How to Get Potential References to Say “Yes”

By Julie Schwartz, ITSMA,

GettingToYes+smITSMA’s research with both buyers and solution providers consistently shows the importance of case studies and references during the purchase process.  Unfortunately, the reality is, getting clients to agree to a case study (with attribution!), speak at an event, or provide live references are recurring challenges.  But do not fear! I know the secret to getting to “yes.”

Paying References: Good Idea or Bad?

Here’s a question I get frequently: “How do other companies reward their clients when they provide references or agree to a case study?” The underlying question here is, “Should we pay our clients to advocate for us?”

The answer is simple: NO! You should never pay your clients to provide references for you. Paying your clients can be a sticky mess on many levels. Even compensating them with things like training credits can create a revenue recognition nightmare.

But what about other types of rewards? The non-monetary incentives? There definitely has to be something in it for the client, otherwise why would they devote their valuable and scarce time to help you?

ITSMA did some research with its members on what motivates clients to advocate for them:

Passion, pride, and appreciation.

  • “The pure passion of being really pleased with our delivery. Usually people articulate that they are pleased with us and want to help us tell other people about it.”
  • “They do it because there’s some pride. They want to talk about what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
  • “They want to do it because they’re appreciative of what we did to help them be successful and they want to help us.”


  • “They themselves are looking for opportunities to be seen as influencers or subject matter experts and it gives the opportunity or platform in which they can share what they themselves and their companies are doing.”
  • “Showcases them on a large global stage as being technology innovators, business leaders, as making smart business decisions. There is also eminence and being seen as a thought leader.”
  • “We provide clients with access to speaking engagements that they could not get on their own. They get national visibility.”


  • “Clients in our key account program who are advocates get rewarded with access to our executives, special facilities, and joint development opportunities.”
  • “They do it for the peer networking opportunities.”

The Problem: Advocacy Is Usually One-sided

These are some really good motivations. So why then is recruiting a reference such a challenge? Because solution providers make the same mistake over and over again. They approach their potential advocates with one goal in mind: these clients are going to help us sell.

Advocacy can’t be one-sided. It’s not just about what the client reference is going to do for you. Rather, it is about what YOU are going to do for them. To succeed, your reference accounts have to get even more out of participation than you do. Let me say that again. Your reference accounts have to get more out of participation than you do. It is Marketing 101. What is your value proposition?


The Solution: It’s Got to Be All About the Client, Personally

To be successful recruiting references, you have to change your mindset. The only question to concern yourself with is, “What’s in it for them”? Do not talk about your company and why you want a case study and how you will use it. Talk about what the case study will do for the client. But even that is not enough. The benefits have to be personalized.  Here’s what works:

  • Create a formal program. Focus on nurturing long-term and strategic relationships rather than one-off case studies. Case studies may only be the beginning of the collaboration. Communicate to the potential references that they will be part of this program.
  • Personalize the benefits. Brainstorm a list of benefits your clients receive from your program. Before approaching a potential reference, do some research. Speak to the sales and delivery people who know the client best. Which of the benefits on your laundry list are most likely to catch the client’s attention? Lead with those.


  • Create a killer value proposition. Describe what the client will receive via a clear, personal value proposition. Emphasize peer networking and providing them with a platform to showcase their expertise, emphasizing their achievements—not yours!
  • Measure the benefits. If you promise a benefit, go back and close the loop with your references. Did they achieve the benefit? Are they satisfied? What more can you do to help them (not you!) achieve their goals?

Does this work? Absolutely. Check out the services case studies on Notice how many they have. Notice how the case studies name names. Cisco clearly knows the secret to getting to “yes.”

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