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During the procurement process, you eventually reach the stage where you will want to speak with clients of the finalist being considered. Here are ten ways to make the most of each reference call. >>

1.  Be considerate of their time
For the one receiving your call, they stand nothing to gain. So the call is a “favor” to you and a deserving vendor. No reference will afford you time if you aren’t prepared to pull the trigger. Reference calls should attempt validate your decision after you’ve reached it. Never call a reference for any other reason than confirmation. The golden rule applies. Do unto others…

2.  Come prepared
Everyone is busy. So show up on time. Be mindful of the clock. Keep calls limited to 30 minutes and 20 questions. Send questions along with your invitation, so the other party can review in advance. A reference is more apt to accept your invitation if they know what you’re going to ask. They may even prepare a more insightful response or invite others to the call who can speak better to the question.

3.  Stay light on your feet
Keep your schedule clear 30 minutes after the call, in the event that the reference is late to the call, or spends too long on each question. (Yes, it does happen.) Keep an eye on the clock, and skip less relevant questions if necessary. Wrap up on time. Circle back to what you skipped, only if they are gracious enough to extend the call.

4.  Qualify up front
Instruct the vendor to provide references who have P&L responsibility and direct experience with their solution set. Avoid talking to references who are “still under development.” When the reference call commences, ask a few qualifying questions up front: “Which of your web properties use the vendor’s solution? Do you have P&L responsibility over each? How is your team organized? When did you first launch the vendor’s solution? When was the last major upgrade?”

5.  Keep the tone upbeat
Every reference wants to say a few nice words. After the qualifying questions, keep it on a positive note. Ask first about the vendor’s strengths. For example, “What are the 1 or 2 things the vendor does best?” This approach is disarming, and reassures the reference that you will be fair-minded, if they choose to open up.

6.  Counterbalance by asking them to “suggest improvements”
Even if the vendor is awful, a reference will be reluctant to say so. Don’t expect a reference to disclose private matters. But it is fair and proper to ask where the vendor can improve. Tactfully ask, “If the vendor were to ask your advice on where they can improve, how would you respond?”

7.  Listen intently, restate for clarity
Keep questions brief. Maximize the time the reference can share. Use few words, and listen closely. Before moving to the next question, follow up each answer with a succinct one-sentence summary. If the answer is: “I’d give them a 5, because…” Your response is, “So a 5 on that.”

8.  Use a measuring stick
Wherever possible, ask them to grade on a scale. For example, “On a scale of 1 to 5, how satisfied are you with…? How confident are you that…? How well did they do with…?” Use measures that anchor each following response. If they give the highest grade, don’t ask why. Just move along. Pay attention to what stands out. If the scores are 5, 5, 5, 5, 3 – then pause to drill deeper.

9.  Look forward
The reference should not just look at the past, but the future. What is their level of confidence in using the vendor in the future? I always ask if they feel the vendor will meet their needs in the next 3-5 years. It is a major red flag if they hedge on this question.

10.  Finish strong
In the end, there are three important questions I close with. (a) Would you recommend this vendor to a friend with similar needs? (b) Are there any important questions that I should have asked? Any last bit of advice you wish you had known in advance, before engaging the vendor? (c) Would they be willing to take a follow up call, if you have additional questions?

Following these best practices will help reassure your own project sponsors, and better prepare you for what lies ahead. And as a bonus, you may turn an industry peer into a helpful resource to call upon later. Just follow the golden rule.

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