You've applied for a job or pitched a new customer. Interest seemed high, and you've provided a list of references in hopes of closing the deal. But do you know exactly what those references will say, and whether--even inadvertently--they're failing to make you seem like a top contender?
Before you give a reference, your best strategy is to know exactly what that reference will say. And while it can seem awkward to prepare a reference for questions he or she may receive, that's exactly what you should do. That advice comes from career counselor Peter K. Studner, author of the book and website Super Job Search IV. Here's the approach he recommends:
1. Choose your references carefully.
You want your reference to not only sing your praises, but also to support any claims you've made about your skills, or the qualities of your product and service. So try to choose people who've had specific experiences that will show you and your work in the best light. If you're referring customers, look for those who can tell a good story about how your product or service solved a problem in exactly the way you want to promote. If you're applying for a job, consider former managers--but also people you've managed and helped to mentor, particularly if you're looking for a managerial position.
"In addition, put some thought into how your references might present you to potential employers," Studner advises. "Effective references are good communicators who can discuss you and your work in an objective manner without exaggerating." A reference who's bad at communication, impossible to reach, or who will offer an unnecessarily long-winded tribute might do you more harm than good.
2. Figure out how each reference can best help you.
An innocent comment about your personality or approach can easily raise a red flag with a hiring manager or cautious customer, so try to have as good an idea as you can of what your reference might say. If you can, set the stage by letting each reference know the specific skills or benefits of the product you would like them to mention. This might be different from reference to reference, and depending on the customer or job you're seeking.
3. Meet with your references.
Ideally, Studner says, this should be an in-person meeting, but you can also talk by phone or video chat if that's impractical. Keep in mind that, both for the meeting and for the reference itself, you're asking someone to sacrifice his or her time--the most precious commodity any professional has these days. So use that time wisely, and express your appreciation.
4. Ask the tough questions.
That is, the same tough questions that a prospective customer or employer is likely to ask. An employer might ask why you left the company, what your greatest areas for improvement were, and whether they would hire you again. If you're applying for a managerial position, they will ask about your leadership skills. They are also likely to ask who else in the company managed you--and then also contact these others and ask for their thoughts as well, even if you did not list them as a reference. Both you and your reference should be prepared for this question.
A prospective customer may ask about anything that went wrong with your product or service, whether they would purchase it again, and may also ask if your reference can refer them to any other of your current or past customers. They may also enquire about any price concessions you made. Your reference should be prepared to answer all of these.
5. Keep in touch.
Don't think of your references as a one-time need. They're an asset to your career just like your rÃ©sumÃ© or branding materials. So keep them in the loop about jobs you've applied for or customers you've pitched so they're not caught by surprise when these companies get in touch. If appropriate, ask the reference to let you know if they've been contacted and how the conversation went.
Going forward, nurture the relationship. Look for opportunities to send your reference useful articles or make introductions that might benefit him or her. Remember that references can make or break your career. "Don't treat references as an afterthought," Studner says.