The Secret Life of Testimonials

image of woman in a mask

You’ve seen résumés, haven’t you?

What’s common to all the résumés on the planet?

Yup, they’re all created to make the candidate look wonderful. So what’s the first thing a company does when you present them with a résumé?

They go back and do some digging. They check the details. The smarter the company, and the more important the job, the more the company digs.

So you have to ask yourself: Why does the company check back on the résumé? And the obvious answer is: Because they want to see the complete picture. They don’t want the one-sided résumé view.

Testimonials are like résumés: One-sided

Most testimonials resemble résumés. They’re sugary. They’re stuffed with wonderful adjectives and powerful verbs. Every testimonial seems to talk about the “magnificent, outstanding, and amazing” qualities of the product or service.

After you’ve read a couple of those icky-sweet testimonials, you feel like you’ve had quite enough. If you had a big dose of wonderful testimonials, you start feeling a little sick.

And there’s a reason why.

You’re getting a massive overdose of “sugar.” Those testimonials are so sucrose-laden that there’s no way on earth that you’re going to believe in them.

So what would it take to make a testimonial believable?

Just like a résumé needs both sides of the picture, so does a testimonial.

When we’re considering a purchase, we feel out of our depth. We feel we somehow need some reassurance. And testimonials, sugary as they are, reassure us somewhat.

But what if you had a more believable testimonial? A testimonial that not only shows us the “after” scenario, but reveals the “before” as well?

A testimonial with the complete picture.

Presenting the “reverse testimonial”

So what’s a reverse testimonial? A reverse testimonial is simply a testimonial that starts off in reverse.

Traditional testimonials start off with praise, then continue with even more praise.

A reverse testimonial talks about doubt. It starts with the skepticism first. It describes the fear or uncertainty racing through the customer’s mind at the point of purchase.

A reverse testimonial works because it speaks to us in the way we speak to each other. When we’re recommending a restaurant or a movie to a friend, we naturally lace our recommendations with doubt.

We say things like: “You know that seedy-looking restaurant, and how you don’t really feel like going inside? They’ve actually got the most amazing food.”

Or we say things like: “You know that fancy looking restaurant that you think may be over-priced? Well we went there last night, and we had the most delicious food, and the bill was far less than we expected.”

We tend to coat our testimony with at least a little bit of doubt

When a testimonial highlights these doubts first — yes, first — they make the testimonial real. And believable. They give the testimonial power and depth. They make it less like a bunch of words strung together, and more like a story.

But stories don’t just fall into place. Stories have to be constructed.

So while you’ve probably got quite a few testimonials from your customers in the past, you’ve probably never “constructed” a testimonial before.

Instead of “getting a testimonial,” it’s important to “construct a testimonial.”

What does “construction of a testimonial” mean?

It doesn’t mean fabrication. It doesn’t mean you’re going to make up some fake testimonials.

Construction means you’re using structure to get your testimonial. When you use structure, you don’t get random testimonials, but instead get testimonials that are specific and story-like.

How on earth are you going to create testimonials that have specific details and read like stories? In the past, you’ve tried to get testimonials from clients, but it always seems like they’re procrastinating.

The reason why clients promise to write you a testimonial and don’t is because they’re at a loss for words.

They don’t have specific parameters. And so when they sit down to write, they stare at a blank screen. And then they either write something that’s kind of boring, or it’s sugary, or they just put off the writing for another day.

There’s a second reason, too. Often, we ask for testimonials days, weeks, sometimes even months after the client has made the purchase. This time delay makes it harder for a client to recall facts and results.

We have to make it easier for a client to give us a testimonial. And easily the best way to get a pretty detailed testimonial is to ask six core questions.

What are those six core questions?

I’ll tell you all about the six questions, what they are and how they work, next week in the Part Two of “The Secret Life of Testimonials.”

About the Author: Sean D’Souza offers a free report on ‘Why Headlines Fail’ when you subscribe to his Psychotactics Newsletter. Be sure to check out his blog, too.

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Reader Comments (52)

  1. says

    Hey Sean,

    This is very interesting! Never realize that there are several types of testimonials. Looking forward to the other parts of this series. Going to implement this into my business.

    Great Stuff…

  2. says

    “They don’t have specific parameters. And so when they sit down to write, they stare at a blank screen. And then they either write something that’s kind of boring, or it’s sugary, or they just put off the writing for another day.”

    Couldn’t agree more.

    Same goes for creative writing, and writing in general, too. Ask someone to write a creative short story and they freeze. Give them 10 random words to constrain their muse and they fire off creative copy like it was nothing.

  3. says

    Part 2 couldn’t come soon enough. We’re building a new website and asking old clients for testimonials right now.

    Great timing!

  4. says

    Very provocative post, Sean. “Restaurant has reasonable prices” is only a fair story, but “High-end, gorgeous restaurant has surprisingly reasonable prices” is a real attention-getter. I can’t wait for Part II!

