Customer reference selection – so much more than finding your raving fans

by Katie Coffman

November 27, 2018


In a perfect world, we would have an unlimited roster of raving fans who are available at the drop of the hat to give us a glowing review. Ah, utopia.

In reality, we know customer references are pulled in many directions. From case studies to event appearances to prospect calls, and of course, analyst research, it’s hard to keep track of when and who you should lean on for evaluation research references.

We know there are many ways to approach customer reference management, but what we focus on at Spotlight is selecting the right references for the right research while mitigating reference burnout. We believe references should be (1) raving fans, (2) seeing investment in your solution as strategic to the business, and (3) utilizing you for a breadth of relevant capabilities — in that order.

We challenge our clients to consider the following questions when selecting customer references.

Who are your super fans?

What’s their most recent NPS score?

  • Anything less than a 9 or 10 is a reference you should not put in front of an analyst.
  • Only 7s or 8s? Set up some vetting calls with customers that account management has identified as potential references – there could be a different point of contact within the company who is thrilled with your work but didn’t take the NPS survey.
  • No recent NPS? You may want to do an informal survey of customers in the months leading up to a key report kickoff to determine possible reference candidates.

Are they fully integrated into your vision? Are they a part of a customer advisory board?

  • If yes, keep them especially close on things like roadmap plans and strategic initiatives. Request their feedback and educate them on how their insights are being leveraged across the company.
  • If no, set up time to give them a company update to ensure they understand what net new things are planned. You want your super fans to know exactly where you’re headed and why.

Who have you had the most success with?

How smooth was their kickoff/launch?

  • If everything was smooth sailing – great! Be sure and discuss with them the importance of reinforcing this in their feedback to analysts.
  • If there were hiccups, find out before the analyst does. Be prepared to explain how your company improved their on-boarding experience. Make sure the reference understands that transparency is paramount with analysts, while also positioning your company in a good light.
  • Don’t forget timing is key, too. Regardless of the space, analysts care about the time it takes you to get your work for customers out to market—and seeing a return on their investment.

Who sees you as a strategic investment for their business growth?

What strategic problem were they trying to solve previously?

  • Analysts are interested in what challenge your customer was looking to solve when they went to market in search of a solution. What were the key requirements and other vendors they included in their selection process? Why did they ultimately choose you over the alternative?
  • Make sure your reference is able to articulate the strategic problem you needed to solve. They should be someone senior enough to easily speak about strategy but also close enough to the execution to discuss the nuances of implementation.

What business results have been achieved due to implementing your product/service?

  • Help customers craft the story by talking about their business before and after you started working with them.
  • Help them quantify the value they have seen—whether it’s in terms of cost savings or revenue growth. Analysts love seeing numbers, and this is an opportunity to show them the hard facts.

Who uses a variety of your relevant capabilities, and do they come from different places?

Does the mix of your customer references demonstrate a breadth of capabilities?

  • This may seem like obvious criteria, but it’s easy to end up with references who all predominantly use the same features. Be mindful of how your references portray your breadth of capabilities.
  • If you’re looking to convince an analyst of certain features, include more references that can tell that story. If you’re looking to downplay an aspect of your offerings, stay away from the customers who haven’t diversified to other features or services.

Does the mix of your customer references demonstrate a breadth of geographies?

  • If yes, great! Just be sure your reference contact can at least speak at a high level to the various lines of business and/or geographies you’re serving.
  • If not, it’s okay to have each reference limited to a particular use case or region—but it’s all the more important to diversify your references across those areas to demonstrate the ability to execute more broadly.

Who have you tapped recently?

  • To avoid reference burnout, work with account management to understand every ask that’s being made of those customers you’re hoping to use. Some may have been tapped on so frequently that you have to look elsewhere or risk customer dissatisfaction.
  • Keep track of which analyst you’ve put that reference in front of, too. Analysts like to see diversity and will notice if you keep sending them to the same references.

Most importantly? Start early

At Spotlight, we believe in starting as early as possible to pick and prime client references. Waiting until the last second creates a remarkable moment of panic.

We use a template like the one below as a helpful starting point. Although each evaluation report will bring along with it a specific set of priorities, it’s important to pay particular attention to those areas where you’ve been dinged in the past. For example, if you’ve been working to convince analysts that you play equally in the B2B and B2C space, choose references that represent a balance of each.


Managing customer references may never be a perfect process, but it can be streamlined to give your company the most positive reviews possible. Find your fans who use a variety of your offerings, make sure they see you as a strategic partner, don’t ask them too often, and always remember you can never start early enough!

For more about customer references, check out our on-demand webinar on making a big impact in your next evaluation report.

How do you manage client references? Share with us in the discussion below.