There have been some interesting shifts in behaviour over the past twenty years – especially in the business-to-business (B2B) world. The simplest way to describe the trends would be to say that a general skepticism has crept into the average business person when it comes to partners and suppliers.

Here are a few of the major trends:

1) B2B advertising has little effect other than raise brand awareness.

2) Profiles in publications or websites are viewed as advertising, or inextricably linked to advertising, and not journalism.

3) Referrals from other clients are nice, but rarely a factor in decisions.

4) Testimonials are given less credence than advertising.

I’m not out to bash B2B advertising – there are instances where it can be instrumental. It’s just clear that you have to be cautious in its use, and aware of what it costs you. What I’d like to examine deeper are the last two points: referrals and testimonials.

Decent referrals generally come to you from two sources: other clients of the service/product being referred; and other suppliers or partners to you. The tendency of each business owner to view their circumstances as unique, has been the prime cause in discounting customer referrals. The perspective seems to be “It may have worked for you, but my needs are significantly different”. If they listen closely enough, they may pick up on similarities of note, but frequently it doesn’t get that far.

On the other hand, if I’m providing you with a service (say accounting), and recommend a lawyer, the assumption is that because I know your business well, whomever I recommend will be the best person for the situation. As well, even if it’s unspoken, I will be held accountable for the suitability of the referral. If the lawyer is someone I work alongside for clients-in common, this will carry much more weight than if s/he is my lawyer. This means that the best referrors for each of us are synergistic companies, not our satisfied clients!

Testimonials have taken a big hit in an internet dominated world. In print, they still have a place, but on a website they merely take up space. The average business person assumes you a) wrote them yourself; b) got a friend to submit them; and that they are not in any way reflective of reality. Harsh! But there’s hope….

If the testimonial is included in a case study, then it is given a context and subsequent weight. And to loop back to advertising and profiles, case studies are the number one thing that business people look for in newsletters and periodicals, so you might consider placing these instead of a “puff piece”. Even though not viewed as impartial, that testimonial combined with the problem solving approach of a case study does get attention – and plausibility.

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