Ten Easy Ways to Make Sure Your References Are Saying the Right Things About YouMay 3rd, 2010
A reference — or more specifically, a positive opinion on your product or service from a well-regarded third party — is a commonly-requested RFP component presenting a potential stumbling block to a bidder. Get it right, and you can build credibility, distinguish yourself and edge out the competition; get it wrong, and you create a tough obstacle to overcome. Whether you are the buyer or seller, a reference is valuable as the objective voice of first-hand experience.
While not all proposals require the use of references, they can be a key difference-maker in those that do. Tom Robertson, Vice President of Procurement at Tesoro Corporation, a Fortune 200 petroleum refiner and marketer, said, “Do they matter? You bet they do. It’s very valuable to check references.” Robertson noted that there have been occasions when references were the key factor tipping the scales either in favor of or against a proposer.
Obviously, not having enough well-qualified references for the product or service being offered can create a significant impediment for an otherwise good proposal. However, while a good reference is unquestionably preferable, a less-than-glowing one isn’t always the end of the story for the supply chain professionals who frequently check them.
“A bad reference can be overcome, especially if the supplier owns up to the challenges faced and demonstrates that corrective actions were taken,” Robertson said. “I would look positively on their honesty and forthrightness.”
“I might ask for another reference, though,” he added.
In addition to the most obvious impacts references can have, there are a number of subtle ways references can reflect well or poorly on the proposer without even being checked. Your references can impart a bad impression without saying a word if they are hard to reach or poorly presented within the document.
As with any proposal component, thoughtfulness, preparation and organization will make you stand out from your competitors. Following the guidelines presented below will help you improve the chances your references make a good impression and avoid creating obstacles to success.
- Give Notice. Common courtesy dictates that you let your reference know he will be contacted before you present him.
- Get Your Story Straight. Make sure your reference will, when contacted, speak positively and lucidly of you and your product or service. In addition, ensure your reference has a sufficient understanding of your past performance to address the more detailed or technical aspects of your customer’s inquiry.
- Accuracy Counts. One way to make sure your reference reflects poorly on you without saying a word is to make that person difficult to contact. Make sure the contact information you provide is current and correct.
- Make Contact Easy. Give your customer as many ways to contact your reference as possible (that are also acceptable to each reference) so he can pick his favorite means of communication. And, with electronic communication being preferred by so many now, make sure you include an email address. Finally, be consistent – provide the same means of contacting all your references so your customer doesn’t conclude you accidentally omitted something or, worse, were unable to obtain a common means of contact.
- Devil in the Details. Provide a description of the product or services provided so your customer can mentally verify their similarity to those in the current proposal. This description will also give him a convenient place to begin a conversation with your reference. However, don’t get carried away and present something your reference might consider confidential.
- Vary Perspectives. Providing references at multiple levels enables your customer to verify your ability to work with personnel throughout his organization. It is fine to present executive references as long as you also provide some staff ones so your customer can confirm you’re the best fit for each.
- Avoid Confusion. Just because your reference has changed employers or roles doesn’t mean he can’t continue to speak glowingly on your behalf. Provide a simple explanation of your reference’s career move and keep it from becoming an issue.
- Beware of Reference Fatigue. Overuse can diminish the enthusiasm of even your most die-hard fans. Keep track of how and when you use each reference and give your favorites a break; let some time elapse between uses.
- Observe Freshness Date. Even the best reference must be retired at some point. Stop using references when they get stale. After a couple years of speaking to your customers about your product or service, it’s time to find some new ones.
- Style Points. References don’t have to look difficult to read. Why not make them as appealing as the rest of your document? Present them in a table, use color or vary your fonts, and, as always, don’t be afraid of white space.
But remember, references are only a small part of the whole story. The greatest of references won’t overcome a critical weakness or poor overall proposal. “References are typically one of the last criteria I check,” Robertson said. “I don’t want to spend time checking references unless I know there is a likelihood we want to make an award or the supplier is at least going to be one of the finalists.”
Need more help making the best use of your references or improving any other aspect of your proposals? Contact Kinetic today.
About Kinetic Group, LLC
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