This is the third post in this series. 
The customer reference is extremely valuable as you go to market. You’ll need customers early on to help build your creditability and validate your solution. Not having customers to reference will turn away some prospects that are not early adopters or are less prone to go with early stage startups. 
One of the first questions you’ll hear in the sales process will be “Who are your customers?” “Who else do you work with in my industry?” or “Do you work with any of my competitors?”. Not having a relevant customer reference or two could hurt your chances of moving the opportunity forward. If a prospect has never heard of your company and is not familiar with what you do saying you work with company ABC will go a long way, especially if that customer is a known name.
So how do you get references to help build your creditability and validate your solution? One of the best ways to do that is through a pilot, test or trial process. All accomplish the same thing, which is to validate your solution at a low risk to the customer. In the early days its important to buy a few deals so target the prospects that are influencers. Focus on influencers in a specific industry that carry weight and can make an impact when you use their name. 
Whatever you decide to call it i.e. “pilot”, “test” or “trial” you must provide the framework around the program. Here are some guidelines for a successful pilot program.

1) Term – how long will the pilot run?
2) Goals – what are the KPIs and what does success look like?
3) Plan – layout the guidelines for the pilot, i.e. integration, launch date, key meetings, identify key stakeholders etc.
4) Contract – get it in writing with a contract, layout the pilot terms and full contract terms 
5) Pricing – pre negotiate pricing for the long term so when the pilot ends successfully you can move forward seamlessly
It’s up to you whether you want to charge for the pilot. Regardless, there are specific things you should ask for in-exchange for the pilot, like:

  • Use of customer logo
  • Open customer reference
  • Case study
  • Press release
  • Joint speaking engagements like webinars

Now that you have your customer references, start using them. I have incorporated them into my elevator pitch, use cases, slide decks, and website. Most important your references should help you answer the why, “why did they choose your solution?” The “why” and use case should be relevant to your next prospect.
Happy Hunting!
I would welcome your feedback and comments. 
You can also find me @vincebeese and LinkedIn