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References and case studies for your agency

Another day, another rant from Chip and Gini. This time they have references and case studies on their minds.

The co-hosts come down firmly against spending time developing and publishing case studies, explaining that agencies are better off demonstrating expertise in conversations with prospects by tying past experiences to current challenges.

When it comes to references, both Chip and Gini have regularly provided them in the past. However, they both question the value of them — as well as the burden it places on those who agree to serve as references.

Key takeaways

  • Gini Dietrich: “No more RFPs. No more proposals. No more case studies. No more references. Just go win some business.”
  • Chip Griffin: “Everything that you thought you should be doing as an agency owner, everything that you get told to do by a lot of other advisors, we’re telling you don’t.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “Build your reputation, build your brand, then your reputation will precede you and you won’t be asked for those things.
  • Chip Griffin: “Frankly, my belief is that most prospects aren’t reading any of your website, let alone your case studies.”

The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And Gini, you know, I realize before I started working with you on this podcast, I forgot to ask for your references. Maybe I should do that.

Yeah, let me, let me go take care of that right now.

No, I’m not really gonna do that.

Gini Dietrich: Whew. First of all, my volume was very loud. Whew. .

Chip Griffin: Well, hopefully our listeners are not having the same issue. . Hopefully.

Gini Dietrich: You’re not gonna ask for my references?

Chip Griffin: I’m not gonna ask.

Gini Dietrich: That’s good because it’s been like, how long has it been? Five years? I feel like you probably should be one of my references at this point.

Chip Griffin: It has been almost five years. Wow. That’s, yeah. You’re making me feel old Gini.

Gini Dietrich: Well, if the shoe fits.

Chip Griffin: Wow. Wow. That’s, that’s harsh. Alright, well, you know, maybe we’ll give some harsh advice too today because we’re gonna be talking about a couple of things that agency owners seem to love, they’re always worried about and focused on, but I’m pretty sure that you agree with me that they’re not worth the time and money that they take.

That’s references and case studies, so yes, indeed. Let’s dump on a few of the popular things in the agency industry once again, shall we?

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. We’re getting good at this. No more RFPs. No more proposals. No more case studies. No more references. Just go win some business. There you go.

Chip Griffin: Everything that you thought you should be doing as an agency owner, everything that you get told to do by a lot of other advisors, we’re telling you don’t.

Gini Dietrich: No more.

Chip Griffin: Knock it off.

Gini Dietrich: No mas. Yep. As I say to the kids around here, no mas. Let’s go. No mas.

Chip Griffin: All right, so let’s, let’s, let’s start with references. So references it. It’s incredibly common, really, frankly, in a lot of professional services businesses, but particularly with agencies for prospective clients to, at some point along the way, say, do you have any references that I can talk to?

Do you have any clients who you’ve had success with who I could have a, a conversation with, in order to understand how you work, what you do, and whether it’s worth my time and money to invest in you.

Gini Dietrich: Yes. And.

Chip Griffin: I was, I was trying to tee you up.

Gini Dietrich: Oh, oh, oh. Yeah. Well, you have a, you have a,…

Chip Griffin: we are running really smoothly today. Firing on all cylinders.

Gini Dietrich: I told you I was grumpy today.

Chip Griffin: Yes, you, yes you did. Did. Um, but you promised me it wouldn’t be directed at me. So direct it at the dear listeners.

Gini Dietrich: I will direct it at references and case studies. Okay. So I will say that we do provide references if asked. It’s not something that we normally hand out just as part of the new business process.

But if asked, we do provide them. It has been years. Years since we’ve been asked for, for references, and I always have a list of, you know, current and, and former clients we’ve had success with. But truth be told, like it’s, it’s like references with an, with a candidate, right? They’re only gonna give you the people who are gonna say great things about you.

So they kind of are moot point, I think. Like I have a list of probably seven or eight that I would refer people to, but they will all say wonderful, raving things about us. They won’t say anything negative about us. They won’t say any, they won’t describe any area that we weren’t successful, which I’m sure in some cases we were unsuccessful and made some mistakes, but they won’t. These are not the references that we use.

So just like with candidates, I kind of think they’re dumb because you’re, you’re only going to get the good, you’re not gonna get the, the neutral or the negative.

Chip Griffin: Right yeah. I mean, so, certainly the, the value of them to this prospective client isn’t nearly as high as the prospective client thinks. But I, I think that one of the reasons why you don’t get asked for references all that often goes back to some of the things that we’ve talked about previously when it comes to winning business, which is that you’re not talking to people blind.

You’re not talking to people through some cold RFP process or some dog and pony show. You’re talking to people who have already learned about you before they come into the process. They’ve consumed content from Spin Sucks. They’ve heard you speak somewhere, they’ve listened to this podcast. They have a sense as to who you are.

