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My partner and I run a translation service, and we've been advised to ask clients for testimonials. It's easy to inquire if we can add someone to our "satisfied client" list, but how do we go about fishing for more elaborate compliments that we could use on our Web site or promotional materials? This kind of thing is anathema below the Mason-Dixon Line.

-- L.C., Alexandria, Va.

You've got an etiquette dilemma on your hands that many business owners will recognize. No, it's not easy to solicit compliments without sounding self-serving or presumptuous. "It's natural to feel an aversion to asking satisfied clients for testimonials," says Hilary Kaye, president of marketing-communications firm HKA, based in Orange County, Calif.

Unfortunately, clients are unlikely to spontaneously provide useful testimonials. "In the old days, people wrote you letters of thanks and praise. No one has time for that anymore," says Tom Barnes, of Atlanta marketing consultancy MediaThink. "If you do get them, thank your lucky stars, and by all means scan them as .pdf files and put them on your site."

(Of course, ask permission first. Even the most satisfied customers don't necessarily want their kind words of today to imply that they will always be satisfied with your services.)

RETURN THE FAVOR. However, fishing for compliments doesn't have to be as painful as you may fear. As part of general customer relations, you should be contacting clients regularly to touch base.

If your company is doing its job, some of them will give you positive feedback during these conversations or e-mail exchanges. When one does, follow up naturally by thanking them and asking if you could use some of their comments in your marketing materials.

"Chances are, not only will they give permission, they might in turn feel complimented that you valued their comments enough to use them," suggests Linda Hamburger, owner of

On Call PR, a public-relations agency in Deerfield Beach, Fla.

Another strategy Hamburger suggests: Return the favor. "If your client is also in business, ask if you can exchange references. If they are individuals, offer them a small thank-you gift in return for their business and for being able to share their success story with other current and potential clients," she says.

ENCOURAGE HONESTY. If you still feel awkward directly asking customers for "happy talk," you could use a roundabout method, such as conducting a survey or hiring a third party. Devise a brief customer-satisfaction survey, which can help not only with soliciting testimonials but also with getting broader information on your customer relations.

"Do a short, three-question survey," recommends Al Lautenslager, author of Guerrilla Marketing in 30 Days. "Right after the last question, ask if the comments can be used in marketing materials -- which provides the person giving the testimonial exposure, too."

If you and your partner don't want to circulate a survey yourselves, hire a firm to do a phone or e-mail survey, Barnes suggests. Notify your clients that you are trying to understand what you do well and what you don't, and ask your customers to provide honest feedback.

Then make sure your vendor keeps survey contacts brief and documents the discussions. "Retool the comments, bifurcating the good for testimonials and the bad (God forbid) for planning and modifying your offering," Barnes says.

"Send the potential testimonial in its final form back to the client for their final approval," he adds. This will put the client on notice that you'd like to use his or her comments. "Take any modifications your clients make gracefully," he suggests. "There are always bound to be changes."

DON'T BE VAGUE. Chris Durban, a freelance translator based in Paris who co-authors the "Fire Ant & Worker Bee" column for Translation Journal, recommends that you make the testimonial portion of your Web site quite specific, citing not only client compliments but also the kinds of projects you have done.

"Long and vague lists of 'satisfied clients' with no specifics on actual jobs...may impress the naïve but won't cut much ice with demanding buyers. The reason is simple: The churn rate of suppliers to giant companies is too high," she notes.

Once you get the testimonials in hand, always enclose them in your marketing materials, Lautenslager says, with an introduction like: "Here's what our raving fans say about us." The bottom line is that if your clients are happy with your work, they will be happy to tell you so and let you share their opinion with others. And happy clients are the best testimony a company can have.

Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at Smart Answers, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.


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