It's easy to dismiss testimonials as a little old school, but in reality, they are very powerful tools that can increase a businesses credibility in extraordinary ways. In my opinion they are more important than ever, and many businesses don't even bother to collect them.

What are the benefits of having testimonials?

Let's be honest, we are all somewhat cynical. We certainly don't believe everything we are told, especially when it comes to advertising. But we do believe other people. This is the reason that sites such as Trip Advisor have flourished and social media in general has become such a force to be reckoned with.

A testimonial means that the person giving it is putting their reputation with their own tribe on the line. If they give a testimonial and the business doesn't live up to what they have to say, their reputation is damaged. So it is a very significant bond between the business getting the testimonial and the individual giving it.

A business that has a good number of current testimonials, from a diverse group of customers, is much more appealing to potential customers than one without. It's kind of like other members of the tribe have tested the business for you and given it two thumbs up, so your risk is reduced.

What is the best way to ask for testimonials?

Many business owners really struggle with asking for testimonials. There is almost a sense of embarrassment around asking for them, perhaps some concern that people will think their business is not doing so well. This is the first hurdle to overcome. You have to believe in the importance of testimonials and always be prepared to ask for them.

An approach that I suggest follows this kind of script: "Mary I just wanted to say thank you using my business. I really appreciate it. In fact I am really committed to growing my business and I would love more wonderful customers just like you. So can I ask you to refer your friends and could you possibly write me a short testimonial. Here are a couple of examples, just one or two lines would be great. Are you happy to do that now for me? "

This approach engages the customer and asks for their help. It is very persuasive and from my experience, most people are very happy to give a testimonial on the spot. At the same time you have asked them to refer other people to your business - a double whammy.

Asking people to write reviews on social media sites is a good move to. The best way to do this is to send them an email with a link to the sites, and specific pages, where you want them to comment. Make it as easy as possible for people to write the review, something often overlooked.

What should you ask to ensure it's not a generic response?

Some people prefer to give their customers a short testimonial brief to make it easier. This is a good idea as many people have no idea what to say when it comes to writing a testimonial, so a simple sheet with some suggestions - like tell us what you like most about dealing with us, what would make you come back again, what did you expect before you used us and what is one word that you would use to sum up the experience of working with us? Keep testimonials short and sharp. It is OK to have an occasional longer one, but don't make your testimonials war and peace, who has the time?

Who are the best testimonial candidates?

I find that it is important to collect testimonials from people who really are my target markets. For example, when it comes to my books, I want testimonials from small business owners who can share their own experiences with my books and the advice that I  have given them. This encourages other like minded small business owners to buy my books.

To make this work, you really need to know whom your ideal customers are. A lot of businesses aren't that clear on this point and they really should be.

How often should you review testimonials?

If you are trying to build your business on testimonials that are 10 years old, it's time to get some new ones. Consumers look long and hard at our testimonials to see not just who is giving them but also when they are giving them. If your reputation is based on what people said ten years ago, new customers will automatically be suspicious and ask why haven't you got any new testimonials?

I tend to leave dates out of my testimonials on my own promotional material, which makes them timeless, but this is harder to control when it comes to social media.

Collecting testimonials is also a great form of quality control. I think we should be asking as many of our clients as we can for testimonials. If they don't want to give us a testimonial, why not? Perhaps they are not happy with our products or services and we need to know this. So if you are asking for testimonials, be certain to have a way of managing the process if a customer says they don't want to give one.

One last point

Getting testimonials is one half of the process. Using them correctly is the other half. We should have our testimonials on our websites, in our printed promotional material, in proposals (I give a list of 10 past clients and their phones numbers, who can be contacted to discuss my work - no one ever rings them, but everyone makes a comment about how impressive this is).

Testimonials are powerful, essential and free marketing tools that have always been important. Today they are vital. We live in a world of incredible choice. Any business that has a legion of raving fans who are prepared to come out and not only share their experience but also recommend that others use this business, has a huge competitive advantage.