How to check the references

How to Check the References for Consulting Services the Right Way

by | Oct 14, 2022 | Clients, Managing the Process

When you are looking for a consultant or a consulting firm to help you improve your business, it’s a good idea to check the references provided. References can provide more information about the consultant or firm and can offer insights into the kind of work they have done in the past.

Consulting services are an investment, and in many cases, you are generally paying a flat fee for the entirety of the project. For instance, you read reviews on the internet for any product you use. Now you wouldn’t buy a product without going through any reviews. So then, why is it different for consulting? Consulting has long been a black-box, without transparency, but is it inevitable? Hell no!

Not checking the references can lead to wasted time and money, so it’s important that you build this step into your decision-making process. Hence, there are more reasons to check the references; just read on to find out!

Why is it Important to Check the References?

Many businesses or companies do not check the references and instead rely solely on the consultants’ or consulting firm’s words. And there is a very good chance that they will be let down by them.

When most people think of consultants, they think of someone who is hired to come in and offer their expertise on a particular subject. However, there is more to consulting than just having a set of skills or experience.

A good consultant is also someone who is able to adapt their approach to fit the needs of their client. For example, some consultants may be very technical and focused on the hard aspects of a problem, while others may be more concerned with people and the soft elements.

The best consultants are those who are able to assess a situation and tailor their approach accordingly. This ability to adapt is what sets the best consultants apart from the rest.

Consultants who are doers can be found even in categories such as operations excellence. In other words, they get you the productivity you require, albeit sometimes abruptly. They might offend some feelings, because they focus first on results.

You might also find consultants that can be known as groomers. They will get everyone on the same page about the project and make sure that both the management and operational teams are on board. But the results might be lesser or delayed, because they focus first on the relationships and the people.

Hence, depending on the nature of your project, you may require one or the other. It is therefore crucial to understand the “type” of consultants with whom you are dealing. Rarely will you discover such information on their website.

Furthermore, if you really want to know if a consultant has done a terrific job in their previous assignments, the only viable way is to ask their former clients about their performance. And this simple process is what you call checking the references.

When to Check the References?

Do not wait until you are down to a single consulting firm before checking references. Because the feedback you receive from previous customers will inform your evaluation of the various proposals and influence your decision.

When you are in the final selection phase with three to five consulting firms, it is time to organize a few calls. Ideally, immediately after reviewing the final form of their offers.

How to Check the References the Right Way?

After making a shortlist of consulting firms and initiating the RFP process, it’s time to check the references. Ideally, checking the references is perhaps the final step in selecting the right consultant or consulting firm for your business. Do not be misled by the presentation’s list of logos or the website’s and proposal’s anonymous case studies. The projects that they represent might be very old or not very successful! You will never know if you don’t ask. So you require a minimum of two references for the project.

Call the references and make sure you ask the correct questions. You might start making a list of the factors that are important to you, such as their capacity for knowledge transfer, how they work with teams, or their influence on the company. To all the referrals and consulting companies, pose the same questions. A few additional, specially crafted questions can be included to help you eliminate uncertainties that you might have discovered in the proposals.

What Questions to Ask?

First things first, you want to properly assess whether or not the consulting firm in question is the right fit for your needs. So, keeping that in mind, you will need to find answers to some questions such as the following.

  • Do the consultants know what you’re going through and the problem you’re trying to solve?
  • Do they know enough and have enough experience to solve the problem?
  • Do you think it will be possible for you and the consultant to work together? That’s what it means to fit.

These questions are not always answered clearly by the written proposal and the pitch alone. You’ll need to see the reference as a deeper look into the history of a consulting firm.

Some of your questions will be about your priorities and will apply to all consulting firms. Others will be about a specific consulting firm and a weakness or grey area in their proposal that you have noticed. Hence, you’ll need to build your list of questions on the basis of these.

How to Build Your List of Questions?

For instance, is your priority about expertise? Let’s say you need someone with knowledge of gas distribution across Europe. This is quite specific. Maybe you can ensure that all the consulting companies have relevant experience.

