When engaging with a new vendor for your HRIS system, calling references is arguably one of the most important steps of the process. Although it can be time consuming to coordinate calls and analyze the feedback, the comments of peers who have recently gone through the same process can be invaluable. Below the Do’s and Don’ts:
The reference provider at the other end of the line is not gaining much by giving a vendor reference; this call is a “favor” to the vendor, and you are the beneficiary. Reference calls are normally scheduled as a confirmation of the picture you have of the vendor. The calls are important because they can change your mind about hiring the vendor. Keep the call no longer than 30 minutes; be sure you have blocked off extra time in the event the call starts late. Keep an eye on the clock and make sure you get your most important questions in.
Have your question list ready; ideally you’ll send it out beforehand so the reference provider can prepare and gather answers as well. You may think this will cause them to give a less-than-honest on-the-spot answer, but remember, they are not gaining anything from the call and will work to keep their integrity. Most likely you will get better qualified and balanced answers and the reference may let you know in advance that they cannot speak on certain topics. That can give the vendor time to arrange another reference.
Focus on the most important area. Is it the functionality of the software? Ease of use? Configurability? Or do you have questions about implementation and support? You want to speak to the right people. If you are interested in the ease of use and you’re speaking with the CHRO, he or she may not use the system daily, and therefore are not the right person to ask. It will be the right person to speak with regarding reporting and analytics. Ideally, you will speak with someone who does both of the above. Avoid talking to references who are “still under development.”
4. Ask qualifying questions
Ask a few qualifying questions up front: “How did you come across vendor?” “What type of selection process did you employ?” “How is your team organized?” “When did you first launch the vendor’s solution?” “When was the last major upgrade?”
5. Keep it positive
Every reference wants to say a few nice words. After the qualifying questions, keep it on a positive note. Ask about the vendor’s strengths first. This approach is disarming, and reassures the reference that you will be fair-minded if they choose to open up.
6. Ask the difficult questions
Even if the vendor made significant mistakes, 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.
7. Try using a scale
Wherever possible, ask the reference 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 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 you can pause to drill deeper.
8. Listen and confirm
Keep questions brief. Maximize the time the reference can share. Use few words, and listen closely. Before moving to the next question, follow each answer with a succinct one-sentence summary to ensure you understand what they have said.
9. Look forward
The reference should not just look at the past, but also to 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 to 5 years. It is a major red flag if they hedge on this question.
10. Finish strong
In the end, don’t forget to ask these questions!
• If you need additional services in the future similar to what the vendor provides, what is the likelihood that you would choose the vendor again?
• What advice do you have for me in working with the vendor?
• Are there any important questions that I should have asked but didn’t?
• Can I come back to you if I have follow-up questions?
These guidelines will help you to be better prepared and to make the right choice. Additionally, you will have a new contact in your network from which you can benefit in the future.
You can download the question list below