  5. says

    Although I really like your idea behind the reverse testimonial, I have a hard time trying to grasp how a customer would take the time to add good copywriting into it and really shine it up, when they are just thanking you for your help.

    I am not a big fan of testimonials, since they don’t carry much weight anymore with buyers. People are much more inclined to search for surveys and opinions of your product away from your site using social media etc.

    However, on the flipside I really like the direction you are taking with this post and I am curious to see how it unfolds. I may be eating my words in a few weeks.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  6. says

    I know what’s in part 2 as I’ve just bought Sean’s product on the subject of testimonials.

    Not going to give anything away other than to say Sean’s approach really does a lot to deal with all those “he’s the greatest guy in the world!”-type testimonials that nobody pays attention to. :-)

  7. says

    Sean, I can’t wait for next week – you have really piqued my curiosity. I’ve had to write testimonials myself, and have always considered them difficult. Not because of the person I’m writing them for – but the best way to present them.

  8. says

    I’ll add that I’m one of those types of customers who reads reviews on Overstock, Amazon, etc., and always read both the one stars and the five stars, to try to see both sides of a picture. If something is great, in a reviewer’s opinion, what makes it so? And if something is awful, what makes it so? Sometimes those “negative” reviews give info that leads to me buying the product anyway. For example, that restaurant review that says it’s a bad choice for date night due to the hoards of children in attendance, would be a perfect spot for families.

  9. Sonia Simone says

    Like Iain, I’ve got a copy of Sean’s product, and I agree. It’s great stuff, really useful. We’ll be running Part 2 next week, so you don’t have to wait too long for the goodies!

    @Joshua, you really think testimonials don’t carry weight any more? I believe they still do. I’m not saying they’ll make the sale by themselves, but I think the good ones paint a picture in a very effective way.

  10. says

    I can’t wait till part two. I’ve used this process before when writing testimonials, but never gave it a name. Now I can called them reverse testimonial when I’m teaching.

    Thanks the for the post Sean.

  11. Ankur Jain says

    Testimonials are one of the most imp part of any sales letters.

    I am lil wary of long articles but this one “What does “construction of a testimonial” mean?” held my attention.

    I am looking forward to those “six core questions”

  12. says

    Personally I always look for the bad as well as the good in testimonials. I will also have to start doing this when I write them as well.

  13. says

    Hi Sean.

    This is really interesting information. One of the things I learned in the process of building up my blog, is that your blog appears as an extended resume/cv for yourself.

    So you then tend to ‘sugar coat’ your articles.

    The reverse process is a new idea for me. And it sounds very interesting. Can’t wait for your next article.

    Cheers… Are

  14. says

    I like your approach. Certainly a testimonial that begins with doubt, which we all have when we begin to read a hard sell, which is what internet marketing excels at, will probably reach more sympathetic eyes that just the sugar sugar testimonial.

    You get us thinking. It’s a great thing.

    Don McCobb

  15. sleahcim says

    Excellent stuff. This addresses one of the issues I’ve had with so many testimonials I see as well as those I use for clients: the other half of the story. Like Beki, I too look at both the high and low ratings comments. So it makes sense, at least for those of our psychological bent, that testimonials address our concerns about the negative side of the business/product/service.

    I’m a big believer in testimonials. In fact, if you aren’t using them on your website, you aren’t addressing one of the key credibility factors users are looking for: trust. While testimonials don’t kill all of the little doubts that a potential customer may have, they go a long way in removing many of them. You just can’t dismiss the psychology of our social species.

    I agree with Joshua’s comment regarding the use of social media and review sites to qualify a company. However,

  16. says

    On my site I have a testimonials section but know some people will often think when they see these on “any” website that it’s the site owner doing them. I know in some sites, that is true. Site owners will also show only the positive ones but that helps make it look fake. On my site, I allow anyone to make a testimonial as long as it’s kept to a maturity level and professional… I even encourage constructive criticism and I also allow their website link to go there to give the option to a visitor to see their website and know it’s not me…although some have not added their links, but that is ok to and it’s not an obligation.

  17. Leon Noone says

    G’day Sean,
    Firstly, I couldn’t agree more about resumes. In fact I strongly recommend to clients that they never ask for written job applications in any form. But that’s another story…..
    I’m really looking forward to Part 2 on testimonials. I still believe in them. But I believe that they’ve been seriously devalued. Many so called internet marketers are obsessed with “social proof.” Scrolling through almost countless
    glowing testimonials turns me off. They’re proof that the internet marketer thinks that beating me over the head with laudatory waffle from people I’ve never heard of will convince me to buy.
    But a couple of pertinent, relevant, precise and hopefully concise reasons from genuine users are really telling. And they must include statements of specific business benefit.
    Looking forward to next week…



  18. says

    I take a different spin on testimonials on my site. As a dating coach, rather than quoting people that are now in relationships, I tell their story. My new “How They Met” series focuses on how I specifically helped the client, how they met their significant other, what they like most about him/her, what they’re looking forward to in the future, etc. I imagine it initially as a series of blog posts but may eventually break them out into a different part of the site. The first “How They Met” installment is my highest traffic blog!

