing, and PR: Demand Roll

3 Answers


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.
answered Jan 12 '10 at 05:18
Michael Trafton
3,141 points
  • thank you so much for the detailed answer. I wish I could upvote you more than once :-). – Jean Barmash 14 years ago


For your first enterprise client, it's OK to offer perhaps a 25% to 40% discount in return for a specific set of things like client visits, analyst calls, etc.

What you're really after with your first big enterprise client is a GREAT reference. My suggestion is to put your emphasis on providing OUTSTANDING support for this client. Make sure you understand exactly how the client will use your product, make sure that their team is fully trained on the functions they will be using, and make sure you meet frequently and LISTEN aggressively so that you can spot and address any concerns before they become problems.

This way - the story they'll tell prospects, analysts, and press will focus less on "hey - we got a great discount from this supplier" and much more on "hey - these guys have a GREAT product with EXCELLENT support".

Good luck.

answered Jan 11 '10 at 08:06
Warren E. Hart
2,181 points
  • Thanks for your answer - as they are our only client at this point, we are planning to pull out all the stops of course, and work with them to tailor the offering as much as possible to them (while keeping in mind our vision so we don't become a custom dev shop). – Jean Barmash 14 years ago


In terms of mechanics, I would be sure to write into your agreement what you will expect with regards to reference activity.

If you are expecting lots of on site customer reference visits, and they are expecting a much smaller commitment, this could lead to frictions.

It's easy for me to say as it's not my money, but customer reference activity can be absolutely golden for the startup. I'd personally let them negotiate me down substantially in return for locking in lots of help with future reference work, marketing, and PR.

answered Jan 11 '10 at 09:07
Benjamin Wootton
1,667 points
  • when you say customer reference visits, do you mean other potential clients visit them to see how the software is being used, or they go to other locations? If so, who pays for travel / expenses? – Jean Barmash 14 years ago
  • Your closest partners (biggest beneficiary of discounts!) may let potential customers visit them on site to see how the system is working in practice etc. Rare that you could create that win/win situation, but it does happen. I'm not sure how money changes hands in support of it though - sorry. – Benjamin Wootton 14 years ago
  • Typically, this would be where your prospects would visit your base client to understand their experience. You could cover the costs of their travel but you should ensure this if fully disclosed and complies with their company's procurement policies. You can also simply make the arrangements and let them cover their own travel costs. An easier approach would be to simply arrange a conference call and avoid the travel issues. – Warren E. Hart 14 years ago

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