Testimonials help accelerate sales. That's because the perspectives of peers is among the information sources that prospective customers value most.

They value testimonials even when it comes from vendors in the form of endorsements—and is likely to have inherent bias. If they didn't, they wouldn't seek out referrals, ask for references, or download case studies before making major investments of their time or money.

Most prospects are not experts in purchasing the types of products and services you offer. Therefore, they take steps to reduce the chances of making the wrong decision.

They turn to testimonials because testimonials are readily available and because they hope to learn from others' experiences. For example, testimonials may help prospects to identify buying criteria they may not have otherwise considered, or to get a better sense of the level and quality of results they can expect to achieve.

Getting such information quickly, and with minimal effort, can speed the purchase. Therefore, it's incumbent upon you to have it at the ready.

Here are 10 steps you can take to create compelling testimonials.

1. Determine what testimonials you'll need

Articulate your objectives. What is the profile of the individuals you hope to influence? At what point in the sales cycle do you want to exert that influence? What action do you want them to take after reading the testimonial?

Now, step into their shoes. What will they need to hear to take action—and from whom?

Every prospect's situation is different and so each seeks different information:

  • Some will want testimonials that speak to how you helped others with similar situations or challenges.
  • Other prospects will want to hear from "someone like them" to get confirmation that you understand their situation. That person may be someone in the same industry, someone who performs a similar function at another company, or someone who has a similar operating environment.
  • Still others will want to hear from your marquee accounts.

Develop a grid that lists customer attributes on one axis, and customer concerns on the other. Use the grid to slot the testimonials you have and track the ones you still need to get.

2. Ask every customer for a testimonial

There are many benefits to getting testimonials from your customers. Preparing a testimonial compels customers to reflect on the value they derive from your company and its services. Such reflection tends to reinforce their appreciation of that value.

Testimonials also provide you with the opportunity to learn what your customers found most valuable—versus what you assumed mattered most—so that you can sell that same value to others.

Another reason for asking every customer for a testimonial is that you'll need a lot of testimonials to address every prospect's specific needs.

3. Tell your customer how you plan to use their testimonial

Help your customers help you. To prepare an effective testimonial, your customers need to know what you're trying to accomplish. Like you, they need an understanding of the target audience and the objective of the testimonial. They can then think about their experiences with your business from that perspective.

The other reason for telling customers how you plan to use their testimonial is to increase their comfort level. Most people are more amenable to making specific comments than to giving sweeping endorsements—especially true for customers who have had experience only with particular aspects of your business.

4. Offer to help prepare the testimonial

The obvious reason for offering to help customers prepare the testimonials you request is that it places less burden on them and ensures that it will get done. The more important reason is that you can help shape the content.

Your assistance may take several forms:

  • You may give customers a list of questions, a template, or an example of the type of testimonial you are seeking—and give them the option of just answering the questions or writing the entire testimonial.
  • Or for those who prefer less structure, you may just ask to have a brief discussion about your requirements and their experiences before they write the testimonial.
  • Or for those who want minimal involvement, you may decide to interview them and then present them with a draft testimonial for approval.

Note, however, that the operative words are "help prepare"—not "write for them." Testimonials are most valuable when they capture the customer's experience, and do so in his or her own language.

5. Make it specific

Effective testimonials are specific. They document particular achievements, reference precise value, or allude to unique services. As noted earlier, people tend to discount unsubstantiated, generalized assertions.

6. Attempt to quantify value

Numbers sell. They help prospective customers visualize the impact your solution will have on their company.

Attempt to answer these questions: "how many?" and "how much?"

For example: How many new accounts did they win because they availed themselves of your solution? How much revenue did your solution help them generate? How much time or money did it save? How much did the level of rework or returns drop? How much did their employee or customer retention rate improve?

7. Keep it short

There are many types of third-party endorsements: testimonials, references, case studies. Of those, testimonials are the shortest.

Individual testimonials tend to be just one component of a larger communication. Some companies present a list of testimonials to demonstrate the breadth of their capabilities and customer base, or the consistency of the value they deliver. Others use testimonials to add credibility to content in a letter, article, or on a Web page. In any case, if they're too long or too complex, they lose their value because people tend not to read them.

8. Include the customer's name, title, and company

Anonymous testimonials don't pack a punch. One of the first things people do when reading a testimonial is look for the source. They do so to assess the relevance and credibility of the statement. For some, the absence of identifying information becomes a cause for concern, even when none existed before.

9. Place your testimonials where prospective customers will see them

Use your testimonials on your website and in direct marketing campaigns—but don't stop there. Testimonials have always been an effective selling tool, but today they are more important than ever.

Before prospects first contact a company, many search the Web to find out what others have to say. One of the places they turn, after reviewing analyst reports and the company's website—and running searches on Google and on various social media platforms—is to executives' profiles on LinkedIn.

So think about placing your testimonials in social media. Ask customers to tweet them and post them on LinkedIn. Make sure they appear wherever customers turn for information.

10. Consider enlisting help

Writing effective testimonials isn't easy. You need to accomplish a lot in very little space—yet capture the customer's sentiment and his or her words. It takes a strategic mind to anticipate and address prospects' information requirements—and strong writing skills to convey the message shortly and succinctly.

If you do decide to enlist help, look for marketers who have done a good job with their own testimonials. This is one service you can evaluate before using!

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Barbara Bix is managing principal of BB Marketing Plus, where she helps companies enhance their brands by capturing and enhancing the customer experience.