How to Construct Reverse Testimonials for Your Cohort-Based Course
The day I found out conventional testimonials are shit
Not too long ago, I was a Community Manager working for a very reputable marketing education company, and I was tasked to update all the testimonials on our course landing pages.
So, I did what I thought I was supposed to do…
I collected testimonials.
I reached out to hundreds of our current and past customers.
I asked them to give a testimonial.
I posted their testimonials to our website.
I thought these testimonials were perfect.
They were positive. They said great things about the course instructor and the material. A few of them even commented on the results they got from the course. These testimonials were just like every other testimonial in existence. Job done.
And then I realized everything I knew about testimonials… was wrong.
I got a part-time job working as a Content Editor for Louis Grenier at EveryoneHatesMarketers.com.
My first task on the job was to construct reverse testimonials for the first two cohorts of his cohort-based course, Stand The F*ck Out (STFO).
That’s when I learned the stunning difference between conventional and reverse testimonials.
Instead of sounding flowery, reverse testimonials sounded authentic.
Instead of sounding formal, reverse testimonials sounded conversational.
Instead of providing random details, reverse testimonials answered the questions that future customers would inevitably raise.
Although reverse testimonials can be short, you can see the captivating 61-page long-form reverse testimonial prospectus that Louis and I created.
These reverse testimonials are electric, authentic, surprising, human, and different than anything I had ever seen before.
It has been a privilege and honor to learn this process from Louis and to help him construct these reverse testimonials.
And now I believe every cohort-based course creator can (should?) create these reverse testimonials.
That’s why I’m eager to spare no detail in this article to show you how to construct them.
But first, a special thank you to…
Captain Sean D’Souza is the author of The Brain Audit, a book that introduces reverse testimonials as a way to give prospective customers exactly the information they need to make a buying decision. He also captains several live courses at psychotactics.com. His work is a huge inspiration to this piece.
Captain Louis Grenier is the creator of Stand The F*ck Out, a cohort-based course at EveryoneHatesMarketers.com. Without him, I wouldn’t know what reverse testimonials are; I wouldn’t have experience in constructing them; I wouldn’t be writing this essay. He is masterful in teaching small businesses to radically stand out and to reach their goals without sleazy marketing bullshit. Teaching me reverse testimonials is just one of his gifts that he’s given to me and by extension to you.
A word of caution before you read further
I’m forever sold on reverse testimonials, and I hope by the end of this article you will be too.
That said, they require significant time & effort OR money (paying someone else to construct them for you).
If that doesn’t scare you, then read on, matey.
What are reverse testimonials?
As Sean D’Souza illustrates in The Brain Audit, imagine that you’re in the airport at baggage claim. You have 7 red bags, so you stand by the carousel waiting for each red bag to come around. You won’t leave the airport if you have only 6 bags. You’ll only leave when you get all 7.
Likewise, a customer’s brain needs 7 pieces of information in sequential order before they buy your cohort-based course. Not 6. All 7.
Testimonials are bag #5, but in order to understand why reverse testimonials are so powerful, let’s start with bag #1.
Bag 1: The problem
Every business solves a problem. Your cohort-based course should solve a problem too.
To illustrate, let’s say you get an oil change at the auto shop.
The mechanic notices your brakes are wearing down.
She tells you that if you don’t get them replaced, you could be in danger.
She has now communicated to you a problem, and now your brain is activated into a buying decision.
Similarly, if you’re selling your cohort-based course which teaches people how to play chess, you might raise the problem which is perhaps that it’s difficult to learn by yourself.
Bag 2: The solution
As soon as the brain is activated into the buying decision by the problem, it needs to know the solution immediately thereafter.
The solution is the negation of the problem.
It’s not features or benefits. It’s not your patented 5-step process.
If the problem is worn-down brakes, the solution is: “I will fix your worn-down brakes.”
If the problem is “chess is difficult to learn on your own,” the solution is, “I will teach you chess with a cohort of other players so that you’re not on your own.”
Bag 3: Target Profile
Customers need to know the problem and solution are targeted to them specifically.
If your vehicle is a bus, you need to know your mechanic has the skills and materials to be able to change the brakes on a bus.
If your chess players are beginners, your cohort-based course needs to be introductory level.
Bag 4: Objections
Once someone knows they have a problem and that you solve their problem specifically for them, they should just buy right away, right??
Before they buy, they have objections.
How long will it take for the mechanic to change the brakes?
How expensive will it be?
Will I get plenty of opportunity to practice my chess skills with other cohort members?
You’ll need to identify these objections, address them, and squash them.
Bag 5: Reverse testimonials
THIS is the part where testimonials come into play.
The purpose of testimonials is NOT to make you look good.
The purpose of testimonials is NOT to assure your customers they’ll have a positive experience.
The purpose of testimonials is to finish squashing objections.
