Strategy clinic: Consult the experts

When thinking about buying software, what value can be derived from a visit to customer reference sites?

When thinking about buying software, what value can be derived from a visit to customer reference sites?

Usefulness depends on preparation
As you look forward to events such as site visits, you often wonder if the time devoted will be productive. I have often gone to events merely because I had previously agreed to go, with no expectation of gaining useful information. However, many times I have been proved wrong.

A little straightforward preparation often ensures such visits turn out to be extremely useful. Such preparation should include:
  • Do not go on your own: experience suggests different people take different messages from the same experience. Of course, you should involve users in the visit

  • Use the visit as a training exercise for your staff: maybe take a less experienced member of staff with you and set them tasks to achieve during the visit. If you choose someone "nearer the action" they may well see a completely different angle when they talk with their counterparts in the organisation being visited

  • Select the site(s) to visit: ask for a list of appropriate sites and select the one to visit. Similarity of industry is useful but should not always be the deciding factor

  • Decide which areas you wish to focus on: some element of the visit may well be a general introduction but try to quickly go beyond this and focus on your chosen areas

  • Ensure variety in the mode of the meeting: try to move beyond the "presentation and answer" mode towards the informal. Consider requesting a buffet lunch where you can meet a number of the organisation's staff in a less formal setting. Here you can pursue, maybe in a light hearted way, the really critical questions

  • Hold a proper debrief: if you can travel together then the discussions in the car on the way home are very useful; if this is not possible, conduct a debrief as soon as possible.

You are going on the site visit to find out things you do not already know. By definition, you can never know these things before the visit. The precise definition of the value to be derived cannot therefore be known before the visit. However, you will have spent a day wisely if it stops you buying inappropriate software.

Chris Edwards, Cranfield School of Management

Ask the right questions
Let me point out two reasons for not having a visit. We know that most projects do not deliver the anticipated benefits even though managers know the checklists for success and failure. If that is the case, why visit another customer who will remind us of the checklist of points that they followed, or should have followed? In many cases, the software supplier provides the customer reference. Surely this visit will give a biased view to hear only the good news.

Acknowledging these concerns, the right visit with the right questions can provide a major benefit. It is important to select the criteria for your visit so that you can meet the most appropriate customer. This ensures that you select the customer, so it is not the supplier's decision. The criteria will also help you identify the most important questions.

How do you select the criteria? Use published and research material to identify the key areas. Target your key stakeholders and ask them to list their major concerns. At the visit, ask open questions as well as closed ones. Pick the right people to do the visit and ensure you collate the results. Decide how you will use the results in your own project.

In summary, the customer reference visit can be a valuable learning experience, particularly if the preparation and evaluation are thorough.

Sharm Malawi, Henley College

Compare multiple sites
You are unlikely to gain much from a single visit to a single site, but multiple visits to various sites offer the opportunity to assess the effectiveness of the software in different technical and business environments in greater detail and give you a true basis for comparison.

It is equally useful to talk to others who have evaluated or piloted the software but decided against adoption, and to visit those that have adopted but for some reason - why? - are not reference sites. Arrange the visits yourself so that you cover the aspects most pertinent to your organisation and can discuss any issues frankly on a user-to-user basis.

David Roberts, Tif

Organise your own visit
We devote a great deal of time and effort to evaluating software packages against our business requirements and then, when we have chosen the best one, we do little to find out whether it is as good in practice as the salesperson's assurances led us to believe. Often the salesperson is asked to recommend, or arrange, a site visit and is present at the meeting. The hand-picked customer will hardly be critical in front of the salesperson, and the visit will be dominated by them telling you about the unique circumstances of their business. Interesting to them, but probably irrelevant to your purpose.

Site visits are an essential part of your software selection and evaluation project. They must be thought through and organised by your own project team, and carried out objectively and rigorously. All you need from the salesperson is a complete list of existing customers with as much supporting information as possible, such as which version they are using and when they went live.

Your team must choose which sites are most likely to be relevant and approach them. Much can be learned from a telephone call or e-mail, and it may be possible to send them a questionnaire. But you will also want to visit sites that seem to offer the most relevant experience. Send them your structured questionnaire, based on your own evaluation model, beforehand. Pre- and post-implementation support will interest you as much as how well the software performs.

This process is time-consuming, and may involve days out of the office for several team members. It may be difficult to persuade existing users to accommodate you. Be persistent: this is something that must not be skimped on.

Roger Marshall, Elite

Talk to users not only managers
If you are thinking of investing a lot of money in new software, it is wise to take suppliers up on any customer references they offer.

Although the references will be "friendly" customers, you can take the opportunity to see the software in action and pick up any tips they have to offer on its use. Most referees will, in my experience, give a balanced view, and will often highlight areas that may be unimportant to them, but significant to you. Try to talk to people using the system, rather than just to the managers. The users will be even more open in their assessment. The things you are looking to establish are:
  • Is it reliable?
  • Is the support service effective?
  • What is performance like?
  • Are the supplier's people up to scratch?
  • Does it perform well in the specific areas in which you are interested?
  • Any steps you can take to verify the claims the suppliers make are steps worth taking.

Hugh Macken, Certus

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