Written testimonials influence our actions and choices in myriad ways, sometimes without our even thinking about them. For example: You and a friend decide to catch a movie, but your tastes don't always coincide. So you open the local paper and check out the film reviews. You decide you want to go to dinner first, but there are so many restaurants in your area that you don't know which one to pick. So you open up a local magazine and scan the recommendations of the magazine's food critic.

Even more powerful than these "professional" testimonials, however, are those that come from trusted personal contacts. If you have enough time, you might call or e-mail a couple of other friends to get their movie and restaurant suggestions. You're likely to follow their advice, too, because you know that they know your likes and dislikes pretty well.

So it is in business. Before people come to your firm for a particular product or service, they often want the comfort of knowing what others have said about you.

Let's say you refinish hardwood floors. Many consumers, before they let you haul your refinishing equipment into their house, will ask you for either written testimonials or phone numbers of people who can attest to your work.

You may even have experience with another form of testimonial: providing references when applying for a new job. Those references are expected to respond by written or spoken word about you and your work performance; quite frequently, a testimonial can clinch the job for you. That's a lot of weight riding on someone else's words.

Why Testimonials Increase Business
Testimonials carry a level of credibility because they come from someone who has direct experience with your product or service. Consumers generally place more trust in testimonials than they do in a business's marketing message. They believe that the average person is unbiased and has nothing to gain from providing a testimonial. The business stands to gain--or lose--everything, so its own words are seen as less trustworthy.

Recognizing consumers' skepticism, some businesses make a practice of asking for customer testimonials. Ditto for businesses that serve other businesses. If anything, a business can be an even more demanding customer than an individual consumer because it has its own reputation and ability to function at stake. Thus, a written testimonial on professional letterhead from one business to another is a powerful word in your favor, especially if the business represented on that letterhead is highly credible.

Displaying Testimonials
Written testimonials can be used in many ways to enhance your credibility and set you above your competition--on your business's website, for example. Some websites have them strategically sprinkled throughout so there's at least one testimonial on each page. Others have a dedicated page where a browser can view several testimonials at once. Either way, scan each testimonial to keep it with its letterhead. This will enhance its credibility--and yours.

If your business attracts a lot of walk-in clients, it's helpful to display your written testimonials, each encased in a plastic sheet protector, in a three-ring binder labeled "What our customers say about us" or "Client Testimonials." Keep this binder on a table in your reception area, where your customers can browse through it while they're waiting for services. It's a good way to connect with your prospects and enhance your relationship with clients.

Another way to stand out from the competition is to include testimonials with your business proposals. This strategy works best if you have a wide variety to choose from; you can include a section of testimonials that are most relevant to a specific proposal.

Asking for Testimonials
Make it standard practice to ask clients (or other contacts) for testimonials. At what point in the sales cycle should you ask? This is a tricky question, but in general, don't ask for any testimonial before it's time--which may be before, during, or after the completion of a sale or project, depending on your client, your product or service, and your own needs.

Let's say that one month before finishing a project, you call your client to ask how things are going. The client tells you she's very happy with the results and that her life or business has changed for the better because of your product or service. At this point, your testimonial detector should be pinging loudly. It's the right time to make your pitch: "That would be a great thing for other people to know about my company. Would you be willing to write me a testimonial on your company letterhead by the end of the week?" If the answer is yes, the next step is to coach your client in writing a testimonial that fits your needs.

Guiding the Content
Ask your client to tell why she chose to work with you, how she benefited from your products or services, how you solved a problem for her, and what other people should know about your business. What things are most people concerned about when using a business like yours? Ask her to address those issues. Don't be afraid to offer suggestions; you'll make it easier for her to write an appropriate testimonial, and the result will be more valuable for you.

Updating Your Testimonials
Finally, review your testimonial file or binder at least every two to three years to identify testimonials that are no longer valid or credible. Specifically, you may want to discard or re-file a testimonial that:

  • Is from a company that's no longer in business
  • Is/was written by someone who has left the company
  • Represents a product or service that you no longer offer
  • Has begun to turn yellow with age
  • Needs to be updated with new statistics from the customer

Now that you understand what testimonials can do for your business, try asking for three written testimonials on company letterhead this week. Make it easy for your advocates--specify what you would like their testimonials to cover, based on what you know of their satisfaction or successes from using your product or service. Ask for them to be typed on company letterhead, signed and submitted by a certain date.

One more thing: Remember the law of reciprocity. If you want to truly motivate someone to write you a testimonial, write one for him or her first.