The newly-established Reference Standards Board is organized as a central source for the outsourcing industry.
Executive references can often be a decisive factor in major outsourcing contract awards that can run into the tens and hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars. Yet few service providers have a process for providing complete, accurate, and relevant client references on a timely basis. Recognizing this market need, Eva Schmatz has co-founded the Reference Standards Board. As President of Summus, a preeminent market research firm, Eva Schmatz is well known for the pioneering market research work she has done to guide companies in corporate branding, marketing/sales strategies, and new business development. Eva has directed several hundred market research studies for Global 1000 companies and interviewed thousands of C-level executives. She is the best one-on-one interviewer in the business.
JV: Why are references so important in the sales process?
ES: References are critically important. Companies and executives have found it more and more difficult over the years to be able to clearly specify and then source solutions to their problems. They have indicated their need for more independent, objective, and unbiased client reference information. They want a more reliable and credible basis for selecting the best-value service providers to manage their complex outsourcing programs. This is true in the world of IT and the world of outsourcing and true in the world of strategy. The ability to measure and assess an organizations delivery in areas that have a much bigger component of variability becomes a challenge. The reference becomes more and more important because high-value results are only going to be delivered if you have the right people working with you. The reference helps you ensure that you have people that can not only deliver what you ask them to deliver, but also tell you what it is that you are not thinking about. The key is the ability to do all of this in a way that supports your organization and its culture.
JV: What is the mission of the Reference Standards Board?
ES: Our mission is to establish and maintain high standards for the way that executive references are used in the sales proposal process. We provide independent and objective reports, with our established strict standards for the interview process and criteria for selecting client reference givers. In the end, our goal is to give corporate buyers much more useful information, enabling them to select the right firms to meet their needs and requirements.
JV: Why do you see the Reference Standards Board as an industry solution?
EV: Buyers who review references will have efficiencies and a higher level of confidence if they have the ability to look at them in a standardized form. We believe that the methodology used by the Reference Standards Board (RSB) will set the bar and expectations on how references should be handled in all stages of the reference gathering process. What we hear from executives in all industries is that if you can create a process that is repeatable and learnable, it will be more effective, more efficient, and more broadly used. And to ensure that we are representing the full spectrum of industry needs, we are creating an Advisory Board consisting of leading buyers, providers, and consultants.
JV: The name of the organization is the Reference Standards Board, but what kind of standards are you establishing?
ES: We are establishing standards in a number of areas that we have observed to have too much variability in delivery and performance. One area of standards is simply the structure of the reference. We are establishing a clear and structured way of delivering information and a standardized way of supporting it. A second area of standards is the ability to identify correctly the type of people that provide references. The reference giver should be of a sufficient level within the organizationable to speak to issues and claims that are being made about the success of the engagement. We have a series of standards that we use as a screening device for every reference that we certify. In addition, we have standards that we apply within our own organization on how we conduct interviews as it relates to our larger research practice. All of these standards are fundamental to us and make a given reference more textually helpful and interesting to the ultimate leader.
JV: How does the reference validation process work?
ES: The validation process has a series of steps. Initially, the service provider will articulate their key successes achieved for a given engagement. Thats very important because every engagement has certain objectives, and the nature of these successes is going to vary engagement by engagement. We want to give them the right to say on a given engagement this is what we achieved for a client. Then we go to those reference givers and talk with them to determine their degree of involvement in a certain engagement. We want to ascertain from them whether they have the in-depth information and hands-on experience to allow them to answer these questions confidently. So we check that kind of information first. Then, in advance of the interview, we let them know the nature of the key successes that the service provider claims regarding the engagement. Now why would we do that? We want them to be fully prepared and have every opportunity to feel that theyve really given their most accurate and thoughtful response. Our objective is simply to find out from them whether the service provider has accurately reflected the success of the engagements and how they would comment on the claims that the service provider has made. Once we have gathered the reference from them in the individual interview, we will provide them with a transcript of their reference for review and comment. Why do we do that? We want to give the reference giver 100 percent confidence that we have accurately reflected not only what they say, but also how they say it. We want them to be willing to go on record with this reference, so we show them the transcript of their reference. They have the opportunity to indicate that they fully concur with their statements. The service provider may then see the reference but may not in any way alter the reference.
JV: Whats unique about your methodology for validating references?
ES: Our methodology is an individual in-depth interviewing approach that is very friendly to its respondents. It allows respondents to dig deep and articulate not only the objective reasons for their decisions, but the more subjective influences that prompt those decisions and color their ultimate evaluation. Client reference reports reflect the actual thinking and language of the reference giver, with his/her own verbatim quotes and responses to specific questions. These reports are both substantive and informative.
JV: Does the reference interviewing process require a special type of researcher with a unique background or mix of experiences?
ES: Essential to our success is not the mix of background of our researchers but their ability to listen well and understand the information. This means people who can be on the receiving end of information without feeling the need to participate in it at some level. In order to become successful in business, we are usually required to develop a habit of forming our own opinions, indicating them, and verbalizing them. We start to express outwardly and neglect our ability to reflect inwardly and listen to the ideas of others. But when you are doing a diagnostic report, you need to have people who have that interesting combination of being able to put themselves aside and listen. At the same time, they need to understand enough about the business to know when they hear something interesting or unusual, and exactly when to respond or pursue an issue. That just happens to be a rare combination and we are fortunate to have built an exceptional team over the years.
JV: So what has been the reaction of the outsourcing industry to the formation of the Reference Standards Board?
ES: We announced the formation of the RSB at the most recent Sourcing Interests Group Conference. We were overwhelmed by the positive response from the industry and have followed up by seeking the counsel of, and endorsement of, so many industry leaders. During the first quarter of 2005, we will begin pilot tests for market leaders, work with our advisory board, and expand our service in
JV: How can you and your co-founders be reached?
ES: The Reference Standards Board is located at