What Are “User Reference Programs”

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urpsWhen Niraj Patel picks up his phone, a reporter on the other end asks him for a few minutes of his time. Patel, the network and telecommunications manager for General Motors Acceptance Corp., a national finance company, settles back in his chair, interrupting his work for a conversation that could last 30 minutes. Hes used to calls like this. As part of Novell Inc.s user-reference program, he gets requests for interviews at least once a week.

Although its not an official part of the job, Patel and dozens of other IT executives at Fortune 500 companies regularly talk about their experiences with products. Whats in it for them? In two words, better support. Some even manage to squeeze perks out of vendors, like free consulting and access to beta programs.

Take Patel. When we migrated from NetWare 3.11 to 4.01, he says, Novell put one of their systems engineers on site just to smooth the transition. They never sent an invoice for a consulting fee. Likewise, Clark Becker, director of distributed processing for electronics retailer Best Buy, reaped benefits through a Microsoft Corp. Windows NT user-reference program.

We havent spent a lot of money on the consulting side, Becker says. Thats part of the unexpected support we got from Microsoft. They didnt bill us for their help.

User-reference programs are common across the computer industry; its hard to find a product that doesnt have a corresponding database. Vendors depend on user quotes and case studies in the press (and, to a lesser extent, in internal marketing testimonials) to show a products real-world benefits.

Getting into a program is easy: Customers are usually identified as candidates when they buy a product. After theyre quoted in the press, theyll often get a courtesy call from a product manager or another company representative. For many users, this opens the door to vital contacts within the company. If Ive got a problem that doesnt seem to be getting resolved through the normal channels and were about to push a panic button, there are about three people we can call at Microsoft for help, Becker says.

Having close contacts at suppliers also has strategic value. Edmund Yee, senior network specialist with Chevron Canada Ltd., got to know product managers at Microsoft through a Windows NT beta and user-reference program. Now his contacts let him know whats coming down the pike. Someone at Microsoft will say, Hey, you might want to think about this product when youre doing your strategic planning, Yee says. Users also have an easier time getting into beta programs once theyre in a user-reference database.

Hidden benefits

And there are other benefits. Executives on a user-reference program often get calls from vendors that compete with their supplier. Brian Moura, assistant city manager for San Carlos, Calif., and a Windows 95 beta tester, likes this because hes always looking for a better mousetrap. Another executive says he gets calls from peers in other industries looking to share experiences.

Whats the trade-off to such indulgences? Phone time, yes. But what about honesty and integrity? Not a problem, according to users. When Novell asked Marianne Beauregard if she would talk to the press about NetWare, the LAN administrator for Sun Diamond Growers agreed. But I also said that I wasnt going to sit there and sugarcoat Novell, just like I wouldnt sugarcoat Microsoft, Beauregard says.

Novell gave the nod to GMACs Patel for a Network World case study on NetWare vs. Windows NT, knowing full well that GMAC uses both. Before he spoke with a reporter, Patel emphasizes, Novell told me to say what I had to say. There was no pressure at all.

Of course, vendors screen for success stories from the start when looking for testimonials. Theyre after enthusiasts. But if a user complains about a product to the press, the company usually goes out of its way to find a fix for the problem rather than bump that user from the database.

Indeed, user-reference programs give customers a unique opportunity to express their views. Criticism, in particular, resonates a hundred times more clearly in the pages of a magazine than it does in a call to company tech support. Both GMACs Patel and Chevron Canadas Yee say theyve seen their comments incorporated into new product upgrades and releases.

So if its a soapbox youre looking for, hop onto a user-reference program. It just might beat a path to the right vendors door. Since joining a reference program at Standard Microsystems Corp., Patel has had his calls returned immediately. Whats more, theyre also a bit more lenient on configuration changes, and they even work better with pricing, he says.

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