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A Positive Reference Isn’t Necessarily a Good One

Posted by Ilise Benun on

I recently had a disappointing experience checking someone’s reference and it prompted me to change the way I provide references to my clients. So I thought I’d share what happened and my reactions and takeaways in the hopes that they might be helpful to you.
What Happened

I was considering hiring a company, let’s call them XMG, to provide an important, highly consultative service for my business.  I asked them for the name and contact information of people who had recently been through the process with them so I could get a reference.  They pointed me to a woman, let’s call her Sarah, and I connected with Sarah by phone shortly thereafter.

Sarah spoke very highly of XMG.  While she mentioned one thing that kept her from being 100% satisfied, she mostly heaped praise on XMG and strongly endorsed them for my project.  It was great to hear such a positive reference, but I hung up the phone disappointed – so much so, I ultimately decided not to hire XMG.  Here’s why:

The Wrong Person
Sarah has a business in a completely different field from mine.  In fact her business is not one that is relevant nor aspirational to me at all — it’s one I actually consider a bit hokey and I’m sure I’m not the only one (it’s not tarot card reading, but perhaps only a notch or two above it).  So I had a hard time respecting Sarah’s opinion of XMG since I had a hard time respecting her.  I would think XMG could have selected a better person for me to talk with.
The Wrong Content

Sarah’s reference was also a miss because she is targeting a completely different audience and seeking completely different business objectives.  Although she had gone through the same process with XMG as I had been considering, her expectations for what XMG would do for her had differed dramatically from mine and so I couldn’t relate to her satisfaction.  Sarah was very clear to me about what she is seeking, so I have to think that XMG understands that.  And since I was very clear to XMG about what I’m seeking, I would have expected XMG to connect me with someone whose goals are similar to mine.
No Context
Perhaps XMG felt that Sarah’s reference was nevertheless important.  If that were the case, XMG should have told me in advance why they were using her as a reference or what they hoped I would get out of my discussion with her.  Or they should have provided more than one reference and explained the value of exposing me to different perspectives.  Instead, XMG didn’t provide any context for the reference.   
No Deal
This experience ended up with me concluding that XMG either didn’t understand what my needs are (despite me having discussed them extensively with them) or didn’t take enough care to provide me with truly useful information – or both.  Neither reason bade well on my perceptions of what it would be like to work with them – plus a few other yellow flags had already been raised in my dealings with them — so I decided not to pursue the project with XMG.  

I realize that I might appear to have been too harsh on XMG.  But my experience checking their reference didn’t instill confidence and I need to have confidence in them in order to hire them.  After all, that’s why I asked for the reference in the first place.
Takeaways for all service providers, including me:

  • select references carefully to ensure a fit with the client (the person and the project)
  • whenever possible, provide references who the client will admire, or at least respect
  • provide context when passing along references to clients – explain how each reference is relevant to the client/client’s needs

For over 20 years Denise Lee Yohn has been inspiring and teaching companies how to operationalize their brands to grow their businesses. World-class brands including Sony, Frito-Lay, Burger King, and Nautica have called on Denise, an established speaker, author, and consulting partner.   

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