You don't have to travel to the reference site. It is far cheaper, faster and more effective (because you can talk to more references) to use the phone. It's usually best to have the same person make all the calls. This provides a certain level of consistency to the questions asked and to the documentation in the conclusions.
Find out a little bit about the company you are calling, including the industry, size and any information that is publicly available on what they are doing. If the vendor gives you the name and number of a reference, the vendor has probably forewarned the reference of your impending call; however, don't make that assumption. Be sure to ask the vendor to alert the references that you will be calling. On your initial call to the references, you will introduce yourself, schedule a time for the conversation if your initial call is inconvenient for the reference, give a very brief description of your environment and project, where you are in the selection process and the products you are considering. Thank them in advance for their time.
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