The Testimonial Pipeline: Get Reference Customers Like Salesforce

I know we just met, but will you buy my product right now? Can I put your picture on our web site as a happy customer?

No? Maybe next time.

Growing Reference Customers

A customer testimonial does not magically appear on your web site. Your relationship with them starts as a seed, and their success blooms the more your product’s value nourishes the plant. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, some of those blooms will be worth showing off.

So how, exactly, do you obtain a testimonial? Well, Agile development, by itself, won’t cut it. Marty Cagan’s “Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love” helped me understand that shipping code every 2 weeks without changing how you engage customers gets you no closer to making them successful. Sprinting through your backlog does not create more customer value than waterfall if you dreamt up the feature set without validating demand or testing your designs. Agile offers no specific structure to engage customers, especially for revenue products with buyers outside your company. is a useful case study, since they’ve published over 100 customer success stories on their web site. They engage customers at many different points along the timeline of product development, creating what I call The Testimonial Pipeline.

The Testimonial Pipeline

A testimonial pipeline has multiple stages, similar to a sales pipeline. And just like sales, not all the customers that enter the wide end of the pipeline will come out the other side as a reference. (Repeat: you will not bat a thousand here. Manage expectations.) The stages are as follows:

  • Interview Subjects
  • Usability Testers
  • Beta Participants
  • Reference Customers

Anyone you talk to starts as an Interview Subject, even before they’re a customer. Talk to real people as early as possible to get a deep, rich understanding of the demand for your product/idea. If you have paying customers already, you should obviously talk to them as well. The way you refer to these folks is less important than what you call them.

Product managers and user researchers at take the lead at this stage, and reach out to people via many channels. You want to get people on the phone or meet them in person, though you can often make an initial connection via social media. Feel free to validate early design ideas as well as the underlying demand, even though it bleeds into the next stage a little.

If there’s sufficient demand and a design idea is around 60% baked, you can have some people play the role of Usability Testers. In short, you ask the person to complete a task inside your user interface and gauge how successful they were. An interesting twist Salesforce adds: they make small improvements to the design between each round of testing. Don’t be rigorous about maintaining a control group and experimental group: the goal is to improve the design as quickly as possible.

Once the concept has matured into working software, some brave souls can test it “in the real world” as Beta Participants. When customers put the product through its paces in their own environment, you start to see the value it (hopefully) creates for them. Salesforce proudly announces which brave companies participate in their critical beta programs; usually any code is feature-complete, though it likely contains some bugs.

If these folks continue to see value after the product is generally available, they can (finally) become Reference Customers. This manifests itself for Salesforce in a number of ways: on their web site, as reviews on their AppExchange, in YouTube videos, and even in traditional print media. Their customers are the heroes of these stories.

But I’m Not Big Like Salesforce

If this all seems daunting, I have good news: you can get started today just by picking up your phone. Call someone and ask them about that idea in the back of your mind. All you have to do is have a conversation. If you want to put just enough process in place, refer to The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development and Lean UX.

Know you need to get out of the building, but having trouble with buy-in? Show your stakeholders these examples from and frame it up in terms of getting reference customers and increasing sales.

And who wouldn’t want more sales?