Making the most of customer references

Why do so many organizations spend months going through a detailed vendor selection cycle – and then, right at the last minute, throw away a gilt-edged opportunity to find out just how good their prospective supplier really is?

Speaking to existing customers is one of the best ways to get the inside story on what it’s really like to work with a multi-country payroll provider before you take the plunge and sign a contract. That’s why clued-up companies come onto customer reference calls armed with a host of detailed questions and eagerly lap up every word they’re told. What’s more puzzling is why so many less-than-clued-up prospective customers treat the exercise as just one more step in the procurement cycle and little more than a tick-box exercise. It’s not that people don’t ask questions on reference calls – it’s that some people don’t take the time to prepare questions that really matter.

It’s the difference between prospective customers who use reference calls as a decision-making tool, and those who’ve already made up their minds and simply want to follow ‘due process’. It’s a little easier to treat the cycle as a decision-making tool if you’re genuinely weighing up the pros and cons of two potential partners: it takes a lot more guts if you know which way you’d like to go, but are still prepared to keep an open mind and hear the worst about your preferred partner before making a final call.

Webster Buchanan Research frequently brings multinational payroll customers together through confidential online clinics and our Global Payroll Research Network, and with their help we’ve designed a tool to support customer reference calls. If you’re about to pick up the phone to a vendor’s customer – whether for national or international payroll – here are a few pointers:

1. Don’t let the vendor join you on the call. If the reference customer wants to tell you their account manager is an axe-wielding psychopath who understands nothing about payroll, it’s going to be hard to do so with the axe-wielding psychopath sitting in on the call, breathing heavily. If a vendor is confident about what their customer will say – including anything that went wrong – it will let you get on with it alone.

2. It’s a given that you want the reference customer to tell you what went wrong in their project as well as what went right – but don’t stop there. Try to find out the root cause of any major problems – and most importantly, try to find out how the vendor reacted and what it did to fix the issues. Whether it was the vendor’s fault, the customer’s fault or most likely, a combination of the two, you want a vendor with proven capability in tackling the unexpected, and a vendor that’s committed to solving the inevitable challenges that will come up in your own project. If they can do so without charging an arm and a leg, so much the better.

3. Look at every part of the vendor journey, starting right at the beginning with the customer’s own RFP cycle. Did the promises of the sales team match what was subsequently delivered? Did the customer have to spend half a lifetime dealing with the vendor’s legal team before the project could get underway? Then talk through the implementation cycle, go-live, and quality of ongoing service delivery – and be sure to delve into the myriad of issues that make for a successful multi-country payroll project, from skills and methodologies to delivery models and governance. Ideally, the reference call will mirror the most important issues you covered in your own RFP – not so much factual components such as which countries the vendor covers, but qualitative issues, such as how effectively they cover them.

4. Find out what the reference customer would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight. Would they have gone with the same vendor – and if so, would they have asked any questions differently during their own RFP cycle? Multinationals that go into selection cycles for the first time frequently find they didn’t cover all of the necessary ground in their selection cycle.

Finally, don’t just limit yourself to the vendor’s references – look around for other customers too. The multi-country payroll sector is still relatively new, and it’s worth spending time to get a wide mix of experiences.

This column was adapted from an article that first appeared in Payroll World

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