For most of this guide, we’ve operated under the principle: “ask and you shall receive.” However, it doesn’t always work that way when soliciting testimonials. Just because you approach a happy, engaged customer for a testimonial, you are not guaranteed that they will want or even be able to participate. So let’s talk about what are the key obstacles for successfully getting testimonials and how you can overcome some of these objections.
Objections for testimonials break down into two categories: hard objections (legal and policy related) and soft objections (more vanity and time oriented). In general, it is much easier to overcome the soft objections with persistence and accommodation than it is to overcome the hard objections.
Hard Objections to Testimonial Requests
Good news, bad news. If you’re a B2C marketer, you most likely will be able to avoid most hard objections since you’re dealing with individual consumers, not large companies. However, if you’re a B2B marketer, then you will almost certainly encounter hard objections to your testimonial requests. Specifically, the larger the company where the testimonial subject works, the more likely you will encounter hard objections.
A hard objection is when either industry or company policy prohibits or severely restricts a satisfied customer to provide an on the record testimonial. The customer may be a raving fan, but they need approval from an executive, their legal department, Public Relations (PR) department, or all three. This set of approvals adds a new set of hurdles to getting customers to speak on the record.
Obstacle #1: No Endorsement Policies.
Some companies have explicit corporate policies that prevent customers from naming and publicly endorsing vendors and their usage of a particular product or service. Customers can often get exceptions to these policies, but they require an intense back and forth negotiation with multiple stakeholders that don’t have much incentive to help you.
To get a testimonial approved at a large company with a no endorsement policy, you must first identify a willing subject and they must in turn get permission from their boss or line of business executive (usually VP level), plus they will often times need to run the testimonial content by their legal and PR teams. Each of these teams will review it on the basis of different criteria.
The legal team will want to ensure that the testimonial is completely factual and does not expose the corporation to any risk or false statements. As a result, they will be very cautious in what can and cannot be stated in the testimonial. It is not uncommon that a glowing authentic testimonial will be edited or severely watered down so that the strong assertions or quantified benefits are dramatically weakened. This is one of the reasons why when you see testimonials from large companies they often aren’t impactful or sound anything like an actual human might say. They say almost nothing at all! What a complete and utter waste.
PR teams will often want to review testimonials as well. PR will review testimonials for whether the message is on brand and places the company in a positive light. Their brand promise and goals will be different from yours. PR may ask the question why should our big brand be associated with your small brand? How does that help us?
You can get testimonials approved by these stakeholders, but be prepared to negotiate on content and also be professional, yet persistent in pushing them through these approval processes. Also, you should expect that these approval processes will add weeks if not months to the overall timeline before you can use a testimonial in your marketing.
Obstacle #2: Privacy and Regulatory Policies.
The regulatory and privacy environment that many firms operate within can be another impediment to getting a testimonial. Specifically, financial services and healthcare firms are particularly bound by stringent regulatory regimes.
In healthcare, marketers must ensure that the testimonials do not reveal any protected health information about a patient and any featured patient must complete an authorization release. Furthermore, the FDA has cracked down on patient testimonials and made sure that their contents and claims are totally consistent with the clinical trials and don’t go beyond those claims.
In the financial services industry, the SEC prohibits the use of client testimonials for financial advisors. As a result of the Investments Advisers Act of 1940 (206(4)-1(a)(1)), financial advisors cannot use testimonials concerning the investment advisor or concerning any advice, analysis, report or other service rendered by an investment advisor. However, other areas of the financial services industry don’t face these restrictions.
Strategies for Overcoming Hard Objections
Hard objections represent the biggest impediment to collecting high impact testimonials. Your success in getting larger companies, particularly in heavily regulated industries, to participate and approve testimonials depends directly on how much social capital and goodwill you can develop with the customer and the organization in general. If you can get your customer to go to bat with the powers that be and particularly curry favor with a high level executive, then you greatly improve your odds of getting approval. Remember when dealing with a larger organization, expect and prepare for a lengthy negotiation and be professional, yet persistent in moving the request through the various approvals.
Above and beyond building social capital with your customers, there are two other strategies that you can employ to avoid the hard objections to your testimonial requests.
Strategy #1: Pre-Negotiated Marketing Approvals.
In B2B sales deals, you can either insert language into your sales contracts that the customer agrees to participate as a testimonial. Ideally, you want to be as specific as possible as to what activities and types of testimonials you expect from them. Tying a testimonial request to the sale brings the issue of references and approvals to the forefront and can prevent the customer from saying “no” for policy reasons at a later date. At the negotiation phase, you have the most leverage particularly if it is a large, strategic deal for the customer. However, there is a downside to this strategy. It adds yet another friction point that must be negotiated. Often, sales people won’t push for this type of language, since they would rather close the deal and get the commission, than push hard for the customer marketing provision.