So folks like that have a lot less of a need or a desire to ask you for a reference. So I think if you’re, if you’re frequently getting asked for references, that’s probably an indication that you may want to think about how you’re warming up your prospects before they get to the sales stage. Right? So that’s, to me, that’s the first thing.

The second thing is, I, I have actually come around to the, the way of thinking that says just no. If I get asked for a reference now the answer is just straight up, Nope. And, and, and I’m sort of, I’m, I’m pulling from David C. Baker who has talked about this in the past. If assuming my memory is serving me correctly and if I’m falsely attributing this to him, my apologies, but I’m pretty sure it’s correct. And it sounds like him too.

Gini Dietrich: It does sound like him. Yeah, it does.

Chip Griffin: It does sound like him. So, and I believe, if I recall correctly, his position was that you shouldn’t provide references because you’re asking your current clients or former clients to do work on your behalf that’s uncompensated, that essentially can turn into free advice for the prospective client.

And so those are not things that they signed up for when they became a client of yours. And so for all of those reasons, I have become comfortable now just saying no and, and layer it on to the fact that I think we’ve talked about this before. When I work with people, and this has been true in my agencies as well as now as a, a coach and consultant.

I’ve always had a 30 day out for clients. Right. So the risk to them is very low. And so they’re going to find out more in those first 30 days of working with me and my team than anything that they could find out from a reference. Because you’re right, nobody’s gonna give a reference who’s gonna say, ah, Gini, God, she was a pain to deal with. You’d have to be crazy to do that.

Gini Dietrich: So, but I think there’s a, a middle ground here. So two things. One is that you’re right, I think that we haven’t been asked for references because I spend a huge amount of time building our reputation and our brand. And so we’re already well known, right? And so by that time somebody comes to us, they’re coming to us based on our reputation.

So if you’re going to do anything, It’s to, it’s to build your reputation and your brand, and you can do that digitally. You can do it through content, you can do it through social media. There’s lots of ways that you can do that. Totally different topic for another time. But you know, if you’re not, if you’re going to want to do away with RFPs and proposals and references and case studies, these are the kinds of things that you should do.

Build your reputation, build your brand, then your reputation will precede you and you won’t be asked for those things. However, if you are asked for references, and I think you have a really good sort of middle ground here, which is ask them for references too. Great. So you’ve worked with agencies in the past, let us talk to those agencies and it’s sort of quid pro quo.

Chip Griffin: Right. And, and, and again, if my memory is serving me correctly, that’s a bit of advice that I heard David C. Baker relay. And, and again, I agree with that, right? I mean, if, because it’s just as important for you and the risk is substantial for the agency in taking on a client who might be a bad fit. So why shouldn’t you ask for references in the other direction if they want your references, let’s trade, let’s find out.

Yes. I mean, you know, frankly, job seekers should probably do the same thing. Yes. Right? Yes. If the employer is asking you for references, you might as well ask the, the boss, you know, whoever you’re gonna be reporting to, I’d like some references on you. Yep. Because how many times have, have we heard horror stories about someone who goes to work for just a bad manager?

Yep. You know, maybe you could have found that out in a reference check. Probably not. Love that. They’re probably gonna give people who, you know, think that they were, you know, good managers. So to me, references overall in almost every context are silly. But if, if you’re gonna do them, why not trade?

Gini Dietrich: I totally agree with that. And I also, I mean, from a candidate perspective, one of the things we do is we do ask for references and then we look to see where we have first and second connections, especially on LinkedIn. Right. And we ask those people. Right. So it’s less about the people that you’re given giving us to check and more about the people that are connected to those people that we can, we can ask.

So there are ways that I think you can work around that. I think if you’re asking for previous agencies to talk to, you’re probably going to get an unfiltered response, which is good. And I you should be asking for that. Especially if it’s a prospect who’s been through several agencies in the last couple of years.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, I mean, I’ll be honest, I’ve never tried this approach, but my, my personal speculation would be they will immediately fold. And say, well, we, we don’t really need to do this. This is.

Gini Dietrich: And then you’re like, oh. Hmm. Okay.

Chip Griffin: Because I mean, how, how many times does, does a client move from one agency to the next, and it didn’t end at least somewhat poorly.

Right? More often than not. More than yes. It, it, it ended up not being a fit for some reason. Otherwise they would likely still be with them. Now it’s not always the case, and so I’m not always saying that that, but more often than not one side or the other, and probably the agency isn’t particularly thrilled with that former client, so totally agree.

