In my continuing series on differentiating your brand, I’m writing today about references and how you can develop them as a powerful way to stand out from your competitors.

I’m not talking about testimonials from happy customers here; I wrote about that idea yesterday. References can be distinctly different from testimonials in positioning your brand promise and in winning specific deals.

Here are five ways to accomplish that:

  1. ¬†Use your banker as a reference for financial capability. Big customers are often afraid that smaller companies don’t have the cash flow to wait longer for payments or to ramp up a new deal. Your banker can attest to your line of credit or even promise that a new line of credit will be extended to you if you get this deal.
  2. Use your HR firm as a reference. If you intend to grow fast and will need a steady stream of new employees, or if a specific deal will require you to add new people all at once in order to fulfill it, build a partnership with an HR placement firm that specializes in your industry. The leader of that firm can provide a reference as to your ability to ramp up because they will provide the best employees with all the necessary credentials.

  3. Use your best customers as references. Beyond testimonials, really good customers who have achieved great value from working with you may be willing to accept phone calls and discuss their experiences with prospective customers. You need to be careful not to abuse this privilege, but an occasional reference call will make some people feel good about helping you to grow your business. This is an especially good tactic with current customers who are reluctant to provide a case study or to allow you to use their name on your website.

  4. Use your mentor, coach, or business development program leader as a reference. Many growing companies make use of specific programs aimed at helping entrepreneurs to be successful. These range from inexpensive to free programs provided by your local Small Business Administration or SCORE¬†office to higher priced, selective programs like Young Presidents’ Organization. Or perhaps you are fortunate enough to be part of a business incubator or accelerator or part of a local or regional economic development program. The people who run these programs, your peers in the program, and your particular coach or mentor can attest to how you go about building your capabilities and how they will continue to help you succeed when you land your next big contract.

  5. Use your trade association or accreditation agency as a reference. Leaders of these groups have an independent credibility that will extend to you as a member. They can attest to your industry position, the strength of your capabilities, and your leadership in shaping the future of your company’s line of work. Even before you have established your credibility with a large number of customers, there are industry experts familiar with you and your company who can serve as effective references.