Four Common Mistakes when Providing Business References

  • By Debbie Ouellet
  • 07 Dec, 2016

Why references are so much more than a name and phone number.

There will be many times in your business life when you’ll be asked by a prospective client to provide references. These can include when you’re responding to an RFP (Request for Proposal), pitching to a new client or in the final rounds of a vendor selection process.

The client’s ‘ask’ will almost always sound something like this: “Please provide us with references from similar clients for whom you’ve provided similar services.”

Here are 4 common mistakes business owners make when providing references:

Mistake #1: Just providing name and contact information.

When you only provide name, title, phone number and email address as your reference information, you’re leaving it up to your potential client to do all the work. They have no information about what services you provided to your reference and therefore nothing to base their questions on.

Instead, include a brief description of the project you implemented along with the contact information. That will help paint a picture of your experience and provide a guide map for your busy client to use to pose questions and prepare for his call to your reference.

Mistake #2: Focusing on what you did.

I’m amazed at the number of times that I see references where their description of their project reads like a menu of services from their website. There is a mountain of difference between the technical aspects of ‘what you did’ for your reference and ‘how you helped’ them.

Be sure to include a short description of the main problem that you solved for your reference. Sure, you can include some of the services that you provided in order to solve that problem. The key is to write this piece from your reference’s point of view. How did they benefit and what were the positive results?

Mistake #3: Not connecting the dots.

Your potential client is busy. They also don’t live in your head or have the skill sets that you bring to the table. Don’t assume that the connection between your reference’s project and the one you’re vying for that seems obvious to you is also obvious to your client. Or that they’ll take the time to think it through and figure it out.

Connect the dots for your client by explaining briefly how the reference’s project is similar to the one you’re proposing. Even projects that aren’t similar on the surface can be similar in other aspects. For example : perhaps the referenced project also had a tight timeline and budget and you provided innovative solutions to meet these tough demands.

Mistake #4: Not asking permission.

In today’s business world of privacy laws and restrictions, this last point should be obvious. You are not at liberty to share another person’s name and contact information without their permission to do so. And, it’s simply good manners to ask permission first.

Even if you’ve been given permission in the past to use reference information, it’s good practice to give your reference a heads-up that they may be contacted. That way they’re expecting the call or email and will make a point of responding.

Summing it up.

  1. Include a brief description of your project along with the reference contact information.
  2. Focus more on ‘how you helped’ than ‘what you did’.
  3. Connect the dots so that your client can visualize the similarities.
  4. Ask permission before you provide the reference information.

Having a great customer reference is always a leg-up whenever you’re pitching to a new client. By taking a little care in how you craft the reference information, you’ll increase its effectiveness.

About the Author

(Debbie Ouellet of EchelonOne Consulting is a business writer and RFP consultant who helps business owners win new clients and grow their business. She does that by helping them to plan and write great business proposals, web content and marketing content.)
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