The Reference Selling Model

Making Your Customer the Hero of Your Story


Stories push us past numbers and into our feelings.   Used for business, a good story beats a spreadsheet any day-Chris Brogan, author of Trust Agents

Has your sales team said to you that they need more referrals and better references?  If you have heard this from your team, this is the article for you.    The reference selling model was something I developed at NetApp and was a key part of my onboarding process and well as our team's regular selling motion.  In 2008 our team represented 1/58 of the sales force and about 20% of the case studies.  In fact, one customer enjoyed this process so much they gave us an award.   The benefits of this model include:

  1. Our sales people were productive in the first 30 days of joining the company.

  2. Our sales teams knew how to sell value.

  3. The quality of our references were exceptional.

  4. We never had an issue with the quantity of our references.

According to People Metrics, 78% of buyers seek recommendations from their network when beginning the search for a new partner.  If you have lots of references, chances are you can find a reference your prospect will know by looking at their LinkedIn profile. 

My surveys and recent research indicates that in person references are best and online reviews on a 3rd party sites are also very valuable.  Many customers enjoy the prestige associated with interviews in industry publications and well done videos interviews.  The least trusted evidence is vendor reference materials found in vendor produced formal case studies, as compared with industry articles, reference visits, or videos.  Customers tend to bypass formal corporate approval processes if reviews are online or interviews are done at a conference or user group.

There are six steps to the reference selling model.   The first step involves having your sales team go out and interview their customers.   The next step is to summarize the interview via email and gain the customer's agreement that your notes are accurate.   The summary of your interview is a great outline for a case study or a pitch to a journalist.   Your customers can also use your summary to quantify the benefits they have received when providing references to new potential customers.  The cycle starts all over when you add value to the next customer.  What is great about the model is that it is a never ending cycle of new sales.

Below are a few questions that can be used to interview customers.

  1. Why did you buy our product?

  2. When you evaluated our product what were your other options?

  3. Who else was involved in the evaluation and decision to purchase?

  4. How did you justify buying our product over other solutions?

  5. Did you product a written justification or ROI spreadsheet?

  6. Was our product more expensive or less expensive than alternatives?

  7. Who has been affected by the use of our products?

  8. How would you quantify the return on investment your organization has received by using our product?

    • Increase revenue

    • Cost avoidance

    • Time/Labor Saved

    • Reduce Risk (compliance etc.)

  9. Is there any way our company could be serving your organization that we are not today?

  10. Would you be willing to share your success in a case study or article in an industry publication?

Drop me a note if the reference selling models works for you.


reference selling model


  1. Train your team to do what it takes to provide value.

  2. Interview your customers after delivery of value

  3. Summarize the interview in writing for the customer's review and approval.

  4. Publicize your customers success story.

  5. Use your customer as a phone reference or site visit.

  6. Provide value to the next customer.