I just got an email that shocked me. It was from an expert in working with children with special needs–kids like my girls, who are on the Autism spectrum. I’m on her mailing list but have never worked with her or bought one of her products. In the email, she offered to look after my children for two hours in exchange for a “great testimonial”.
I would love to have a qualified expert take care of my daughters for a couple of hours while I do my holiday shopping. And maybe I could give her a great testimonial if I had used her services. But to offer to pay me for a testimonial had the opposite effect: it made me want to keep my distance from her.
This got me thinking about the uses and abuses of testimonials.
I strongly recommend that, if you are in business, you should publicize testimonials in which satisfied customers say how much they benefited from you or your programs. They are a great way to establish credibility and influence people.
But I think we need some ground rules for testimonials if we want to keep them useful and credible.
The woman who offered to pay me for my testimonial looks like a decent person doing important work that I care passionately about. So I want to think the best of her. I’m guessing she got bad advice or perhaps didn’t think through what she was doing. Maybe she just wanted to show her appreciation for people who helped her business. But, to me at least, her credibility is now suspect because she broke one of my unwritten rules.
To be honest, I have never made these rules explicit before now because they just seemed obvious. But, apparently, not everyone agrees. And, upon reflection, there are some gray areas. So here’s my attempt to spell out the dos and don’ts of customer testimonials.
I’m going to start with what I recommend, or at least believe is acceptable:
- Unsolicited testimonials with permission to publish. I get comments all the time on phone calls, emails, and web comments, thanking me or praising a service. Sometimes they’re so good I want to share them as a testimonial. I assume something posted to my website is already public, but if the message was sent to me privately or said on a phone call, then I ask the person’s permission to publicize it.
- Solicited testimonials. I don’t just rely on spontaneous praise, I also actively request comments through comment cards at conferences, post-purchase surveys, emails, website comment boxes, and, best of all, video comments. This provides valuable feedback on what I can improve, remove or add to my programs, as well as providing a store of potential testimonials. Again, though, it is important to get permission to reproduce the comments, either when you originally ask for the feedback, or later when you decide to use it.
- Rewriting testimonials. This one may be controversial, but here goes. As a long-time professional writer and editor, I believe people are often not very good at expressing themselves. I want my testimonials to be brief, clear and to convey the emotions of the person. Ideally, they should quantify the benefits the person gained. But instead I sometimes I get long rambling testimonials that bury the key points. I think it’s OK to rephrase what they say to make their point more effectively – if and only if you get their explicit agreement to the rewritten statement.
- Testimonials from people you’ve given testimonials to. When you are working with other business owners that you like and admire, there are going to be times when you use their services, and other times when they use yours. In giving, or getting, a testimonial from such business partners, there is a potential for abuse. The key is to be honest in your testimonials and never to make them conditional on getting one in return.
Now here’s my rules on what I think is ill-advised, worthless, or wrong:
- Anonymous or unverifiable testimonials. You don’t want to be like those late night infomercials, where “Jane from New York” swears it’s the best diet plan she ever tried. Have real people give testimonials with their full name and business/location, and if possible, their web address. This gives the testimony more credibility because people can check it is from a real person. Perhaps it’s someone they already know. And, if you give a website, they can check with the person that they really do rate your program.
- Bribed or coerced testimony. Don’t pay people for testimonials with money, goods or services. Don’t deprive people of services or relationships for not giving testimonials. And don’t require positive testimonials from people receiving your services (it’s okay to solicit them from all your customers, but their response, and any positive assessment, has to be voluntary.) Also, as mentioned in #4 above, don’t give or get positive testimonials as part of an exchange: if you are saying nice things about their business only because they agreed to praise your business, then you are both lying.
- Lies or misdirection. Obviously don’t lie or make stuff up – don’t create imaginary customers and don’t attribute comments to people who don’t agree with them. But also, don’t use a testimonial for one program to endorse another program. (It’s different if the testimonial is about you personally, then you can use it in this context with a different program.) It’s wrong to take someone’s words out of context to mislead the reader.
Tell me what you think? Am I being too rigid? Or too permissive? Are there some problems or rules I am overlooking? I’d love to hear your thoughts.