Strategy #2: Anonymous or Blinded Attribution.
Another option for large customers who won’t go on the record is to obscure their personal identity or obfuscate the name of their firm. For example, you can refer to a customer by their title or just their first name and last initial to obscure their identity (e.g. Director of IT Infrastructure or Mary S.). Likewise, you can refer to their company by their industry and size of organization (e.g. Ford Motor becomes a “Fortune 500 Automotive Manufacturer”). There are clear drawbacks to this approach since it lessens the impact and authenticity of the testimonial. However, it is often the only way to get high impact testimonials approved at large organizations.
We discuss this topic in greater depth in the 'How to Attribute Your Testimonials.' below.
Soft Objections to Testimonial Requests
In addition to the hard objections that we just discussed, there are a number of soft objections to providing a testimonial that you may encounter. A soft objection is when the subject is either non-committal or repeatedly delays providing a testimonial. There are three main reasons for a subject to delay or decline.
Objection #1: Busy / Inconvenient
Testimonial candidates are preoccupied with their work and their life and providing a testimonial is not high on their priority list. You can mitigate this objection by being considerate of their time and doing all the legwork to ensure providing a testimonial is as simple as possible.
What To Do: You can draft the testimonial for them and then have them approve or edit it via email. For a video, you can provide the questions and potential talking points in advance and ensure that you schedule the video shoot at a time of maximum convenience for them.
Typically, you can overcome this objection by being patient, persistent, and making the process as smooth and painless as possible.
Objection #2: Camera Shy
Some customers will seek out the limelight, while others prefer a low profile. 75% of the population suffers from the fear of public speaking. These fears can be overcome, but it takes understanding and coaching to build the subject’s confidence. Some testimonial subjects are comfortable speaking on camera as part of their job, but others are unfamiliar or afraid to do it.
What To Do: Be reassuring. Coach the customer on what makes an effective video testimonial. Emphasize that you care more about authenticity than polished speaking.
The more that you can create talking points and encourage them, the easier it is to build their confidence and overcome their fear of being on camera. Examples of other authentic customer video testimonials can also help make your customers more comfortable with clear expectations
Objection #3: Not a Raving Fan
Some customers may be satisfied customers, but not advocates of your brand. The Net Promoter System (NPS) refers to people who give 7 or 8 (a high score on a 10 point scale) on a NPS survey as neutral. They are neither promoters nor detractors. When engaging a customer who is satisfied, but not a true advocate, it may feel like you’re rolling a boulder up a hill to get a quality testimonial. It is better to put the time in upfront determining whether they are a true advocate than it is spent trying to lead a reluctant satisfied customer to provide a strong testimonial
What To Do: Be direct with your customer and what you want from them. Ask them whether they would be comfortable providing a testimonial, but give them ample opportunity to decline your offer and still feel ok about themselves and preserve the customer relationship.
For example, you could say: “Some of our most passionate customers provide us a testimonial or agree to be filmed for a video. We recognize that this is a huge commitment, but are indebted to those who agree to do it. Does this sound like something you would be willing to do? It is ok if it doesn’t make sense at present. We’ll still be friends regardless. :-)” An offer like this gives them an opportunity to decline and preserves the existing customer relationship regardless of their decision.
How to Attribute Your Testimonials
Once you’ve gotten that killer testimonial, you will need to determine how best to cite the customer. The citation depends on a number of factors. In B2C markets, citing the name of the customer with or without some relevant demographic or psychographic information may be sufficient. Examples include:
- Joe J.
- Anja, California resident
- Guadalupe Gomez, Mom of an 8 year old boy
- Tim Nichols, Video Gamer
In B2B marketing, you typically cite customers with their name, professional role or title, industry, and organization affiliation. Examples include:
- VP of DevOps at Fortune 500 Financial Services Company
- Bob, Healthcare Operations
- Manjit Singh, Director of IT, Acme Systems
- Lauren Lockwood, Chief Marketing Officer at Green Apple, Inc.
Ideally, you would want a fully named testimonial with a video of the customer speaking on the record. That is the dream! However, it isn’t always the reality. Customers may demur or their organizations won’t approve the request. As a result, you may be forced to choose between various levels of anonymity.
Here are the different citation options and their relative pros and cons.
Three Legal Tips When Obtaining Testimonial Approval
There are some legal rules of thumb to consider when seeking approval for a testimonial. Consult your corporate counsel if you are unsure about the process, since different companies approach this topic differently.
