Can Testimonials Be Trusted?

I am pretty sure that I have never seen anyone share or post a non complementary testimonial. The big question is whether testimonials truly validate the service level of your business?

Let's view this from a customer’s perspective: How do I know that this testimonial is real? How do I know if the person even exists? How many of the business’ friends and family posted reviews? All valid questions because trust and integrity are a real challenge in a world where anyone can post and say anything and their identity can be real or fake.

We know that the "customer review" process on social media sites like Yelp is fraught with deceit - business owners who get their extended family to write great reviews or companies that deliberately post bad experiences on their competitors' account. In the B2B (Business to Business) sector testimonials are important as a screening method because the process of selecting a vendor goes beyond just reading references - B2B is about a long-term relationship building and the process is inherently more complex.

Testimonials can set positive expectations and pave the way for follow up actions like completing a CTA (Call to Action) or asking for additional information. Yet, too often testimonials are just too good to be true - even if they reflect an exact experience, they beg further investigation. "Proceed with caution" is a practical approach for anyone who is contemplating a buying decision solely based on what's on the screen.

More often than not anything you say will be challenged so this begs the question: should you skip testimonials all together? How about, "When appropriate, we'll be happy to provide you with an extensive list of satisfied customers along with their contact information?" This is not a good option because our tendency to question everything will immediately elicit this thought, "they must be hiding something" or "they are not confident enough to.."

Best practice for resumes is to not include a page listing references. Instead, it is common to note that references are available upon request. The underlying assumption is that an employer is not going to call a reference unless you are a finalist. The same logic applies in the closing stage of selecting a vendor or a business partner - you certainly don't want anyone calling your best customers unless they are ready to choose you.

Here's the thing; there are some exceptions to this argument, as in the case of intangible services like consulting or coaching; it is most critical, however, to post testimonials that focus and highlight your differentiating value and the experience you deliver:

  • "He was great to work with" is pointless.

  • "She knows her stuff" is irrelevant.

  • "I could call her anytime" is trivial.

  • "I highly recommend him" is self-promoting and boring.

You could list one testimonial that will blow your competitors out of the water - you should ask for testimonials that objectively prove, beyond any doubt that you are unique and that most importantly, you lived up to expectations while also providing a return on the customer's investment.

People read testimonials and ask for references because of bad experiences, doubt, and risk avoidance. I meet more clients that were burnt by unprofessional amateurs than customers who rave about their experience. Think about this from your own experience as a consumer - how often are you wowed by someone with whom you do business with? (personal or professional).

The prerequisites for starting a business are laughable; a website, shopping cart and social media pages. You can say whatever you want, make it up, jazz the site with stock photos and videos, list reviews or testimonials and you're all set. Sadly it works. Perhaps not for the long term but enough to burn unsuspected buyers and imprint a bad experience in their minds. The result? Businesses that operate with integrity and have the knowledge and skills to offer a differentiating value face a daily uphill climb to convince anyone that what they offer and who they are is real.

Well, welcome to reality, nothing is new here except of course that the ultimate power is in the hands of consumers and they use it. You can safely assume that at best, testimonials are glanced over. What matters most is the quality and impact of your "message," the answer to "Why should I buy from you?" Identifying a clear yet compelling benefit to doing business with you is hard work that requires professional guidance (shameless plug), deep and at times painful soul-searching.

Here's the thing; testimonials come after the "you had me at hello" moment - after your message, content, design and anything you presented that was able to engage with a prospect emotionally. In romantic terms, it is the moment that makes your heart skip a beat or when you quietly say "Wow, I want to go out with him again." Testimonials are overrated, and they don't sell, but they are an essential step in capturing attention, getting an emotional nod of approval and a possible path for the next step.

Here's a great exercise, the "So What?" principle: read anything on your website, your email or your social media post - finish the sentence or paragraph by asking "So What?"

  • "We are the leading supplier of...." So What?

  • "We have over twenty years of experience" So what?

  • "We care about our customers" So What?

"We also return your call" So what?

"So what?" is the equivalent of "so does everyone else. What is special about you? How is this going to make my life or business better? What is the emotional benefit I am going to gain? “(Google "features vs. benefits" for a more in-depth discussion.)

Testimonials, as glorious as they may be, are often self-serving and questionable. Resist the temptation to be average and boring (yes, they go together). Rising-above-the-noise is challenging, you have to convince on an emotional level instead of relying on testimonials to do this hard work for you.

If you have testimonials, read them from a biased, questioning perspect. If they don't pass the "so what?" test go back and find a customer whose life changed as a result of your work; ask them to write how they felt; ask them to write about their experience and how they benefited from choosing you. If you leave it up to them, they will write a quick, same-old review to get this out of the way.

There is nothing wrong with asking for a review or testimonial, but you have to be strategic about it -- quality over quantity. Yes, you must strive for a significant number of reviews, but don't rush it. In an ideal world, customers who were blown away by your service should post a testimonial without being asked to do so! It's rare (yeh, the 'everyone is busy syndrome') so a reminder is perfectly ok.

I believe that Yelp has an algorithm that identifies 'fake' reviews - those that clearly were posted after a vendor asked for them. We've managed to commoditize testimonials and as a result, customers just glance over them or look at the total number of reviews and average score.

Forget reviews! Instead, you should strive to deliver exceptional service, the kind that gets a customer to say on her own, "I have to tell you...." If you've earned the accolades, there is nothing wrong asking, "would you mind sharing it with the rest of the world? We work hard to get customers to come back over and over again."

Zev Asch