You can’t squash objections all by yourself because you’re biased. It’s far more trustworthy when past customers squash the objections on your behalf.
Furthermore, customers can’t squash objections on your behalf if all they’re doing is puking golden rainbows onto everyone’s computer screen.
Most testimonials are positive, positive, followed by more positive magical unicorn bliss.
The only way customers can squash objections on your behalf is if they talk about their objections to begin with.
That’s why reverse testimonials start with an objection, something like, “I was afraid this would be just another fluffy course where I would learn a few things but not actually get the result.”
The rest of the reverse testimonial squashes the objection.
This is why it’s called a “reverse” testimonial.
It’s a before-and-after picture.
Before, I was lost. Now, I’m found.
If a prospective customer reads the reverse testimonial and shares the same objection, they’ll identify with the objection, realize they have nothing to fear, and then they’ll move on to bag 6.
That’s reverse testimonials.
(Note that bag 6 is risk reversal, and bag 7 is stating your competitive uniqueness. You can read about all of this in The Brain Audit.)
Now that you know the purpose of reverse testimonials (to squash the objections!) and their before & after structure, I’ll focus the rest of this article on how to construct them.
How to construct reverse testimonials
The big picture process is to: (1) record a conversation with your past cohort members, (2) transcribe the recording, and (3) piece together parts of the transcription into a reverse testimonial.
Note: You’ll want to record the conversations with your customers very soon after they’re finished with the cohort so that their experience is still fresh on their minds. If you’re afraid they won’t have any tangible results yet, you can always record a second conversation in the future.
Step 0: Ask way ahead of time
It helps to ask members during the cohort-based course sign-up process if at the end they would be willing to do an exit call that will be used as a testimonial.
That way it doesn’t surprise them when you later ask for an additional 45 minutes of their time to record a conversation.
Step 1: Identify the questions you’ll ask your customers
You’re going to record conversations with your customers, which means you’re going to ask them questions.
I highly recommend you take heavy inspiration from Sean D’Souza and Louis Grenier.
Sean D’Souza’s questions…
Question 1: “What was the obstacle that would have prevented you from buying this course?”
Recall that the purpose of a testimonial is to squash objections.
Thus, this question identifies their biggest objection.
Draw it out. Get the details. This will become the first part of the reverse testimonial.
Question 2: “What did you find as a result of buying this course?”
If question 1 was the problem, this is the solution.
It’s the mirror of the first question.
Did they get THE promised result of the program?
If they require weeks, months, or years after the program to achieve THE result, did they get any other tangible results so far?
Question 3: “What specific thing did you like the most about this course?”
This question is meant to help them go deep into one thing they loved the most about your cohort-based course.
Question 4: “What are three other things you liked about this course?”
This complements question 3. Whereas question 3 prompts them to go deep into one thing they loved the most, this question widens their response to a few other things as well.
Question 5: “Would you recommend this course to others? If so, why?”
On the surface, this sounds like an obvious question since by nature of having this conversation with you, your cohort member is recommending this course to others.
The reason you ask this question is to draw out even more detail. It encourages them to argue on your behalf why others should take your cohort-based course.
Question 6: “Is there anything you’d like to add?”
The key with this question is to ask it and then be silent. Don’t let them off the hook. Wait for them to respond.
Sometimes this question will draw out some key information.
Louis Grenier’s questions…
At the time I’m writing this article, I’m getting ready to conduct a round of recorded conversations for Louis’ third cohort which just finished last week.
(1) To kick off the conversation, I’ll start by thanking them.
Volunteering 45 minutes of their time is a huge, huge honor that deserves at the very least a simple thank-you.
(2) Next, I’ll describe the overall process to them.
I’ll tell them: (1) I’m going to record the conversation, (2) I’ll dig into their experience of the program, (3) I’ll have the conversation transcribed, and then (4) I’ll edit the transcription and send it to them so they can review it before it goes public.
(3) Next, I’ll hit the record button.
(4) Next, I’ll remind them to grab a cup of tea, to relax, and to treat it as a normal conversation rather than an interrogation/interview.
(5) Next, I’ll jump straight into a warm-up question.
Question 0A: “Do you remember the first time you heard about the cohort-based course?”
I’ll ask this without explicitly stating that it’s the first question so that it still feels like a normal conversation rather than a formal interview.
Question 0B: “And what made you say, ‘Okay, I want in?’”
This question is meant to identify their trigger, the thing that makes them buy now, not yesterday or tomorrow.
It’s a valuable piece of information to use for marketing your cohort-based course, and it plays into the narrative of the testimonial.
Then I’ll say, “Okay, question 1 is…”
Question 1: “What was the main obstacle or hesitation that almost prevented you from joining?”
This should reveal their biggest objection.
Question 2: “If you had to pick one specific thing that you took away from the cohort-based course, what would it be?”
This is one angle to ask them about results they got from the course.
