Requests for references are common in many purchasing decisions.

I got an email recently from a customer in the Caribbean Islands who was challenged by a prospect to provide some references right from the start of the sales process.

Read on to hear about Brian’s dilemma and my sales advice for him…

I work for a high-end construction materials distributor in the Caribbean Islands.  There’s a project for a large-scale hotel expansion getting underway on the island and the contact for them is their States-based architect.  I contacted him with an introductory email (no phone number was available) where I let him know the caliber of projects that we work on. 

From what I have gathered through talking with others involved in it, this type of project goes hand in hand with the type of materials we provide.  In that first email I asked him a few basic questions to see if my recon was accurate and to see when he would be down here again.

His first reply was asking for a list of references.

I kindly responded that due to the type of clientele we deal with, I cannot reveal contact information of my clients but that I can name off a few projects we’ve worked on and the materials we’ve provided.

His response was that he needed contractor names and contact info, not client names. 

For me, it’s all one in the same.  References are never used down here due to the small community at work in the industry; it’s a cultural thing more than anything.  I explained this way of doing things and encouraged him to contact the island-based architect he is working with on the project to find out some more about us, as we have worked with him in the past.  I finished by explaining that I don’t even know if we’ll be a good fit until I know a bit more about the project. 

His response, now getting a bit aggressive (i.e. "I believe it was you who contacted me…") affirmed his ambitions to work with the best and most capable and that references were a pre-requisite for starting any sort of working relationship. 

Getting frustrated, I’m considering that this may not be a client for us to work with.  Got any advice? Thanks.

-Brian H.

Thank you for your email Brian.

Prospects can be a pain, and that is why we have to take and stay in control over each and every deal we engage.

Your right not to offer references up front this early in the sales process.

You did an excellent job of offering the names of projects where your materials were used. This is good because what you are showing him is the *results* of doing business with you by way of references without actually giving the reference contact information.

Reference requests are a legitimate request by a prospect in many purchase decisions. It’s important to realize that. Where you live and work may be a tight, close community, but your prospect is not a part of that right now, and he has his concerns and fears that you must deal with.

References are also a resource you must protect, because if you give out contact information too often, then your references will get overused and will stop taking calls for you.

The way I have always handled reference requests is to make it a last step in the sales process. This is a simple matter to let the prospect know that he can have reference contact information as a "confirming step" to reassure his decision once he is ready to do business with you.

The beauty of this approach is it meets the needs of both you and your prospect. He may not like the fact that you are putting him off, but if you can show that you are the kind of A-player he should be dealing with, then he will ultimately decided to play your way.

So what else can you do?

Continue positioning yourself as the A-player here. Send photos of your completed projects. Get a testimonial from your local island-based architect.

See if you can a few customers to give you written testimonials and agree to act as a reference on a very limited and infrequent basis. Use the testimonials now and while leaving the names off, and let your prospect know that he can have those later if he wants when he gets to that "last step" with you.

Sell with Pride,

Shameless Shamus

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