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Three Things You Absolutely MUST Ask During Reference Calls

One step in the process of selecting a new association management system is contacting references. Once you’ve narrowed your choices down to one or two finalists, part of your due diligence should include talking to current users of the software you’re considering.

When I work with my clients on a list of questions that they should ask the references, there are three questions in particular that I always say are required questions. These three questions will give you the information most relevant to helping you make that final decision.

In no particular order, here are the questions:

  1. Tell me about a time when things went wrong with your software or your implementation. What happened, how did you report it to the vendor, and how did the vendor resolve it?This question is important for several reasons:
    • If the reference can’t think of an example, or worse yet, says there were never any problems, you’re not talking to a reliable reference (this is a polite way for me to say the reference is not telling you the full truth!). EVERY implementation and every software has issues and problems.
    • The type of problem is important. Was the problem related to a software bug? Was it related to vendor staff performance? Was it related to promises made by the salespeople but not delivered? The type of problem can be very telling.
    • How the vendor responded is the most critical part of this discussion. Did the vendor resolve it quickly and satisfactorily? Or did the vendor try to excuse themselves or blame it on someone/thing else? Did the customer think the vendor did all they could to resolve the problem?
  1. Would you recommend this company and product without reservation?The key words in this question are “without reservation.” If the person you’re talking to was referred to you by the software vendor, they should immediately answer “yes.” If they can’t recommend “without reservation” that isn’t automatically a disqualifier, but it suggests you’ll need to dig deeper to determine what the issues are that are causing the reference to hesitate.
  2. What other associations do you know that are using this product?Can you provide me with their contact info?I recommend saving this question for last. By this point in the conversation, hopefully you’ve established rapport with the reference you’re talking to, and they will be more willing and open to provide this kind of information.This question is critical, because it will give you an opportunity to talk to “off-reference list” customers, who may have had a much different experience than those customers on the reference list.

Reference calls are an important part of the system selection process and should not be managed pro-forma, but thoughtfully. Most vendors will not get universally glowing references, especially if you talk to customers not on the reference list, so some not-so-great references are to be expected. But these questions can help you really understand the vendor and the product you are considering.

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