If you are considering purchasing a significant product, you are going to perform some sort of evaluation. One of the activities that should be on your evaluation checklist is talking to companies that currently use the product. These companies are called “references”. The purpose of checking references is to get past the marketing and sales hype and hear some real opinions. The hope is that these companies will give you a more honest picture of how the product and the vendor actually perform in the real world.
How much faith do you place in a reference?
The vendor is obviously going to give you the names of customers they already know will give a good reference. If you were the vendor, you would not provide reference accounts from customers who have had bad experiences. That would be nuts.
As a prospective customer you can decide whether you will accept the ones that come from the vendor, or whether you will try to get some unsolicited references. If you want to get unsolicited references, you have to know something about the current customer base. Sometimes the vendor will include the names or logos of current licensed companies on their websites or in their marketing brochures. One approach is to pick out some companies that you know are customers and just call them on your own.
Finding unsolicited customer references
This approach has advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage is that you may be able to talk to someone who has had less than successful results. This gives you an opportunity to see how the vendor responded.
The disadvantage is that you have to do research and this could take a lot more time. You have to find some prior accounts on your own. You may have to cold-call into that company and look for the right person, and you have to hope they will talk to you. None of this is easy.
Talking to official references
The chances are that the vendor will have a number of potential references. The same person can call each company, or you can split the calls up between a couple of people. If you split the reference checks, make sure that everyone follows a similar process and questions in the reference call. This will allow you to more easily compare your results.
Try to get companies that are as similar to you as possible. This could mean different things depending on the product. For instance, this may mean that you want to find companies in the same industry as you. It might mean that you want companies that are the same size as you. It might mean that you want companies that process as many transactions as you.
In summary, no large purchase should be made without talking to references. You know ahead of time that the reference will be positive; however, you can still learn a lot about the product by delving deeper into the customer’s experience.