Yes. Yeah. All right. So, so, you know, we, we’ve beaten up on references, case studies. This is, this is one I get asked a lot, you know, how many case studies do I need? How detailed should they be? You know, what do I, you know, I, I was just talking with an agency owner last week who said, you know, I, I’m, I’m looking at the case studies on our website, and they’re kind of out date.

I, I know I need to update them. And to that, my question usually is why? Are people actually reading them? Frankly, my belief is that most prospects aren’t reading any of your website, let alone your case studies. Let alone downloading the more detailed ones that you provide.

Gini Dietrich: Correct. That’s right. That’s exactly right.

Chip Griffin: So if you have already done them, my first suggestion is to find out are they even being used?

My guess is no. My guess is you’ve already put in a lot of work so why put in more work?

Gini Dietrich: I can guarantee they’re not. I can guarantee it.

Chip Griffin: But, but apart from the fact that they’re not really consumed, the, to me, the other issue with case studies is it, it really tries to boil down the entirety of an agency relationship into, you know, one page or a couple of pages, and there’s so much more to it.

It’s cherry picking. I mean, to me it’s, it’s like the submission, a case study is kind of like the submissions for an award, right? It’s so cherry picked and, and so distorted that, that I don’t, I frankly, have yet to see an agency case study that I fully believe. And I don’t mean that in the terms of, I don’t think they achieved good results for the client.

I think in most cases they probably did. Otherwise, it would be kind of crazy to go out there and put out a, a case study for someone that you didn’t actually perform for. But are, are the, the numbers that are in there are the, you know, it, to me, it just, it, it, it’s unlikely to be as true as it seems because of the way it gets boiled down.

Gini Dietrich: So I am going to give you some advice that I got when I started speaking publicly to groups of people. I was working with a speech coach and he said, a speaking coach, not a speech coach. And he said, I, I know how to speak. He said to me, instead of providing a case study, here’s what’s more effective. Begin – like when you’re in a new business meeting and you’re having conversation and you ask a question and they say, well, you know, we really, what we’re really struggling with is how to drive leads from our content. And you can say, oh, great. With, in our experience with such and such organization, here’s what we did.

Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. So you talk through how you solve that pain and what kinds of results you got and, and it works great in speaking too, because when you’re speaking to large audiences, all of a sudden they start thinking oh. , she can help me with that. I didn’t even realize I had that pain. But now that she says that, so when you’re speaking, that’s a great tactic.

But also when you’re one-on-one in new business meetings, you can use that tactic as as well. So instead of having something that’s downloadable and beautiful that nobody ever reads, you have the conversation because you’re asking the questions. You’re asking, you know, what are your, your major pain points?

Why, why are you not working with your former agency? What are you looking for When you are asking those kinds of questions, you can answer or have conversation with them by sprinkling in your experience without having to have them download something that’s big and beautiful and read it. Because they’re just not going to do it.

Chip Griffin: Well, and and the beauty is that it’s much more relevant because you’re being contextual to the actual conversation, correct? Yes. That you’re having. Yes. So you’re not cherry picking something that, oh, well this is one that I could, I was, I’ve got permission to use it. And you know, the logo is one that people will respond to.

And all of the things that go into deciding what case studies you’re going to actually publish, because in those conversations you can often share things that you couldn’t publish on your website. Right. You can make it very relevant. By the way, it doesn’t require any prep or shouldn’t because you should remember the things that you’ve done for clients in the past.

Yeah. And so you shouldn’t need to prep or study or, because it should just be top of mind because you’re an expert and you’re sharing your expertise. And if you are in a position with a client where they say, here’s my problem, and you’re like, I have no idea how to solve it, you probably shouldn’t be trying to pitch them on that solution then. You, you should probably be trying to find something that is a fit.

Gini Dietrich: Probably. That’s good advice. That’s very good advice.

Chip Griffin: Instead trying to, to, to make something up or say, well, I have to go figure that one out. Or, yeah. You know, I mean, that doesn’t mean you have all of the answers all of the time. Sometimes a prospect does stump you with something, but you know, hopefully you can still tie it back in general terms to something that you’ve done previously. And so it demonstrates your expertise, your ability to think on your feet, your ability to provide solutions that are good fits for them, and it demonstrates that you’ve done it successfully in the past. So that is a much, much better way of going about things than spending hours and hours and hours fretting over case studies and getting permissions and then, oh my God, that client has left. Do we need to take down their case study? Right. Do I, you know, do we need to come up with a new one now? Right. Oh my God. Now we’ve only got one case study on the website. Now I gotta hurry up and get two more. I mean, it just, the, the craziness around case studies just blows my mind.

You could spend that time so much more valuably from a business development standpoint. You could actually, I don’t know, talk to people.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. Right. I, you know, I, I just, you’re right in that this goes to award entries as well, and I forgot that in my list of things, we’re no longer doing award entries as well. But that’s usually why you create a case study, right?

