The sales cycle can be a long a grueling process; so don’t stumble when your buyer asks for some references! This can be a defining moment in your sales presentation if you take the time to make your references actually work FOR you.

Lee Salz, a writer for The Business Journals, explains that references are an easy way to gain a competitive edge and differentiate yourself from the competition. In his recent article, Salz shares 7 ways to ensure they provide you a strategic advantage. Here are 4 of them:

1. Develop a client reference portfolio.

The first step is having a database of potential clients to choose from. You don’t want to be stuck using the same 3 references over and over. Instead, ask your happy clients if they wouldn’t mind providing a reference for you, your product/service, or your company in the future.

2. Ask questions to help you select the right references.

You should always assume your buyer is asking for references for a reason and not just as a matter of process. So ask them directly, “What are you hoping to learn?” and “Who will be contacting the references?” This will help you discern from your database which ones will best suit your buyer’s needs. And it demonstrates that you care, which alone might differentiate you from your competition.

3. Contact each client you submit as a reference.

If you want your references to be successful, make sure the clients you choose are aware a call will be coming. Additionally, not informing them could burn your relationship with that client. So ensure a good review and happy client with the simple courtesy of a heads up.

4. Keep a client batting average.

While your main goal should be providing your buyer with the most applicable references for their needs, you also want to be sure your references are helping you land new accounts. So track their performance. Did they help you land the account or did the buyer never call you back. After some time, you can weed out any that may be hurting you rather than helping.

When your buyer is having difficulty choosing between you and your competitors, the references you provide can have a huge impact on closing the account. With a little effort, you can always be ready to stand out with stellar references, rather than always be scrambling to collect a few mediocre ones.