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How soon can I ask for a testimonial?

2003 August 29
by Malcolm Sleath

Question: I’ve recently started a personal coaching business and am planning a web site. I have clients at the moment but their programmes are not completed. It would help if I could have some testimonials on my site. Do you think it would be possible to ask clients to provide a testimonial in mid programme?

The short answer is no, but you still have several options. What I suggest you go for at this stage are not full-blown testimonials, but quotes. Even at an early stage it would be quite legitimate to ask clients about why they felt comfortable starting a coaching programme with you, and what their reactions are now they have had a few sessions. But I suggest you ask for this feedback for other reasons, and only later consider whether or not to request permission to use quotes in your publicity.

It is useful to ask for feedback, irrespective of whether you intend to publicise quotes. Asking if you can use quotes on your website is literally the last thing to do (I suggest how below). There are three audiences for quotes, and you should address them in the following order:

The client

We often have no idea how a client is reacting to the work we are doing with them. In coaching and consulting we often confront the client’s existing frame of reference and it’s not surprising if they don’t get too excited at the prospect of having their ideas overturned. They don’t always make appreciative noises. So it’s important to make some time in a session for them to reflect on what they are getting out of the coaching, how comfortable they feel, and so forth. This is a valuable opportunity for them to reflect.

You will often be pleasantly surprised. The client may well be happy but not tell you about it because they feel it is ‘sucking up to teacher’, or they may have got the idea that you are superhuman and don’t need the feedback. If, by any chance, the feedback is negative, then you have an opportunity to discuss this with the client and negotiate a change of approach (on their part or yours). Finally, your asking for feedback is often good modelling for the client.

You

We all need feedback. In the absence of positive feedback coaches and consultants can unconsciously try too hard. The client picks up the insecurity and the work becomes less effective, so the coach tries harder! Listen to the feedback from the client. You may find it reassuring. It will also reveal aspects of value in the relationship that you may not have thought of. It will help you to understand more about what you are doing. You may also decide to modify your approach in some areas.
Potential clients

When you have processed the feedback for your client and yourself, there may well be nuggets of feedback that you would like other people to know about. These are the short quotes you might like to put on your site under, “What my clients say”. At first you will be obliged to use quotes from relatively early stages. Don’t let that put you off. All quotes represent moments in time. If your coaching is any good, your client will still be learning from their coaching long after it is over. In life coaching, for example, to get the final verdict you might have to wait for the eulogies at the client’s memorial service, or even the Day of Judgment! So there is nothing wrong with asking for feedback before the project is complete. However, your timing in asking for permission to use quotes is most important.

Timing

If you engage the client in a discussion about feedback, make sure you do it for its own sake. Do not ‘contaminate’ the value of this session by asking for permission to use quotes at the same time. If you get excited and ask for permission to use a quote during or immediately after a feedback discussion, it could destroy any value in the process for the client.

If a good quote does come out of the discussion, I recommend that you leave it aside for at least one session, and then return to it by saying:

The other day, when we were discussing how we were doing, you said something that I thought would be useful for other potential clients to hear. Would you mind if I included it in the ‘what people say’ section of my website?

The client might be concerned about putting their name to it, but in the case of personal coaching it is likely that quotes would be anonymous anyway. Business-to-business testimonials are different, and should be attributed. In the case of personal quotes drawn from a confidential relationship, just make sure you keep some kind of verification on file in case of query.

So, to summarise: engage the client in a discussion about how things are going to help them raise their awareness of the value of the process, and to help you to improve what you do. If quotes emerge, then ask for permission to use them at a different time.