Have you ever been called to give someone a reference? Did you know what to say? Did you sound so much like a rambling idiot that when you hung up the phone you thought "Geez, after that, even I wouldn't hire that person" -- even though you thought highly of the candidate? Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to say good things about someone else, even when the compliments are sincere.
That's why it is important to manage the reference process. Making sure your references know what to say -- to help you make the sale -- is critical.
It is kind of surprising that anyone calls references -- let alone actually uses what is said as a way of making a final decision. Let's face reality: any former client that is listed as a reference is going to say some pretty good things about the consultant, or the reference wouldn't have been listed in the first place. Any consultant who isn't bright enough to know this might be better served to consider a different line of work.
By the way, that doesn't mean that you only have to list "successful" clients. Sometimes it might make a great reference to have a potential client call a past client that didn't get what they wanted -- provided they will still say good things. A little honesty will go a long way. The key to success, however, is proper preparation of the former client/reference.
It is important to match the right references with the potential client. You don't want a community group trying to raise $2 million calling a university reference where you raised $100 million. The potential client won't relate to the project's scale -- and the university reference will wonder why you are wasting your time -- and his -- with this "irrelevant" client. Look to match situations between past and potential clients. You can enjoy remarkably better sales results if a prospect with a specific challenge talks to a past client that had the exact same challenge.
You might be surprised how often a past client of ours has helped us sell a prospective client. The trick, of course, is to make sure the past client/reference is prepared in advance to focus on issues that actually matter to the prospective client. Time spent working with past clients to convert them into effective references is time extremely well spent in building a consulting practice. And it should not be a one-shot activity -- EVERY time you think a potential client is going to contact a past client, it is good practice to call the previous client to explain the issues and share suggested answers. Both the past client, and the prospective client, will appreciate it. Another bonus of this practice is that it gives you a reason for keeping in touch with past clients who might be considering new projects.
Assuming you find yourself in a competitive situation (even if that competition is just between hiring you or doing nothing), the client will always have some issues or reservations. Uncovering those issues or reservations is often as simple as asking. Most clients want their reservations addressed and are quite happy to tell you what factors will influence their decision. Once you have this information, it is much easier to suggest that the prospective client call a specific reference that faced the same issue.
For example, we often work with clients that are located across the country from our offices. Since there is usually a "local consultant" with whom we are competing, it would appear that the competition has the upper hand. Yet, we address the question two ways: first, we ask whether that "local" consultant has clients outside their home area and, if so, do they provide less service to those "distant" clients. Obviously, it's a trick question -- but it gets the client thinking that maybe their preconceptions or assumptions aren't right. To finish that discussion, we have a couple of great references who know that if they are called, it is invariably because the "distance question" is in play -- and they know how to address the question.
How does the reference know what question is in play and how do they know how to answer it? The answer: Because we've told them. We've already called and let the reference know what the questions, and the issues, are, and even, in some cases, suggested answers. If a client was happy with our service, they are very amenable to helping us secure additional business. Why? Because they like us, and -- believing we really helped them -- they want to steer other organizations to consultants that they know to be effective.
The key here is not to hang the past client out to dry by failing to communicate the prospect's issues. Wasting a potential client's time by having them call a reference whose only comment is a mushy "Oh, they're great!" is not the way to impress that prospect.
Again, once you know what the decision criteria are for a potential client, then it is simply a matter of getting them to call a reference that can specifically address their issues. A little work with a past client and you'll have the best reference possible.
What if you are just starting out and don't have past clients to use as references? Who do you use as references? You may think you don't have past clients, but, unless you are lacking any real experience (in which case, I respectfully suggest that you get some BEFORE you sell yourself as an expert), you have former "clients." They may be past employers or even organizations where you've performed extensive volunteer work that you are now trying to parlay into a practice. They may even be fellow board members who can serve as references for your abilities.
The key is to make sure prospective clients understand the validity of the reference. Understand that potential clients will naturally think these references are inferior to client references. You'll have to explain the relevancy of this reference's experience with you. Explain concisely why the prospect should weigh heavily what a non-"client" reference has to say. Again, the key is to avoid an "Oh, s/he's a great guy/gal" reference. Make certain that even these non-"client" references know what the prospect's issues are, and be specific about how they can help you secure this new account.
A nickel's worth of pre-planning can save a dollar's worth of undoing ineffective reference calls. Speak with your references each time you think a potential client will call. Tell the reference the issue(s) and suggest possible answer(s). You'll sleep better, your past client will appreciate not being surprised, and the prospective client will get the answers they need to make a sound decision (not to mention being impressed with your thoroughness). Good luck -- it's worth the effort.
Fare well, and farewell for this week ... Joyous holidays to you and yours, and a PROSPEROUS New Year!