BL&T No. 132: Leading With Client References In New Business

Agency Leadership

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


“Almost all of the time and energy in Half Moon Bay was being directed toward consulting to paying clients. Those clients in turn became the sales engine for the firm, and even when we did an occasional cold call, it was the references from clients that shortened the sales cycle considerably. I'm not even sure I'd call it a sales cycle at all."

From "Getting Naked: A Business Fable About Shedding The Three Fears That Sabotage Client Loyalty" by Patrick M. Lencioni [Book]


Years ago, I was hiring for a designer role and having a tough time finding a candidate who fit the qualifications. When I finally met a promising designer, I was excited to move them through our interview process.

At the time, we were tightly following the interview framework outlined in the book Who by Geoff Smart and Randy Street. The process involved a screening call, 1-hour deep dive interview, focus interview(s), and reference calls. I was thrilled to hear this candidate's references checked out and couldn't wait to offer them the job. Then, it all went downhill.

While the candidate echoed my excitement to have them on the team, their salary expectations were far beyond what we could offer. We came back with an increase, but negotiating was a lost cause with the number they had in mind. I was disappointed when it didn't work out, especially considering how much time had passed and that I'd need to start my search again.

From then on, I started aligning with candidates on salary expectations immediately after the first conversation (if it felt like a good fit) and have avoided the same fate since. In hindsight, this seemed like an obvious step, but it's easy to get lost in the satisfaction of identifying a qualified candidate and put off the money conversation.

This story has been on my mind lately as I consider different approaches to handling conversations with prospective clients. Similarly to bringing up salary early in the interview process, we've been much better about qualifying prospective clients with budget as soon as we determine they're a good fit and we think we can help them. I've even gone as far as throwing out potential proposal options and pricing after the first or second call (depending on the client's urgency to get started). Overall, this has been a big time saver.

All that said, factors other than the budget/pricing contribute to a prospect deciding whether or not they choose to work with us, such as:

  1. Quality of reference calls
  2. Strength of work samples to prospect's goals
  3. The makeup of our team (skillset, roles, etc.)
  4. Relevance of past and current clients to prospect
  5. Confidence in our approach to the project/ways of working

This list is not exhaustive, but it covers the major themes. Of the five listed, the quality of reference calls tends to get covered as a final step in the process, and yet, it carries a lot of weight with the client. Much like my designer candidate anecdote, I would hate to spend weeks (or longer) chatting with a client only to find out we lost because of a reference call. But, unfortunately, that's what happened a few weeks back.

Luckily, we hadn't spent too much time scoping work for this client; however, our conversations lasted over a month. After the client had narrowed their list to us and another agency, they asked for references. Even though we shared a list of approved references, they decided to talk to another client we had worked with and were underwhelmed by what they heard compared with the other agency.

We don't know who they spoke with, but I'd be lying if I said every client engagement goes as planned. We know of a couple who didn't end how we would have liked. Yet, there's so much to learn from these experiences. Through tough conversations, feedback, and debriefs, we identify gaps and work together to improve as an agency. Looking back, I'm grateful for all the lessons learned, albeit painful at times, because they make us better than we were yesterday.

When we select references, we're not narrowing our list to clients we think will say we're perfect. We're not perfect. The most succesful client relationships are those where the client doesn't expect anyone to be perfect. They're open to providing feedback and working together toward the best outcome.

Recently, a reference on our list forwarded me their email exchange with a prospective client who reached out. We've been working with this client for over five years, so inevitably, we've had to work through setbacks and roadblocks together. It was great to get exposure to how they speak about our relationship, touching on the type of collaboration I mentioned above. Here's an excerpt from that email:

"I've never worked with an agency that fully embeds themselves in your business. It feels like one team vs. an agency/client relationship. ... The team they've put into place are some of the best people I've worked with in my career -- they've really spent a lot of time and effort to make sure the right people are resourced for our needs. ....

And so you know that I am being fully transparent, one of the things that I would say had previously been a challenge for us in the past, which Barrel worked very hard to address, was having a project manager on the account that understood our business. I had to have a very candid conversation about a project manager who just wasn't right for the account, and they listened, took immediate action, and even involved me in the hiring process, and the person they found has been our best project manager to date. Ultimately what I would say is that Barrel is very open to feedback, and they take your insights and relationship very seriously without any ego or pretense."

After hearing about the prospect who chose to go with another agency after reference calls and over a month of conversations, I started thinking about what it would look like to share references proactively early on. A week later, I led with our reference list in a proposal email to a prospect, suggesting they reach out. I also shared more context about our relationship with them, something we haven't done in the past. This prospect was moving fast, so we had only one call prior.

It's worth noting we came recommended to this prospect; regardless, it was great to hear the feedback from the client when we won this deal: "Your proposal was detailed, yet streamlined, your sample work spoke for itself, and recommendations were highly complimentary."

In this situation, I shared the references with our proposal due to timing, but I'm curious to try leading with them even earlier. For example, my wife Dana and I are in the process of selecting a company to replace the roof of our home. At the end of my first chat with one of the companies, the co-founder left me with a folder that included a list of references.

At Barrel, this might look like a follow-up email to a qualified lead saying: "Before we move forward, here's a list of references. We recommend chatting with them to learn more about how we collaborate with our clients firsthand." While this approach won't solve prospects reaching out to non-reference clients, it will show we're confident in our client relationships and value the client's due diligence.

I'm not suggesting the recent win is enough to prove leading with references works; however, I'm excited to continue experimenting with what we can do to cover all our bases as we move through conversations with prospective clients. In essence, what can we do differently to make sure we've addressed everything there is to address when we make it to the shortlist?

Along with sharing references early, I've also started introducing clients to reference clients via email vs. sending a list. We haven't seen these deals close yet, but it feels like a small step that can simplify things for the client and potentially go a long way.

Thought Starter

What steps in our new business process might be worth addressing earlier sooner than later with prospective clients?

The E-Commerce Corner

Observations, Insights, Ideas

While mobile-first web design is a given today, about 50%* of users still browse from their computer, aka desktop. We've become accustomed to designing for the height of mobile devices, but considering screen resolution on desktop is just as important. Websites that don't respond to browser height (think: overly large homepage hero banner or product name) risk users missing actions such as Add to Cart buttons or up-sells and cross-sells. In the last 12 months, almost 40%** of users browsed with a screen resolution under 900 pixels.

Source: StatCounter device* and desktop screen resolution** breakdown.

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