Reference calls – the importance of asking the right questions
Choosing the right software for your business is a crucial decision. Determining whether a particular solution represents good value requires you to take time and consider whether it meets your organization’s specific requirements, and weigh up the costs of implementation, maintenance, and any necessary training.
Of course, there’s no real way of knowing if it’s the right solution for your business until you actually implement it. So, before making that final purchase decision, you should speak with some of the potential vendors’ customers to get a feel of how their solutions actually work in practice. Reference calls with similar companies, who share similar challenges to your own, and are looking for similar benefits, will often deliver insights that you wouldn’t find in a vendor’s sales and marketing material. And if that vendor comes under recommendation from enough satisfied clients, you can be largely confident that procuring its solution is the right course of action.
It’s important, then, to ask the right questions – and keep asking them until you’re satisfied that the vendor – and its solution – are right for you.
Begin by establishing that your reference customer operates in a similar space to your own business and that the challenges it needed to address are similar to those you face. This may sound basic, but it’s fundamental to understanding whether or not the vendor is right for you and your needs. Indeed, at this point, it’s worth asking to what extent the vendor understood those challenges and what it was about their solution that persuaded the customer to purchase it.
Ask them to describe their relationship with the vendor. Some may be fairly hands-off, for example, and only involved when needed, while others may be regarded as partners in a company’s success. You’re likely to have your own views on this, and their answer could persuade you one way or the other.
Implementation and support
Implementing a software solution is critical in terms of the time, money, and internal resources required. To gauge how a vendor’s implementation process aligns with your expectations and requirements, ask the customer to walk you through it, and how they perceived the overall experience. Ask for details on factors such as the time taken, the clarity of communication from the vendor, whether a partner was used, and – importantly – whether it was delivered on time and within budget. Training is very often required in a new solution – was this the case with this vendor? If so, was it made available prior to or post-implementation?
And once a solution has been implemented, there’ll be a need for support. How would the customer rate the quality of the support they receive and is the vendor responsive to their needs? Again, there are time, cost, and resource implications to consider here.
Implementing the software is only the beginning, of course. What really matters is how it performs for a business in daily use, and the outcomes it delivers. Ask the customer how long they’ve been using the software and whether, in that time, its performance has met their initial expectations. What are its best features, and its limitations? Knowing all of this will help guide your decision.
To gain a fuller picture of how it might work within your overall business, check how many different people at the customer’s company use the solution, and whether multiple teams have access to it. Did it need to be configured to work with the customer’s existing software and, if so, how easy was this to do? Thinking about how it would be used within your own company, it’s worth asking if the software was integrated with other systems, either upstream, such as ERP, or downstream, such as with e-Commerce.
Among all the information you’re gathering, keep in mind that you’re considering buying this software to deliver a specific outcome. What, then, has the reference customer been able to achieve through using this solution? And, conversely, what have they tried to achieve but were unable to? Ask them to summarize the three or four benefits they’ve enjoyed since implementing the software. And don’t forget the people actually using the software on a day-to-day basis – what feedback have the end-users given about it?
Don’t be afraid to ask for negative feedback, either – it’s all essential information, after all. Did the company experience any issues around change management or user adoption, for example? If so, how did they address them?
A reference call is a vital part of the procurement process, a chance to go beyond a vendor’s sales material and dig deeper into the workings of a particular software solution. Bear in mind that vendors will rarely offer up customers that won’t give them a recommendation, but having worked with a vendor for any length of time, that customer will have valuable insight into exactly how it operates. Asking the right questions will allow you to get the most out of a reference call and help you decide if that purchase is the right one.