  19. says

    I think this topic is not so caught my eye. There are several points that I did not like, such as ‘presenting the reverse testimonials’. Is it useful?

  20. says

    Awesome Sean! I’ve followed the formula of asking customers questions for a number of years and it helps you get exactly what you want to know about your customer’s experience. I’m looking forward to seeing what your 6 core questions are.

  21. says

    Really interesting article . . . makes you see testimonials in a whole different light!!

    They are hugely advantageous in marketing but only if they are deemed credible and real which is a challenge in itself

  22. says

    Great Article I believe in Testimonials.What you must do for people to believe is EARN their trust by relating with people over time it does not happen overnight.Honest opinion followed up with people also encouraged to do their own research will instill faith.There are more honest people in the world than dishonest so the odds are with us.I believe the more people you help achieve there goals in life the more you will achieve win .
    All the very best

  23. mccombju says

    There is some very powerful psychology behind this insightful blog post: customer objections (and doubts) are the language that customers use to tell us what they really want. If you can include doubts in the copy, then you are effectively speaking the customer’s language (and that makes for a compelling sales pitch).

    At this point, however, I’m just impatient and I want to know how the story ends.

  24. says

    I’m looking forward to the followup posts on this subject too.
    I have used genuine testimonials in the past but I feel there are so many fabricated and unbelievable testimonials on the web now that their power has greatly diminished. I do like the idea of the “reverse testimonial”. Keen to hear more.

  25. says

    Good post, thanks. Certainly adding doubt gives credibility to testimonials. This can be difficult for a client (or your boss) to swallow at first. But persevere! Readers aren’t stupid, and they will appreciate honesty in your writing. By gaining your readers’ trust, you’re well on the way to doing more business with them. . .

  26. says

    Surely by writing your testimonials in a contrived fashion you playing the game also?

    Anyhow, when I write reviews on LinkedIn and elsewhere, I tend to be gushing. This is an extension of the fact that I am either exceedingly complimentary or exceedingly damning.

    By all accounts, and based on your opinion, this makes my reviews invalid. I think what gives them both credibility and accountability is that they are linked to my profile and my good name on the site (for what it is worth).

    I agree with you in part, but at the same time life is more nuanced.

  27. says

    I often get requests for testimonials, which I am sometimes reluctant to give, but if requested, you are stuck between a rock and a hard place, so what do you do, give a false one, or none at all?

  28. says

    It’s not personal, Vincent.

    If it makes your testimonial valid or invalid is not what I’m trying to get across. What I’m getting across is just how human nature tends to be. We always temper our testimonials with a bit of caution and skepticism. If you noticed even the folks who are very excited with the recent launch of the iPad, they were gushing and also talked about the part they didn’t like, or stuff that was lacking.

    All I’m saying is that the part that is skeptical is of more interest to the human brain, than the gushy part. The brain is more attracted to what can go “wrong” than what can go right.

    Test it out for yourself with these statements:
    1) What to do when you get to Italy.
    2) What can go wrong when you get to Italy.

    Which of the two draws your curiosity more than the other?

  29. says

    @Paul: If I don’t feel like giving a testimonial, I don’t. A testimonial is a gift, and a recommendation. You’re giving a bit of yourself away. There’s no reason to give someone a testimonial if you think they’re stuff isn’t up to the mark.

  30. says

    I know it’s not personal. I agree with your sentiment, I just disagree with the analysis. I am not sure comparing a trip to Italy is the same as writing a review of a person’s skills.

    The style of your review can come down fundamentally to how you write and review things. I don’t think overly glowing reviews have to be astroturf, nor at the same time completely discounted, or even taken for fact.

    The style of reviews can come down to the simple fact of vocabulary, grasp of language, use of words and poetic license. On the flip side, how you read a review, comes down very much to your personality also.
    Beyond this, reading between the lines, and what the review can’t tell you also throws light on the matter. How many reviews does a person have and from what companies they have worked at? etc etc etc.

    All interesting questions, especially in the context of the raging debate about the “unvarnished” website service that everyone from Time to RWW are talking about.

  31. says

    This is a really good site showing great efforts, and having much knowledgeable content. love to reach here and read the posts , through google…

  32. says

    Will somebody please hit fast-forward for the week? I’m excited about this not only so I can elicit better testimonials from my clients, but so I can write better testimonials too. I always feel awkward because I want to say something beyond the usual high praise, but I get tongue-tied.

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