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Taking Software Product References: Best Practice or a Waste of Time?


When you ask a software vendor for a customer reference does it sometimes feel like a waste of time? Let’s face it, your salesperson is highly unlikely to send you to anyone other than a satisfied customer! Personally I'm excited when prospective customers ask to take references for our virtual data room solution, SecureDocs, it's a positive step for both parties that brings us a little closer to doing business. However, I sometimes wonder what they get out of it and, having been in the software space on the sales side, as well as a buyer, I believe there's some benefit beyond just going through the motions.


Here's some tips to ensure you're doing your due diligence, covering your posterior and also feeling confident, and even excited, about the ​improvements you’re bringing to your business:


  • Take at least three references. It's easy for a software vendor to come up with one dependable reference but finding three to rely on is harder, and ensures you're less likely to be speaking to the salesperson's relative! More importantly it gives you a chance to compare and contrast the responses to some of the tougher questions recommended below.
  • The vendor should volunteer that they are going to give the referee a heads up on the impending call. It's a red flag if they immediately pass on a phone number or e-mail address without checking. Either they are too close to the referee or they aren't that respectful enough of their client's time. If you were a customer wouldn’t you want a heads up on the call?
  • Schedule the call with the referee directly, let them know you're only going to take 5 minutes. Try to keep to the agreed time, everybody is busy, you should be able to get what you need in that time and taking references will seem like less of a chore.
  • Ask open questions and probe for more detail. Asking "do you like the software" is going to get a very predictable "yes". Asking "clearly you're a fan of the software, but if there were three things you could improve, what would they be" will give you much greater insight. Other examples:
    • When was the last time you had to call support? 
      • What was the reason?
      • How was the experience?
      • Do you have to call them often?
    • When was the last time the software was down or unavailable?
      • How often has it happened since you've been a customer?
      • How long does it typically last for?
    • Who else in the business uses the software?
      • Are they similarly enthusiastic?
      • Can I speak to them?
    • What did you use before this solution?
      • What are the top three benefits you have realized?
    • Have you looked at alternatives recently?
      • Which ones, any insights?
    • Which of your friends or business acquaintances have you recommended this to?
      • Could I speak with them?
    • Optional: Do you think I should buy the salesperson a full case or a half case of wine as a thank you? 
  • Apply the same questions irrespective of business size. A large vendor may well be your best option, but don't discount up and coming players if they can prove they're able to deliver superior value with minimal risk.

A favorite saying for buyers of software is "Nobody gets fired for buying (insert name of large tech corporation)". Sure, but in many situations they probably should have been! Many companies forgo an opportunity to do something more innovative, more secure, less expensive or less complicated by not doing their diligence properly. You can find great products and services without risking your reputation and without regretting your decision by taking a few minutes to do some digging and ask the right questions. Happy hunting!



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