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Rick 10 Steps to Making The Right Reference Calls

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  By Rick Cook

References Represent The Highest Value/Lowest Cost Combination Step in Your CRM Selection

One of the most important steps in selecting a Customer Relationship Management software solution is checking customer references. Timely sales follow-through, good vendor pitches, strong product fit and impressive demos may have all influenced your decision making process, but prior customer experience with the vendor is often the most telling factor in achieving long term success.

The problem is that checking references is a pain. Far too many companies do only a cursory job and some don't do it at all. Pain though it may be, a solid reference check of your soon to be mission critical enterprise software supplier is vital. The job doesn't even have to be particularly painful if you follow a few simple steps.

  1. First: Get The Right References From Your Vendor
    When asking for references, specify that you want companies as nearly identical to yours as possible. Ideally you'd like to have a reference who is the exact twin of your company. That means the same industry or line of business, roughly the same size in sales and employees, and comparable CRM strategy and business processes. You also want them using the same software product and version you are looking at. This is important as many CRM software vendors have different products for different markets, ranging from CRM systems that emphasize ease and speed of installation to complex packages typically aimed at larger enterprises. The closer the customer reference company is to yours, the more valuable their insight will be.

  2. Second: Show Respect
    Remember that when checking customer references you're essentially asking a stranger to do you a favor. To show courtesy, schedule your phone call well in advance and at the referrer's convenience. Thank the referrer in advance for his time. This is an area where a little politeness can go a long way.

  3. Third: Come Prepared
    To make sure you get the most from your interview, be prepared with a list of prioritized questions at the ready. These open ended questions should focus on what you need to know an avoid extraneous matters. Before you do the interviews spend a few minutes doing a web search on the customer reference company. Articles, blogs and other items you find on the web can give you a feel for the company and its activities.

  4. Fourth: Keep It Short
    Unless the referrer wants to talk, plan on keeping the interview brief, consistent with the questions you have.

  5. Fifth: Introduce Yourself
    Tell the reference a little about your company, your CRM software selection process, your CRM objectives and what you hope to get out of the reference call. This should help set the stage for a constructive discussion.

  6. Sixth: Ask The Right Questions
    This is the core of the process and it's worth spending some time and effort getting the questions down right. Consider questions such as the following.

    Tell me about your business.
    How long have you been using this software? What did you use before?
    Why did you choose this software? What were/are your CRM objectives? Have you achieved them?
    What modules or components did you install and when? Who helped implement your system?
    How long did the CRM implementation take? How easy was it to implement?
    Was your implementation on time and within budget?
    How many users do you have? How do your users describe the software's ease of use?
    Did you incur user adoption or change management challenges? How did you deal with them?
    Have you done any modifications? How easy is it to customize the software?
    How was the support during the implementation? How has support been since your implementation?
    How much internal IT support is required? How much support from the vendor is needed?
    How well does the software perform? How is the response time?
    Overall, are you satisfied with the software? Would you choose the vendor again?
    Where do you think the vendor could be stronger or improve?
    Any other points you think I should be aware of?

  7. Seventh: Make Your Questions Specific and Open Ended
    You want to extract the maximum amount of information from your questions. Make your questions, especially follow-up questions, specific. If the reference says his company had "a little trouble" with one of the modules, follow up by asking what kind of trouble and try to get the referrer to be as specific as possible. In most cases you want an answer longer than "yes" or "no", so frame your questions accordingly.

  8. Eighth: Have Your Antennae Out
    A reference call is an exercise in active listening. You need to listen very carefully to what the referrer says and what isn't said. There may be issues that the reference doesn't want to be completely candid about. By listening carefully you can spot those issues.

  9. Ninth: Thank the Referrer Again
    This person has done you a considerable favor so be forward in showing your appreciation. Also, suggest leaving the door open for continued conversations in the future.

  10. Tenth: Take Notes
    Since you're probably going to do three of these calls and you're likely to refer back to them weeks or months later, it's important that you keep good notes.

Overall, making the customer referral call is probably simpler than explaining how to do it. It is also usually one of the most inexpensive, and most candid sources of information you'll find on what is about to be a major expenditure and walk into the unknown. End

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Comments (6) — Comments for this page are closed —

Guest Blake Vincent
  What are your thoughts on CRM software vendors that compensate their references?
  Denise Denise Holland
    Good question. Unfortunately, an increasing number of CRM software vendors, like many other enterprise software vendors before them, are providing their references with like-kind compensation or benefits such as free VIP tickets to the annual user conference, reduced software fees or a product upgrade at no cost or low cost. This has the obvious effect of tainting the references independence and willingness to share candid information. As vendors that engage in such programs generally don't disclose their efforts, it becomes incumbent upon the buyer to determine the legitimacy of their references. Caveat emptor.

Guest Blake Vincent
  So how do you recommend determining the legitimacy of references?
  Denise Denise Holland
    Remembering that most references are legitimate and doing CRM software buyers a big favor by taking time out of their busy days to assist, it's difficult to ask a reference outright if they're getting rewarded for acting as a reference, however, through small talk you can casually broach the topic and then determine whether more direct questioning seems warranted. Another method is to attend the CRM vendor's user conference. In these events you can meet dozens of existing customers, however, be aware that the customer population at these events is likely not representative. Happy users are apt to attend their vendors user conferences while unhappy users tend not to go. Lastly, get your own references outside of the vendor. Customers using pretty much every CRM product can be identified online - on this website and other social networks. Politely reach out to them and they're often willing to share their unbridled opinions.

Guest Chris L.
  References are a waste of time. No vendor is ever going to provide a bad reference.
  Denise Denise Holland
    Your point is well taken, and I agree CRM software vendors are not going to provide bad, or even questionable reference customers, thereby limiting the pool and information obtained. Nonetheless, I believe much can be learned from vendor provided references and there are other sources and methods to acquire more independent customer references.


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Effective customer references are one of the most inexpensive and candid sources of information you'll find on what is about to be a major financial expenditure and walk into the unknown."


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