Being able to disclose customer names in promotion of your product or service, whether your offering is B2B or B2C, in most cases, is not a volume sales driver. It won’t move the needle. It won’t start the flywheel. But it is an important sign of validation.
3 Bad Things That Can Happen if You Don’t Ask Permission
- You can damage your relationship with the customer.
- You can further damage your reputation when that customer name comes off your website, or if it gets out that they asked you to remove it, or even by word of mouth, which you can’t control.
- The customer can sue you.
When your customer is a B2B customer, they don’t think “Oh, well if Google uses Product X then I need to be using Product X.” But they will think, “Oh, well if Google uses Product X, then Product X is probably legit.”
To a startup, that can mean a lot.
In B2C, there is just too much fakery going on to believe that almost any consumer of any product is real. So I’d recommend just making it a numbers game, as in “10,000 customers trust Product X.”
But in B2B, customer validation can indeed be a big deal, and customer badges and testimonials can help establish that validation. That said, getting that permission usually follows the business Catch-22 rule stating the more important a thing is to have, the harder it is to get.
Here’s an example of how marketing permission happens in the real world, with recommendations.
They’re Going to Say No
A little while back, I got a question from the founder and CEO of a company that developed a B2B high-skill technology-based training aid. They had just landed a big contract, a similarly huge deal to one they had signed a few months earlier.
The previous customer had expressly prohibited the company from using their name for marketing purposes. The CEO was afraid that the new customer might do the same. So the CEO was wondering, essentially, if it was a good idea to apologize later instead of asking permission first.
Now, I’m not naive. I know three things:
- The customer’s reflexive response is going to be outright refusal.
- There are a slew of business tactics for which you need to flip the script and just do the thing and apologize later.
- They’re your customer, so you kind of have the right to let people know that. Right?
No. “Apologize later” absolutely does not apply here. It’s trademark infringement if you advertise a customer by name without permission.
How to Negotiate Permission
You start with the boilerplate in your contract:“Customer agrees that the Company may use Customer’s name and may disclose that Customer is a customer of the Company in advertising, press, promotion and similar public disclosures upon the prior written consent of Customer (such consent not to be unreasonably withheld or delayed).”
There. Let the lawyers start tearing that apart. The negotiating carrot is “written permission,” meaning you give them the option to agree now and say no later. This clears up any potential issues, such as your customer suing you or you ruining your relationship with them. Plus, you can make your case for specific instances when you request permission, like a trade show or something with a short timeline or smaller audience. This relieves their fears that you’d be running ad campaigns using their name and such.
Now here’s an important thing.
Experience assures me that if the customer does not want you using their name, they’re not going to let you use their name, whether you ask now, later, or use it without permission.
At Automated Insights, we tried to get a “powered by” attribution on all our automated content, and almost everyone said no, but one exception was the Associated Press, and that was only for a limited time period and on certain content. But it was enough, because it had a huge impact when millions of people saw it.
The key is to ask everyone, but be strategic with negotiation, because the right ones can be fruitful, but they are few and far between.
So here are your bargaining chips.
This is the scenario that no customer is going to want, because it relinquishes control of the company’s name being used on the internet, and they’re reflexively afraid of you harming their reputation, especially online.
This is the first chip to let go. But if you can sub-clause online marketing during negotiation, as in you won’t ask to use their name on any online copy, only to potential customers in presentations and PDFs, you might get something for online in return, as long as you specifically define it. The definition might be just using their badge on one specific place on your website.
You can negotiate that you can use their name in marketing materials that are not used online. You have to be careful here, because any document can get digitized and put online. But you can limit it to 1-on-1 emails, presentations and verbal pitches. You can also limit it to just the name, no details of the deal. And finally, you can limit it to only while the customer you’re referencing is a current customer.
On a side note, if there is any entrepreneurial allowance for bending of the rules here, it’s very hard for them to stop you using their name verbally to prospects. It may get back to them (see the bit about relationship and reputation), but it becomes much harder to sue you for it.
Offline With NDA
The final option would be to negotiate usage only offline and only when the prospect is under an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) that includes language forbidding the prospect to disclose them as your customer. This is a strong security blanket.
All this said, if they don’t want you to use it, they won’t let you. Where do you go next?
Anonymity and Secrets
Technically, you can use anonymous customer disclosure at any time. For example, “One of the largest manufacturing sites in the US uses Product X to increase their throughput by 25 percent.”
Just be very careful. If it can be proven that the language you use to describe the customer can identify the customer, you’ll get in hot water.
And then finally, there’s always the little boost you get when you say something like, “We work with a pretty big organization that I can’t name for contractual reasons.”
But you didn’t hear that from me.