When a company is selecting software one of the typical steps is to request a reference site to talk to or to visit. So what is this about and how can you make the most out of this exercise?
First a reference site is not a tool to use to pick a vendor. It is a tool to learn more about how the vendor worked with one customer and how that customer feels at the end of the process. Also remember that this site is not being paid for this work – at least I have never paid one. They are doing this as a favor for the vendor and for you. So when you interact with them remember that fact.
Here are some other helpful items to remember when preparing for a reference site call or visit.
- Every implementation has its issues. The key is how the vendor dealt with the issue. A very fair question is to ask them to talk about a challenge they observed and how did the vendor address the challenge?
- Ask about the implementation team or person. Did they understand the business before they arrived or did they pick it up very quickly? How did the site's team work with the vendor's team? This will help you see the style of implementation. Some are directive and others are more oriented toward team approaches.
- Make the reference list the last step of the process. Don't expect a demo or to talk specifics about the product. Remember that the site has limited time. Focus on the relationship they had with the vendor and how easy is the vendor to work with.
- If offered - go visit the site. Much can be learned about the vendor and the application by seeing how it works in the operations. That is difficult to get over the phone. It is often good to have the vendor with you so you can ask follow up questions that the vendor may need to clarify. This is a final interview so there should not be much left to hide. Take your time and get a good feel for the relationship. Just remember that there are a lot of reasons that a company does not allow visitors – many of those have nothing to do with the vendor (insurance as an example).
- I would talk to a company that is still in the process of going live. Things are very fresh in their minds and they will be able to talk candidly about the experience. Just be careful that the vendor may be working on something and it is not done. Don't judge the application prior to live but you sure can judge the implementation prior to being live.
- Try to get a reference in a similar industry. The challenge here is that most sites will not talk to their competition. That is understandable. Work with your vendor to pick a company that you can relate to. It does not have to be identical but you should feel comfortable with their process enough to envision it similar to you own.
If you get that far with a vendor a reference site call or visit is just your way of finishing the process. If you are wanting to learn about the product in the call then you are not ready for the reference site. If you have not made up your mind prior to the reference site make sure not to put the customer in the position of helping you decide. Just think about how you would like a reference call to go 2 years from now. What would you be comfortable addressing? The odds are good that if you have done your homework and have selected a good vendor this will be you in a year or so. Enjoy.