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Your Company's Best Sales Tool

During downturns, consumers become more skeptical of marketing and advertising. That's why customer testimonials can help your company stand out

Customers are cutting back and scrutinizing their budgets. That's the reality facing small-business owners today. An October survey by the PNC Financial Services Group PNC shows growing pessimism among small- and midsize business owners and decision-makers, much of it tied to unstable energy prices, a credit squeeze (, 9/26/08), and slowing sales. Only 43% of the nearly 1,000 polled expect an increase in their company's sales over the next six months.

"When spending is off, companies cast a critical eye on every last dollar," says Dale Washburn, president of Seattle marketing firm Washburn Communication. That means your product or service must deliver what it promises—saving your customer money, making them money, or providing the tools to make more efficient use of the money they have. Washburn believes that in times of financial crisis, sales and marketing materials are met with increased skepticism. He says one of the most persuasive tools available to most small-business owners is word of mouth—recommendations from peers and colleagues.

Large, established companies know that a list of reputable and satisfied customers is critical for sales success. In fact, some large companies have employees whose job it is to gather and distribute in-depth customer testimonials demonstrating their product or service's effectiveness to their prospects. Most small-business owners don't have the time or budget to do the same, but they can easily borrow from their larger counterparts' strategies. I've identified three you can use below.

Invite customers to share the stage. When large companies launch new products, they usually have tested it with customers or partners who have agreed to endorse it publicly. For example, new releases of Microsoft's (MSFT) SQL Server data management platform are accompanied by a list of organizations already using them. Case studies are available on the company's Web site, CEO Steve Ballmer often introduces partners in press conferences, and the partners are featured in press releases. These testimonials are meant to offer a measure of confidence to IT departments before they spend a substantial amount of money to upgrade their software infrastructure.

Remember, your customers don't want to be the first to test a product. Make sure new products, services, and upgrades have early adopters available for reference upon release.

Bring testimonials into the 21st century. The testimonial remains an important marketing tool. While we're all familiar with the simple testimonials featured on many companies' Web sites, a number of innovative companies are taking them one step further by delivering them in audio and video formats. While large companies like Microsoft and Cisco (CSCO) have highly stylized video testimonials on their Web sites, simple, inexpensive audio or video testimonials posted on YouTube (GOOG) or your business's own site, can be just as compelling to your customers, says Washburn.

Give your reference a reason to participate. In large companies, more and more sales professionals are being compensated for closing a deal that both brings in revenue and provides an ongoing reference. As a small-business owner, encourage the same approach in your shop. Look for customers who will help you win new customers. But give those customers a reason to offer a reference. This could be as simple as providing more access to you or your staff when your customer has questions. Business software maker Sybase (SY) clearly outlines the benefits of becoming a "customer advocate" on its Web site.

Your customers are not the only ones who are being extra cautious when it comes to spending. You probably are, too. Convincing your customers to act as references is an inexpensive way of developing one of the most persuasive tools in your sales kit.

Carmine Gallo is a communications coach for the world's leading brands. He is a speaker and author of the new book "Fire Them Up"

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