Buying software? You should ignore references
Being a (small) software entrepreneur, it is still amazing to witness how hell is breaking loose when certain large software vendors start deploying their “solution”. Even more fascinating, is that after causing massive damage, the vendor just signs another massive deal with another large company and hell breaks loose again. Repeat this one hundred times, and you witness a world-wide verticalized software leader crippling an entire industry with half-backed technology.
Any resemblance between the characters in this post and any real retail company is purely coincidental.
I already pointed out that Requests For Quotes (RFQ) were a recipe for disaster, but RFQs alone do not explain the scale of the mess. As become more and more familiar with selling to large companies, I now tend to think that one heavyweight driver behind these epic failures is a banal flaw of the human mind: we massively overvalue other people’s opinion on a particular subject instead of relying on our own judgment.
In B2B software, one’s references usually come from is a person who works in a company similar to the one you are trying to sell to, and who, when called by your prospects, conveys exceptionally positive feelings about you and extremely vague information about your solution. Having tested this approach myself, I can say that the results are highly impressive: the reference call is an incredibly efficient sales method. Thus, it is pretty safe to assume that any sufficiently large software B2B vendor is also be acutely aware of this pattern as well.
At this point, for the vendor, it becomes extremely tempting not to merely stumble upon happy customers who happen to be willing to act as referees, but to manufacture these references directly, or even to fake them if it’s what it takes. How hard could this be? It turns out that it’s not hard at all.
As a first-hand witness, I have observed that there are two main paths to manufacturing such references, which I would refer to as the non-subtle path and the subtle path. My observations indicate that both options are routinely leveraged by most B2B software vendors once they reach a certain size.
The non-subtle path is, well, not subtle: you just pay. Don’t get me wrong, there is no bribery involved or anything that would be against the law. Your “reference” company get paid through a massive discount on its own setup fee, and is under a strict agreement that they will play their part in acting as a reference later on. Naturally, it is difficult to include this in the official contract, but it turns out that you don’t need to. Once a verbal agreement is reached, most business executives stick to the spirit of the agreement, even if they are not bound by written contract to do so. Some vendors go even a step further by directly offering a large referral fee to their flagship references.
The subtle path takes another angle: you overinvest in order to make your “reference” client happy. Indeed, usually, even the worst flaws of an enterprise software can be fixed given unreasonable efforts, that is, efforts that go well beyond the budget of your client. As a vendor, you still have the option to pick a few clients where you decide to overinvest and make sure that they are genuinely happy. When the time comes and a reference has to be provided, the reference is naturally chosen as one of those “happy few” clients who benefit from an outstanding service.
While one can be tempted to argue that the subtle path is morally superior to the non-subtle path, I would argue that they are both equally deceptive, because a prospect gets a highly distorted view of the service actually provided by the vendor. The subtle path has the benefit of not being a soul crushing experience for the vendor staff, but many people accommodate with the non-subtle path as well.
If you happen to be in a position of buying enterprise software, it means that you should treat all such hand-picked references with downright mistrust. While it is counter-intuitive, the rational option is to refuse any discussions with these references as they are likely to distort your imperfect (but so far unbiased) perception of the product to be acquired.
Refusing calls with references? Insanity, most will say. Let’s step back for one second, and let’s have a look at what can be considered as the “gold standard”  of rational assessment: the paper selection process of international scientific publications. The introduction of blind, and now double-blind, peer reviews was precisely motivated to fight the very same kind of mundane human flaws. Nowadays, if a research team was to try to get a paper published based on the ground that they have buddies who think that their work is “cool”, the scientific community would laugh at them, and rightly so. Only the cold examination of the work itself by peers stands ground.
And that is what references are: they are buddies of the vendor.
In addition, there is another problem with references that is very specific to the software industry: time is of the essence. References are a reflection of the past, and by definition, when looking at the past, you are almost certain to miss recent innovations. However, software is an incredibly fast-paced industry. Since I first launched Lokad, the software business for commerce has been disrupted by three major tech waves: cloud computing, multichannel commerce and mobile commerce; and that is not even counting “minor” waves like Big Data. Buying software is like buying a map: you don’t want an outdated version.
Software that is used to run large companies is typically between one and two decades behind what would be considered as “state of the art”. Thus, even if a vendor is selling technology that is one decade behind the rest of the market, this vendor can still manage to be perceived as an “upgraded” company by players who were two decades behind the market. It is a fallacy to believe that because the situation improved somewhat, the move to purchase a particular software was a good one. The opportunity to get up to speed with the market has been wasted, and the company remains uncompetitive.
No matter which approach is adopted by the vendor to obtain its references, one thing is certain: it takes a tremendous amount of time to obtain references, typically years. Thus, by the time a references are obtained, chances are high that the technology that has been assessed by the referee has now become outdated. At Lokad, it happened to us twice: by the time we obtained references for our “classic” forecasting technology, we had already released our “quantile” forecasting technology and our former “classic” forecasting software was already history. And three years later, history repeated itself as we released “quantile grids” forecasting that is vastly superior to our former “quantiles”. If companies were buying iPhone based on customer references, they would just be starting to buy the iPhone 1 now, not trusting iPhone 2 yet because it would still lack customer references; and it would be unimaginable to even consider all the different versions from iPhone 3 to iPhone 6 that have not yet been time-tested.
The need for references emerges because the software buyer is vulnerable and insecure, and rightly so, as epic failures are extremely frequent when buying enterprise software. While the need to obtain security during the buying process is real, references, as we have seen, is a recipe for major failures.
A much better approach is to carry out a thorough examination of the solution being proposed, and yes, this usually means becoming a bit of an expert in this field in order to perform an in-depth assessment of the solution being presented by the vendor. Don’t delegate your judgment to people you have no reason to trust in the first place.
 The scientific community is not devoid of flaws, it is still large bunch of humans after all. Peer reviewing is a research area in progress. Publication protocols are still being improved, always seeking to uphold higher standards of rationality.