Checking References Takes a Personal Touch

Virtually every system proposal has a page or two that lists past reference projects. Manufacturers list their satisfied customers on Web sites and product brochures. Consultants and other service providers are quick to point out their success stories. Why? Because prospective customers demand these references.

Surprisingly, few end users know what to check for when asking for references — if they bother checking them at all. This is perhaps the greatest opportunity to separate the winners from the losers, and easily the one used least frequently.

The chief reason why references are not employed more often is because it involves personal contact. You can’t do it via E-mail and you can’t take a reference list at face value. For a reference check to truly work, you need to call a complete stranger or, better yet, visit them.

Having just completed a tour of reference sites with an expert client, I offer some suggestions that I watched in action.

Selecting the Reference
When shown a long or short list of references, look for two things: projects that are similar to yours and projects that are in close geographic proximity. Whether you’re looking at manufacturers, integrators or both, the quality of work is so joined at the hip that you’re always evaluating both similarity and proximity whether you mean to or not.

A manufacturer that has a good product that is installed with ease is attracting a higher quality integrator and can be choosy. These are qualities that often carry through to a well-engineered product line. Conversely, an integrator that consistently installs lower-end brands you have never heard of is less likely to get the training, support and loyalty that comes from working from a well-known industry leader.

Ask questions about the reference list before digging deeper. In one meeting, I was shown several slides in a presentation listing many companies that were household names. When pressed for more specifics, the sales representative came up short. This gave me the impression that while there were genuine references on that list, there were far less than I was led to believe.

We all do business with many people, yet we’re only willing to offer testimonials to a far smaller group.

Words Go Further on the Phone
When you’ve found a few names to contact, there’s no substitute for a personal conversation.

Written testimonials may have meant well at the time they were written, but things change. A letter won’t tell you if support slipped once the project was a few months old, but a phone call will. E-mail is suspect as well — people are often reluctant to put negative comments in writing for fear it might come back to haunt them.

Start with a phone call and determine if the project or application is similar to yours. Was it installed in the promised time frame? How responsive was their support, and has it gotten better or worse? Remember, a product purchase frequently represents a long-term commitment. You want to make sure the prospective vendor has stood by their past customers.

Good follow-up questions should never be the type that can be answered “yes” or “no.” Many of us have learned to shy away from asking “why” questions, but here it can really help.

Take a Close Look at Past Work
If you’re evaluating an integrator, try your best to view some of their recent projects. If the work looks really good, try and find out if the people that worked on that project are still working for that integrator.

Look for the little things — are cables bundled and neatly tied, legibly identified at both ends, and cut to length and run in an orderly manner? Is the equipment cooled properly?

If an integrator gets the details right, it’s a pretty good indicator that they took care of the big things as well. You’ll learn far more from the back of the rack than you will from the front.

Take a look at documentation as well. As discussed in last month’s column (see page 26 of the November issue), this is essential to maintaining and expanding the system in the future.

When you visit a site, dig for some stories about things that happened during the installation.

One person I spoke with talked of the installer that kept missing work due to a suspected drinking problem. When he did manage to show up, he smelled of alcohol and acted hung over. So the customer called his sales representative to report the problem. The offender was removed from the project the next day and a team was sent in to inspect his work to ensure that there weren’t any hidden problems.

This was part of a powerful recommendation, proving the old adage that a problem corrected is often a better reference than no problem at all.


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