Is to, to submit it to an award entry. But I’m telling you, nobody reads it. And actually, three years ago we had one client, a, a big, huge client of ours on the agency side that had tons and tons of written case studies and they wanted to update ’em when we were like, Let’s look and see, and this is, this is not an agency owner.

This is a, a corporation, a software as a service corporation. I said, let’s look and see what kinds of results you’re getting from the, these case studies. And it was tiny, negligible. It was like nothing. So what we did is we took all of that and we chopped it up into smaller pieces. In some cases we created videos, 30 second videos where we went back to the, to the client and we said, Hey, we did this case study with you several years ago. We’d love to just have you say this quote that you have in here on video. And then we use that in email and in content. And we, we took all the case studies and we’ve parceled it up into smaller pieces of content that we shared in email and on social media.

And that worked incredibly well. But it was bite-sized chunks and it wasn’t something they had to download. It was something that arrived in their email as they’re thinking about is this company a company I want to work with? So it was part of our lead nurturing program and it worked incredibly well. But bite size like 30 second videos, one paragraph copy like tight, teeny, tiny things that were easy to consume either on social media or email, and that worked incredibly well.

But these huge case studies that are four pages with problem solution, tactics and results.

Chip Griffin: Right. I mean, the, the problem is that, that both sides in the business development equation do a lot of things that, that aren’t particularly useful, but consume a lot of time, right? So when you’ve got a prospect who’s asking you for references or case studies or those kinds of things, a lot of that is because they’re not ready to make a decision yet, and it’s a way to continue to move to sort of kick the can down the road without just saying to you it’s gonna be another month before we have some idea, right? They, they come up with something that prolongs the process and keeps it moving forward, right? Cause they’re right, they just haven’t decided to pull the trigger. But they don’t wanna either say no or it’s gonna be a while because it’s uncomfortable to say those things.

On the agency side references get developed, case studies get developed, credentials decks get worked on, the website gets updated. All of those things happen. in part because people think there is value there, but in part because it’s a way to confront your business development problem without having to actually go out and talk to people.

Gini Dietrich: You’re right, you’re exactly right.

Chip Griffin: So It becomes a way to feel like you’re doing something. I, I know I’ve got a business development issue. I know I’ve gotta get revenue. I’m going to do these things because they do contribute to revenue. And they kind of do. But you know what? If you didn’t have a credentials deck or a website or a case study or references, if you just reached out and started to talk to people in your network, you would have a much better chance of closing new business than any of those other things would do. So focus on those only after everything else is firing on all cylinders.

Gini Dietrich: And only if you’re asked, because you’re not going to be asked, nobody wants to see your four page case study. They don’t.

Chip Griffin: And, and it, it’s really, it is a proxy for saying, I don’t trust your expertise. Right? And so what you need to do is figure out how to demonstrate your expertise to them in another way that’s more fruitful and so inviting a conversation where you talk about what their challenges are and you can share specific examples of how you’ve addressed that in the past or how you’ve seen that same challenge and that they’re not alone, that you know, this is something that needs to be worked on.

All of that helps a lot more than having some canned case study that appeals to, you know, 2% of your prospects and, you know, one 10th of those people. Whatever that is. Two tenths of 1%. actually end up downloading it and even when they download it they don’t read it.

Gini Dietrich: They don’t read it. No one reads it.

Chip Griffin: Zero people have read it. Right. It’s like half these websites that I get asked to look at. Can, can you look at the copy on my website? I’m, I’ll look at the headline. The, the headings, right, because that’s all anybody’s looking. Nobody is reading the paragraph text on your website.

Gini Dietrich: That’s right. Nobody. The google spiders are, so you should do it for that, but you’re right, absolutely. Human beings are not.

Chip Griffin: And, and so it needs to be human readable for that one strange bird who does decide to read it, right? Yes. So you don’t want it to read like SEO copy, but the reality is there’s no need to perfect that wordsmithing because nobody is going to read it.

Frankly you are probably not reading it yourself. So , right? At least I hope you didn’t, based on some of the copy issues that I’ve seen on some websites

Gini Dietrich: Oh dear, like maybe mine. No more RFPs. No more proposals. No more references. No more case studies. No more awards, no more credentials decks.

Six things you no longer have to do to win business.

Chip Griffin: See, we’ve just freed up so much time for agency owners and, and how often do you hear from an agency owner that they just don’t have enough time in the day? All the time. We just solved that for you.

Gini Dietrich: You’re welcome.

Chip Griffin: Just cleared up hours and hours every month for you. So with that, that will draw to an end this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And it depends.

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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