Alternately, perhaps you’ve had a poor experience with a consulting firm in the past and want to assess both their ability to build relationships and how well they manage their clients.

You should be able to tell if they manage projects well and meet deadlines based on their project management skills. And how well they can leave an impression. They could, however, also be a cloud of uncertainty. And there’s where you should leverage the ambiguities in their offer that you’ve found.

What may these grey area spots be, you might ask? When you analyze the proposal, you can find some errors or have doubts about the consultants’ capacity to carry out the task correctly and in accordance with the requirements. And from these, you can develop queries and questions list.

A Few Things to Keep in Mind

Once you have your list of questions, you can move to the next step and that is to check the references. But when following this procedure, you need to make sure to keep the below things in mind.

#1. Make It Personal

The annual turnover rate in the consulting industry is between 15% and 20%. Partners and consultants transition from one consulting firm to the next, get engaged by clients, or establish their own consulting firm. Over the course of four to five years, entire teams are replaced by new talent.

For instance, in 2012, a top 10 consulting firm had an innovative organization practice that attracted smart individuals from around the globe. Five years later, all the consultants had departed, but the corporation retained its white papers and presentation references.

That being said, a crucial aspect in the success of a consulting project is the project’s leadership and the expertise of those engaged. Request references for the key members of the team. They must have played an active role in the referred projects.

#2. Make Sure the References Follow the 4 R’s Procedure

The 4 R’s procedure is simple and very easy to follow. The 4 R’s stand for: Real, Relevant, Recent, and Related. Now, let’s look at them in a bit more detail.

a). Real: First and foremost, it should be a legitimate and real reference. Don’t just jump to conclusions too quickly. We have seen some consultants provide the names of former coworkers (consultants themselves) as references. Hence, make sure the references are real people who have had positions that are relevant for your project by checking their name, title, and background.

b). Relevant: Second, it must be about a project that is similar to yours. It could be a project with a similar setting, goal, location, or business. You want to be sure that the consulting company knows how to get your project done.

c). Recent: Third, the reference should be recent. Set a limit for yourself. Five years is a good number. All industries and jobs are changing faster than they used to. A project that was run well for 15 years doesn’t tell us much about what could happen now.

d). Related: Fourth, the reference must pertain to the project manager or team involved in the project. Performance in consulting is highly dependent on an individual’s abilities, notably those of the project manager. Therefore, what you seek is input on this specific project manager, not an anonymous individual who will not participate in the project.

#3. Double-Check With the Previous Client

Checking the references is always a good idea when you’re hiring a new firm. This is especially true if the client has a very unique nature of doing the project which may call for a high degree of specialization.

By checking the references, you can double-check with the previous client to see if the firm really did work in this area. This will give you a good idea of whether or not they’re qualified to take on your project.

#4. Always Only Ask for The Best

Last but not least, you want top references from companies where the consultants did a good job. It will also tell you how they did on the different factors that will be important to you as you make your choice.

For instance, if you’ve decided that cultural fit is an important factor for your project, ask the consultants how they worked with their teams and how they dealt with any differences in culture.

Don’t make any changes to the references. If the consulting company says they can’t give you references because of confidentiality, call a third party, like Consulting Quest, to check the references for you.

Watch this short video on how to check the references of a consulting firm!

A Quick Round-up

Checking references is an important step in your consulting sourcing process. By following the important points mentioned in this post, you can be sure that you’re getting accurate and complete information from references that will help you make a decision about which consultant to hire.

Thanks for reading and we hope you found this post helpful. Do you have any other tips for checking references? Share them with us if you can!

CEO and Co-Founder at | Website | + posts

Hélène Laffitte is the CEO of Consulting Quest, a Global Performance-Driven Consulting Platform and author of “Smart Consulting Sourcing”, a step by step guide to getting the best ROI from your consulting. With a blend of experience in Procurement and Consulting, Hélène is passionate about helping Companies create more value through Consulting.

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