How to fail at reference selling (and how not to)

Back when I was a sales engineer, I’d occasionally re-read Rich Casselberry’s post entitled, “So you want to meet with me.” Rich was a customer of mine, and he had great advice for vendors who wanted time on his calendar.

Since September, I’ve been running marketing for Infinio, and in doing so I’ve gone from only thinking as a “seller” to also thinking as a “buyer.” My entire career has been in sales and marketing, but now I’m also a purchaser of marketing software and services. I have a new appreciation for Rich’s pain and preferences. And I have some of my own.

Today’s rant is on reference selling. Reference selling is, theoretically, a great idea. Rather than telling me about your product, tell me about someone who succeeded with your product. Instant third-party validation. It’s why when we’re selling we focus so much on customer stories, and why when we’re marketing we seek to publish case studies.

Reference selling can also be very useful in cold calling and cold emailing. But it can also be completely useless.

Exhibit 1: Ineffective reference selling

Today I received an email touting assistance this company had provided “…companies like Microsoft, Tinder, Reddit, and SurveyMonkey…”


It’s hard to fathom a list of companies that my company has less in common with. Sure, they are all well-respected technology companies (in Tinder’s sake, well-respected modifies technology). But not one of them is at the scale or size of Infinio, or in the same technology space as us. Sure, we aspire to be Microsoft (who doesn’t?) but it’s not apparent from a cold email that the fact this company helped Microsoft means anything to me.

Admission time.

The truth is, I’m a grump when it comes to cold calls and cold emails. I should be nicer, really. I work with salesguys all day and then I go home and my husband is in professional sales as well. But I can’t help it.

So there has been just a single cold email I’ve responded to this year. And it was this one.

Exhibit 2: Effective reference selling

A few months ago, I received an email from a conference exhibits company. They used the name of my industry’s biggest tradeshow in their subject line, and their short email included names of eight companies whose booths they had produced last year.

Of these eight companies, all were in our general space, two were roughly the same stage as us, four were bigger, and two were well-known large companies. I knew people who worked at two of the companies.

Of course I was interested. I immediately emailed Infinio’s Events Manager, and said, “Can you also take a look at this company?  The other booths they have done are relevant to us.” She met with them, and it was a great fit, and now we’re very interested in working with them.


Here’s the thing. I don’t have any idea if the first company had something I’d want. I have no idea because I don’t have time to follow up on every cold email I get (I’ve gotten nine, just today.) And that company didn’t take the time to learn enough about me to approach me in a way that would catch my interest

It’s a good lesson. And as a marketing leader, I have an extra arrow in my quiver – the experience of being a customer.

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