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References and Referrals
I mentioned in the section on "word of mouth" research how useful it is to get personal recommendations and referrals when selecting a vendor (or manufacturer). In most cases though, you'll find a company you like through other avenues. It can still be useful to have the benefit of communicating with a real customer of the company--especially for smaller companies, or for companies you'll be spending a lot of money with or working with closely.
A good test of a company's willingness to provide service, and work for your satisfaction, is to ask them for references of satisfied customers. In essence, this is like "word of mouth" only backwards. It's generally not needed for larger companies, because it's relatively easy to find feedback from some of these firms' customers online or elsewhere. It's essential for smaller or newer companies that you want to establish a relationship with.
Of course, when you ask for a reference you are "stacking the deck" in the favor of the company--don't expect them to give you the name of a customer who hates them "just to be fair". That's not what salespeople are paid to do. ;^) Still, you might be surprised how honest references will be about a vendor or manufacturer's strengths and weaknesses; just because they are happy with the company, that doesn't mean they are in the company's back pocket. Especially in the business world, most people who give references take them very seriously.
If you get references who only give glowing commendations about every aspect of the company you are considering, to the point where they start to sound like an infomercial, be cautious. This means that either that company really is truly amazing, or else that the references have been "hand-picked" and aren't objective. "Special arrangements" between companies and references certainly aren't unheard of, so always judge carefully.
Obviously, if a company refuses to give you references, that speaks for itself! Some companies won't have them readily available; they may have to "get back to you". By itself this shouldn't cause concern, because few people today bother to ask for references when dealing with new companies. This precaution was more popular years ago.