In the case of testimonials, copyright, trademark, and privacy laws all come into play. In the US, copyright law states that anyone who contributes content and ideas like customer reviews and testimonials owns the underlying material. Privacy laws require consent to use other people’s identity and images in footage or photographs. Meanwhile, trademark law governs the use of corporate logos and registered marks.
Thus, a testimonial, whether it is written or a video, typically includes a customer’s logo (a corporate trademark), the name, picture or video recording of the testimonial subject (protected under privacy laws), and their user generated content (e.g. the written or video testimonial or review submission protected under copyright laws). Given that you want free rights to use the testimonial however you see fit in your marketing, you will need to obtain broad waivers from the owner (e.g. testimonial subject) to reproduce, modify, and distribute it (e.g. post on your site and share on the Internet). Many companies and websites comply with these laws by obtaining a signed release so that they can in turn share, distribute, and modify testimonials as they choose. You should always ensure that you have the appropriate rights to use a testimonial, before leveraging it in your marketing campaign. Otherwise, you risk having to remove the testimonial from your website and marketing materials at a later date or worse.
Tip #1: Obtain Written Approval from Your Customers
You should always get a customer’s approval before using their likeness and their words in your marketing. Luckily, this doesn’t need to be a major undertaking. A simple email from the customer approving the request should suffice and no legal documents or signatures need to be traded. The approval should always be written and not just verbal. If you get a verbal ok, then you should follow up with a written email confirming the verbal approval and to document it.
There are three common scenarios that you may run into when seeking written approval. First, you have identified a happy customer and are drafting a testimonial on behalf of the customer. This is the easiest scenario. Save the email chain and keep a central folder of all approvals that you receive.
Second, you come across an audio or video recording, a social media post, or witness a customer speaking at an event and you want to excerpt a quote and attribute it to them. In this scenario, you should reach out to the customer via email, state the source and context of the quote, and get their permission to use it. Make sure to save this email exchange for documentation purposes as well.
Third, if you are collecting the testimonials through a website, form, or other online means, you should ensure that there is language that asserts that you have the rights to use the user generated content submitted. For example, it is common to see language like this in the user agreement or on the page where the submission occurs:
“by posting or submitting content on our site, you grant the company a non-exclusive, worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, unrestricted, royalty-free, fully paid-up, transferable license, with the right to sublicense (through multiple tiers), to use, copy, publicly perform, digitally perform, publicly display and distribute (through multiple tiers) such contributed content, and to sell, modify, create derivative works from and/or to incorporate such contributed content into other works in any form, medium or technology, whether now known or hereafter developed, in each case, for any purpose whatsoever, commercial or otherwise, without compensation to you. You agree to waive any moral rights that you may have to your contributed content.”
This kind of legalese grants you the ability to use, reproduce, and modify anything a customer submits. You can also create subsequent versions, for any reason – and not pay money for the content’s use. In this case, the act of submitting content represents a tacit approval and you do not need additional written or email documentation.
Tip #2: Get a Release for Video and Photo Use
Things get a tad more complicated when you want to make a video testimonial. Privacy laws require an individual to give consent before their likeness can be used as a photo or in footage. In this case, a simple email approval does not suffice. Before filming a customer, you must get a signed video release whereby the customer gives you written permission and agrees to waive any compensation. An example of a typical video release can be found here.
In the case of Vocal Video, a testimonial subject grants Vocal and its customers a video release as part of the submission process. By contributing video to Vocal, the testimonial subject is in effect submitting user generated content and its submission is a tacit video release in of itself.
Tip #3: Don’t Lift Testimonials from Review Websites
Review sites like Yelp, Zillow, G2 Crowd, Capterra, TripAdvisor, and many others can be a goldmine of customer testimonials. If you see a good testimonial, don’t just copy and paste it onto your own website. That is a recipe for disaster since you don’t have rights to the content.
Per US copyright law, user generated content is the property of the person who contributed the content (e.g. wrote the review). However, according to the US Small Business Administration, most review sites have terms in their user agreements that give them exclusive access and distribution rights to the contributed content. In this case, you must obtain written approval from the review site and that requires dealing with a large company’s legal department. No fun!
If you are successful in obtaining permission, the review site usually imposes restrictions in how you can use or display the content. They almost certainly will have citation guidelines and require a link back to the original content. To preserve maximum flexibility, the ideal situation is to ask customers directly for a testimonial. That way you have the rights to use the testimonials in any way possible.
We're written the ultimate guide to leveraging customer testimonials - check it out in The Definitive Guide to Testimonials.