You’re deep into a great sales call.  The prospect is extremely interested and is asking buying signal questions.  “How does training work?”  “What are your hours of support?”  And then, the killer:  “Who’s using it?”  Pop goes your happy bubble.  The real answer that you can’t say is no one you know, few people in your area, and not all that many around the country.  Is there a way you can answer the prospect’s question that saves the sale?

No matter what you read about edtech mavericks and today’s innovative classrooms, few educators want their students to be guinea pigs.  These are the people that taught our kids the game Follow the Leader after all.  But really can you blame them?  Everything purpose-built for K-12 customers is by definition small scale technology.  Anything new and/or with a small user base experiences growing pains that come from either the programming, implementation, available features or integrations.  Savvy education buyers are therefore doing due diligence that more frequently includes talking to existing users, and ideally a visit to a customer site in their area.

When you can’t comply with their request, tell them that you are not sure there is an appropriate ambassador nearby, “because it is paramount you speak with someone who shares similar priorities and issues.  I will connect you with Joe from Oklahoma and Susie from Florida because I want to be certain you get a chance to talk to someone that has a similar student population/implementation in mind/technology plan/size/school mascot/etc.”  I’m kidding about the school mascot, but not about the attempt at matching.  You’ll just have to do the best you can until you can truly match similar job titles, demographics and so on, but I am betting that will happen before you have a customer in every area code.

You can also take some steps to head off a live and local reference request if you invest in customer testimonial videos.  These don’t have to have high production value and in my opinion they are almost more powerful and convincing when they are not scripted or professionally produced.  Real talk from real users.  These can be a powerful replacement for a site visit if you create several videos representing various types of implementations such as different grade levels, demographics and the range of low and high performing students your product serves.  Just let your customers talk about how they use your product and what has changed since implementing it.

If you get push back from the prospect about the lack of anyone in the area using your product, don’t sweat.  Be extremely confident about the fact that you are a small, personal and attention-giving organization.  Your size affords you the ability to get deeply involved with each implementation.  You’re growing at a measured pace by watching carefully to make sure expected results are achieved.  And then, of course, you should actually be doing all this!

True for any size B2E company, is the requirement to continually cultivate ambassadors for our products.  You should make it a common practice in your customer life cycle to reach out to find out if the implementation is going well and if you can improve their experience in any way.  If they are smooth sailing, that is a great time to ask if they would care to speak with other colleagues about how they achieved success with their implementation.  Just as in any sales call, be sure to highlight what’s in it for them.  Acting as a reference can be an opportunity for an educator to increase their own network—and often with people high on the ladder at other school systems.  They also can increase their “ed cred” by speaking at a conference or panel that you do a lot of the work to arrange.  Taking a reference call is also a chance for them to share ideas with a professional colleague with similar priorities.  Never be afraid to ask.

No doubt your “Joe and Susie” are early customers, possibly that receive your product free of charge, who have acted as a sounding board for you many times, have received a ridiculous amount of support as you de-bugged and added features, and who enjoy an open phone channel with your head of tech and/or founders.  Being a reference is a way for them to repay you for the extra-normal service.  Or maybe they truly want you to succeed.  True story:  the very first customer of Study Island in central OH always allowed us to use her name as a reference.  I am guessing she took 50 or more reference calls over our first few years; all of them with good grace.  There was a later time when we had such deep market penetration we built a CRM report just to pull up all the customers in a 10 or 25 mile radius for a reference request, but none of us ever forgot what this principal had done for us at our start.  After our IPO we brought her and a few other loyal early customers to New York to meet our investors and have a great time on us.

References are about relationships – if you have good customer relationships you’ll have plenty of good references.  If you are passionate about success you will take amazing care of your customers and they won’t mind that their relationship with your company includes occasionally offering a few minutes’ advice to a fellow educator.  Who’s using it?  Only awesome people :).

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