We all need credible third parties to talk on our behalf about the success and business value they have achieved using our products. A strong reference base of credible customers is a competitive advantage. But not all customers bring the same level of knowledge and experience to their stories. The right references can help you win new business and they’re vital for positive analyst reviews. In the last three years, The Skills Connection has worked with more than 60 companies to improve their references, and we’ve seen just how hard it can be to find and cultivate the right analyst-ready references. It’s a topic that could fill a book, but here are three great tips, straight from the front line, to help you on your way.


1. Highlight happy, recent customers

If you don’t have happy clients, you’re not ready to offer references. You should certainly never take a chance with someone who’s still got unresolved grumbles, as you have no control over what will come out in conversation with the analyst. You will ideally be looking for a delighted client who is using a recent version of your product, implemented or updated in the last 18 months. Recent experience is important, and an enthusiastic reference praising your product as it was three years ago will only ever be of limited use.

Software evolves fast, and older versions are bound to be less powerful, with more quirks and support issues. Reference customers who are on these aging platforms may not be able to comment on the progress your company has made or the value of your latest cutting-edge features. Longer-term customers who have performed upgrades may be useful to you, though, as they can talk about your company’s evolution and its commitment to helping early adopters.

2. Pick experienced users, rather than first-time buyers in your category

Try to identify experienced reference customers who have used competitors’ products before. Novice clients are less credible, and first-time buyers won’t be able to compare your technology with products from other vendors and make informed comments.

The analyst will always be interested to hear that your software was easier and faster to implement than Vendor X’s, and that your interface is more user friendly. An experienced reference customer who switched to you from a competitor can help the analyst – and you – by explaining the thinking behind the decision.

3. Find customers with a story to tell

Solving easy problems doesn’t differentiate your product. It’s helping customers tackle the more tricky and unusual problems that wins points with the analysts.

Do you have happy, enthusiastic customers who brought you in to solve a complex problem – possibly after a long and competitive selection process – and are delighted and relieved that they got it right? Perhaps there are some who started small and have grown to rely on you more and more as their deployments expanded and their needs evolved?

An organization that was faced with complex use cases can explain why you were chosen ahead of your competitors – maybe talking about the business needs analysis that was conducted (perhaps requiring consensus across several business units) and how the RFPs or evaluation frameworks led to the choice of your product.

You may also want to target customers where your involvement has developed over time. Maybe the client originally chose your product to meet a narrow or straightforward need, but has been able to use it to handle new and unforeseen challenges. This is the type of real-world story analysts love. A user like this will be able to talk in glowing terms about the value of the relationship, the support you have provided and the strategic role you have played in developing the application portfolio.

Make the most of the opportunity

The secret of success, as always, is understanding what the analyst needs. If you follow these 3 tips and choose wisely, your customer references can be the key to good analyst engagement and positive reviews. Choose the wrong customers, though, and it could take you years to undo the damage.