Sensational Marketing Materials: The Importance of Providing Fresh, Up to Date Letters of Reference By: Duane Cummings No matter whether you sell to an end use customer or business-to-business, great supporting material is a must when communicating with a potential client. All companies have some form of literature or marketing materials they use during a presentation. The focus may be to introduce a potential customer to a product or service, or it could pertain to a specific project the company is submitting a quote or proposal for. Company handouts can range from a single sheet of paper to a very elaborate binder that may include an overview of the company, bios of key staff members, product information, photographs, terms of sale, details regarding a proposed project, the scope of work to be performed, pricing, and of course the all important list of references. I believe that sensational references are the most important weapon you can have in your arsenal. Think for a moment, are you using letters of reference to set you or your company apart from the competition? Recently, I was working with a contractor on a proposal they were going present to a customer. As I browsed the material, I stopped in the references section. To my surprise, I couldn't find a letter that was dated within the last three years. I also found two letters that were dated, "1999". The excuse, "they didn't follow up with customers at the completion of a project to ask for a letter of reference." The letters they did happen to possess had been voluntarily given to them. Lesson #1 If you don't regularly ask for reference letters after projects or sales, start making it a habit! If you have completed a transaction or project, it is the perfect time to ask, "Mr. Customer, if you are totally satisfied, would you mind putting your support in a letter of reference?" References can be the deciding factor in selecting you or your company over the competition. Some letters can be very powerful due to the total dollar value of the completed job or sale, the difficulty of a project, how famous a building or location may be, or even the name of the company or client the work was performed for. Lesson #2 Pick and choose the references you present based on similarities to the proposed project or sale you want to make with the targeted customer. Example: If you submit a proposal for work at a hospital using a certain product and you have a reference letter from a past project that is relevant, USE IT! If you or your company recognizes the value of collecting and maintaining reference letters and are currently practicing that habit, you are ahead of the game. But, you also may have an outdated letter you feel provides a great deal of credibility and is extremely important to your reference portfolio. If that's the case, get the letter updated. Many times in my professional career I successfully accomplished refreshing a collection of reference letters. I would start with the person who wrote the original letter. Don't be alarmed if that person is no longer with the company. If they are gone find out who is approved to write letters of reference and how to contact them. Scan and email, or fax a copy of the original letter to their attention. When you speak to them, explain how important their letter has been to you or your company's success. Let them know you don't expect them to change the letter, just provide a current date on fresh company letterhead. If they still value the service you provided, it should be no problem. They may want to refer to the original date of the letter or project in the RE: section, which is fine. Lesson #3 Potential customers want to know you have had recent success. Something very important that shouldn't be over looked. Don't be afraid to ask for a letter from customers who you had problems with, but then resolved. My best references have come from customers who saw how well we responded after things went awry. Potential customers know things won't always be perfect. What they want to hear from a reference is how well you or your company reacted to the problem. They want to know things will be completed to their satisfaction. You become extremely credible when you tell your potential customer, "I'm human and I have made mistakes," but you will stand tall and fix the problems as they arise. Lesson #4 Find customers who have been through the fire with you and are willing to tell the success story. One hidden treasure people often overlook when it comes to letters of reference lies with your bank and the vendors that supply you or your business. When potential customers see you are in good standing financially, have solid fiscal habits, and have the support of companies that provide you or your company the material you need to operate, it alleviates many of their worries and concerns. "How financially sound is a company during these difficult economic times?" is the number one question on a CFO's mind. Lesson #5 Ask vendors and banks for a reference letter annually. Finally, I can think of at least two other places that references are frequently posted. One would be on a company website and the other on the walls of an office or lobby. You or your company needs to refresh and rotate those letters. People who visit regularly notice and they'll be eager to raise their level of performance to keep up with all of the glowing reviews they see. You never know, they may be your next customers. So, why not give them some ideas on how to write a sensational letter of reference.