Question 3: “Did you generate any tangible results from the cohort-based course so far?”
You can follow up question 3 with, “Are there any other tangible results you can think of?”
Ask it until they can’t think of anything other results.
Question(s) 4: “Can you describe how you felt at the start of the program and how you feel now? What was the toughest moment of the program; how did that make you feel; how did you overcome it?”
These questions really draw out their experience and tie those experiences to their emotions which will add to the drama of the testimonial.
Question 5: “What was your experience with the group, and what difference did it make for you, if any?”
This may address a micro-objection about whether the group experience is helpful.
Question 6: “How would you describe <the teacher> to someone else?”
This may address a micro-objection about whether the teacher is capable, caring, effective, etc.
Question 7: “What’s the one thing you’d like to see improved for the next cohort?”
This one isn’t for the testimonial. It’s for you to improve your business with each cohort.
Question 8: “Is there anything you’d like to add?”
This one is optional.
It’s hard to get through all the questions in the allotted amount of time, especially if you’re getting really good detail and asking deepening questions throughout.
Thus, it’s a good question to ask, time permitting.
In the end…
Take inspiration from Sean and Louis, stay true to the questions which form the fundamental before & after structure of the reverse testimonial, but feel free to add and remove questions to make it your own as well.
Step 2: Create a Calendly
Create a Calendly set for 45-minute blocks of time.
In the Calendly description field, you can model what we used for Louis’ cohort-based course, STFO…
Set the location of your Calendly meeting to Zoom.
Step 3: Invite your cohort members to schedule a time
You’ll want to invite them one-by-one as opposed to one big mass message.
If you’re not sure what to say, you can swipe this:
Step 4: Record a conversation with your customers, one by one
The biggest thing to remember is to hit the record button.
Don’t forget that part. Better yet, add “HIT RECORD BUTTON” in several places to your script of questions to make it nearly impossible to forget.
The next biggest thing to remember is to keep it conversational. You’re two friends at a coffee shop, not a news reporter conducting an interview, or worse, Jack Byrnes interrogating Greg Focker.
Other than that, just stick to the plan, and remember you can ask the exact questions from the script, but you can also ask deepening questions if you get the sense that you can get more details from them: “Oh yeah? Tell me more!”
Step 5: Transcribe the conversations
There are many ways to do this efficiently.
Louis and I use Descript. It’s super easy. You just drag the video file into it and wait several minutes for it to transcribe. Done.
Step 6: Edit the transcriptions into a long-form written testimonial
Now it’s time to construct the reverse testimonial!
Here’s how I do it.
I read through the transcript with the before-and-after structure in mind. I’m looking for sentences (1) that describe their “before state”… objections and other feelings before they started the cohort-based course, (2) that describe their “after state”… results and other feelings they had during and after the cohort-based course, especially anything that’s a negation of the “before state,” and (3) anything else that supports the overall narrative from “before” to “after.”
I’ll copy/paste those sentences into a Google doc.
Next, I’ll start piecing these sentences and paragraphs into a reverse testimonial that starts with an objection or series of objections followed by a narrative that squashes the objection.
Finally, I’ll add what Louis calls, “spicy” headlines that hook the reader into each part of the testimonial.
Step 7: Construct testimonials in different forms
By the time you’re done with step 6, you might have a testimonial that is 1,000 words long.
If you get 20 (or however many) of those, you can put together a prospectus, much like the one Louis and I put together.
However, you might want more than just one big pdf of testimonials.
You might want shorter testimonials in the middle of your landing page, for example.
Thus, you can take the most important parts of the long-form reverse testimonial and piece them into a short-form reverse testimonial.
Also… although I haven’t personally done this… you could probably piece together clips from the recorded conversation to construct a video reverse testimonial.
Step 8: Ask for permission
This is super duper important.
Ask for permission before you publish the testimonial.
Send the testimonial to your customer, and simply ask them if it’s okay to use the testimonial or if there is anything major they want to change.
I ask if there’s anything “major” they want to change because I don’t want to get bogged down in small changes, and I don’t want to compromise the conversational tone.
That said, sometimes they’ll make requests for small changes anyway, and so far I haven’t had to argue back; I just roll with it and honor their wishes.
Keep going back and forth until you get their approval.
Step 9: Hire a designer
If you’re putting together a testimonial prospectus like this one and you want it to look really good, unless you’re savvy at Adobe InDesign, you’ll need to hire a quality freelance designer from sites like UpWork.
Put together a brief for the designer including your testimonials, the information you want to include on the first page, images you want them to include, your design kit, and anything else the designer may need to create a stunning prospectus.
Send the brief and the money, and wait.
Step 10: Publish the testimonials
Now the testimonials can forever squash objections on your behalf.
You can also use the insights to iteratively improve your cohort-based course.
You can continue to create these testimonials after each cohort, or you can hire someone to do them for you.