What questions should I ask to the references of the consulting firm I'm planning on hiring?
Rarely does a reference have anything enlightening to tell you. Nevertheless, it’s on you to look beyond the flattering recommendations of the reference and figure out whether the vendor is able enough to do the job to your satisfaction. You will never get a poor reference from a vendor. You’ll probably get a list of vetted clients who are sure to speak highly of them. Better still is to ask the vendor for a list, with names of the last five clients they worked with. Sure, they can still slightly manipulate the list, but this way at least, you'll get a more balanced understanding of the company’s recent work.
You need to investigate both negative and positive feedback before investing your company’s money and time with any vendor. You'd much rather be prepared for risks than be surprised by them. No vendor will let you talk to a bad reference, but if you probe, you can get objective insights from the reference by asking the right questions. It's up to you to get the most out of the reference check.
People often end up asking general questions like “Were you happy with what they delivered?” or “What were your experience with them?”. You’re bound to get better insights by asking probing and specific questions.
Start by asking them how they came across the vendor and what type of selection process they employ, RFP, single source? What other vendors did they consider? Is the vendor still providing services or has the engagement been completed? And in what capacity did they use the vendor? This helps you understand how much of the vendor’s services or software you have in common with the reference and whether their usage was on the same level as your expected interaction with the vendor.
Find out why they selected this vendor over others? Learn what characteristics the vendor brought to the table beyond any others that the client evaluated during their selection process.
Ask them about contract changes. If the reference mentions a number of changes, it might be a sign of the vendor not managing scope creep during the project, or them not doing a good enough job of scoping the project initially.
Is the reference willing to single-source any more work in the future to this vendor? If its a no, is it because they don't believe the vendor can handle the bulk of work or because their procurement rules do not permit single source.
Ask them how well the vendor met their requirements and expectations? Ask them to narrate any incident where the vendor let them down, and how they recouped. Nobody's perfect, but their attitude, how they reacted and recovered from the issues is what you need to look out for.
What are some things the reference wishes the vendor had done differently? If the answer has anything to do with improving service, quality or product delivery, count that as a warning flag. Dig deeper to find out exactly what made them frame this opinion and decide its relevance to your business.
How well did the vendor remain within the original budget and timeline? Dig deeper to understand the reasons if the vendor didn’t remain within the timeline or budget. It's not always the vendor’s fault. The client could have changed the project’s scope.
In the design of the engagement, did the client fully understand their business needs?
Did they maintain regular communication through all the phases of engagement? Could they have improved their communication and how?
Does the reference consider the vendor a partner in their success? Why or why not? You’re looking for a partnership, not a transaction. To foster a good relationship, both clients and vendors must make an effort.
How satisfied are they with the skills of the people from the vendor who worked on this engagement on a scale of 1-5? Probe if less than 5.
Ask them whether intellectual Property was a consideration? How was it handled?
What advice do they wish they had known before moving forward with this vendor? And would they select this vendor again knowing what they know today? Why or why not? This question gets at the heart of any concerns the client reference may have with the vendor. Dig a little here, if necessary.
Ask them to share an instance where the vendor was an excellent fit. This question gives the reference an opportunity to help the vendor shine and talk about any positive interactions they’ve had.
Make sure you go through the firm’s roster to see the talent they house. Their engineers must suit your style. They should respect your knowledge of your business, and not have a fixed idea to “sell” but instead have the intellectual and communication skills to bring the correct advice and solutions to your business. General ability is more important than a very specific technical qualification unless you need a specific technical role. Then, you really aren’t hiring a consultant. You're looking for a technical top gun.