The proper use of references
The proper use of references
12 FEBRUARY 2020 1:00 PM

This is part four of an article series focusing on the basics of hotel system selection. This installment looks into how to use references and the challenges that might come up.

This series of informational articles on the basics of system selection serve to provide a baseline understanding of the principles and fundamental strategies involved in making an informed purchase decision. Although couched in terms of IT purchases, especially the selection of an IT system for a hotel company or a hotel, these principles, strategies and practices apply to purchasing anything for your hotel enterprise, especially high-value, high-impact purchases.

Click here to read parts onetwo and three of this article series.

Today’s segment will focus on the proper use of references in system selection. References are a tricky area to execute adeptly in the system selection process. Oftentimes, a reference interview doesn’t tell you much, it becomes a time-consuming effort for what you get out of it and the hotelier has an obligation to treat the referring hotelier and his relationship with his vendor with respect. Let’s take a moment to look into each of these potential problem areas and how one might mitigate the possible issues.

Value of the reference content
This challenge has several sources. A big one is vendors are most unlikely to connect you with an unhappy client that will give a negative interview. Equally important, even an unhappy client is often unwilling to say anything too bad about their vendor to a third party. Although they are usually very glad to speak directly about shortcomings to the vendor. There are three primary strategies to overcome this problem.

  • You can speak with other users of the subject system in addition to those put forward by the vendor. You may well know other hoteliers using the system from your personal network.
  • Browsing news releases on the vendor’s website or a simple Google search will often identify a neutral reference.
  • If you get someone that is overwhelmingly negative or more likely, unbelievably positive, don’t be afraid to discount that reference and move on to the next.
    • Listen for strong praise and faint damns, or damnation with faint praise, but don’t buy the extremes.
  • Use a structured, consistent, written interview protocol for all reference check interviews.
    • Make it long enough to be meaningful, but short enough that the other hotelier does not feel you are presuming upon their time.
    • First, qualify that you are speaking to the right person:
      • Were they involved in the original selection process?
      • How long have they been working with the subject vendor?
      • Are they the point person on the relationship from their company?
    • At the beginning, focus on facts, not feelings.
      • Were any customizations or enhancements committed to during the sales cycle?
        • Were these commitments fulfilled as expected?
      • How often do you call for support?
        • What proportion of support issues get resolved on the first call or first day?
    • As you approach the end of the interview, touch on feelings and opinions:
      • Knowing everything you know now, would you choose Vendor X again?

The structured interview form is also an essential tool to address the other challenges with reference checking, how much time and effort it takes and treading carefully on other firms’ business relationships.

Checking references is time-consuming
Well, it is. Setting up the appointments, conducting the interviews (at least three, likely more) and documenting the interviews all takes time. And sometimes, despite all best efforts, you invest that time and don’t get a great read on what it is like to be a customer of the subject vendor, perhaps it hasn’t been time all that well spent. But the fact is, you have to do it. If the selection committee gets to the CEO and she asks about references, you need to have a better answer than “We ran out of budget for that.”

What do you do to mitigate this problem?

  • A tight, structured interview form as described above is crucial.
  • Be selective. Do reference checks late in the cycle with finalists only, not for all bidders.
  • Try to use the least-expensive resource available for scheduling and confirming interviews. And yes, confirm them the day before.
  • Capture your interview notes in real time and edit them immediately afterwards, not a couple days later. This practice makes summarizing all of your reference findings into a coherent finished product much more efficient.

Honor the vendors’ existing relationships
It is crucially important to maintain respect for the vendors’ existing business relationships with other hotel companies. By giving out a reference, they are exposing their most important corporate asset—their customers—to you. So, give that its due and be on time, use no more than the allotted time and avoid questions about the heart of the client’s business. And of course, be judicious in the questions about the vendor.

In the next installment of this series, we will discuss the evaluation of the proposals, references and everything else one learns during a structured system selection process.

Mark Haley and Mark Hoare are Partners at Prism Hospitality Consulting, a boutique firm serving the global hospitality industry in technology and marketing. Managing system selection efforts is a core practice area. For more information, please visit

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