Hello and welcome back to Smart Consulting Sourcing, the only podcast about consulting procurement.
I am Hélène, and today we will be talking about how to check the references for your consulting services. However, before that, let me give a recap of last week’s podcast.
Companies are improving their purchasing skills. However, procurement remains a time-consuming task involving a large amount of data and documentation. While many businesses and services have embraced digital transformation, procurement is still lagging.
However, there is a much better future on the horizon: within the next few years, digital technology will automate most regular procurement activities.
With the rapid growth in technological advancements and new procurement practices coming into the spotlight, companies need to keep innovating their work methods and keep up with the global trend to take exclusive benefits of technology to grow their business and outperform their competition.
Listen to the complete podcast about How Digital Contributes to the Top Procurement Trends?
However, this week, I want to discuss how to check the references for your consulting services?
If you’re looking for the proper consultants for your next project, you’re well aware of how difficult it may be. It’s time to choose one of the possible providers you’ve identified.
It’s easy to be deceived by flashy websites with false case studies while doing so. Just don’t be fooled; seek at least two references from each potential consulting firm to check if they have the skills they claim and you need.
Why is it essential?
Because many companies don’t check the references and believe the words of the consultants. And there is a good chance that they will be disappointed.
But let me take it one step further. A consultant isn’t only a sum of skills and experience.
Some consultants are incredibly technical or focused on the hard aspects for instance. And some others are more focused on people or the soft elements.
Even in a category like operations excellence, you will find consultants that are doers. In other words, they get you the productivity you need, sometimes a bit abruptly.
And you will find consultants that are what we call in French “papouilleurs” or groomers, and they will get everyone aligned on the project and ensure you get the buy-in of both management and operational teams.
I was discussing this recently with the Strategy director of a French industrial leader, and he was telling me: “I would rather have a half-baked solution that is accepted by everyone than a perfect solution that nobody wants.”
And depending on your project, you might need one or the other. That’s why it is essential to know what “type” of consultants you are dealing with. And you will rarely find that information on their website.
Besides, it is not necessarily because they want to fool you on purpose. It is just like when I was in High School. There was that girl who would always cry after an exam because she had done so badly and then get the best grade afterward.
We are often terrible judges of our own performance. We either overestimate or underestimate how well we did. And consultants will do the same.
The only way to know if a consultant has done an excellent job is to ask former clients what they thought about it. Checking references is just that.
And since you cannot measure the quality in consulting and visualize a beautiful portfolio, you can only grab your phone (or your Zoom meeting, actually) and get the information directly from the source.
The honest debate now is not whether you should check the references but how you should do it.
What’s the right moment to check the references?
Don’t wait until you have only one consulting firm to check the references. Because the feedback you get from former clients will feed your grading of the different proposals and impact your decision.
When you are in your final selection round, with 3 to 5 consulting firms at most, organizing a few calls is the right moment. Ideally, just after you have reviewed the last version of their proposals.
What questions should you ask?
Let’s go back to what you are trying to achieve: you want to assess if the consulting firms are the right fit for your needs.
Ultimately, what you are aiming for is to find the answers to these three questions:
- Have the consultants a good understanding of your situation and the challenge you’re trying to solve?
- Do they have the knowledge and experience to resolve the issue?
- DO you think you will be able to collaborate with the consultant? That’s the notion of fit.
The written proposal and the pitch are not always enough to answer these questions. See the reference as a further dive into a consulting firm’s background.
Some of your questions will be based on your priorities and applied to all consulting firms, and some will be specific to one consulting firm and the weakness or a grey area that you have identified in their proposal.
How do you build your list of questions?
Are your priorities, for example, expertise? Let’s imagine that you are looking for expertise in gas distribution in Europe. This is quite precise. Maybe you can make sure that all the consulting firms have experience in this area.
Alternatively, maybe you have had a bad experience previously with a consulting firm, and you want to look at their capacity to form relationships as well as how effectively they handle their customers.
Their project management skills should give you a good notion of how successfully they manage projects and whether they stick to deadlines or not. And their capacity to make an impression.
However, they might also be a fog of doubt. And that’s where you should make use of the grey areas you’ve discovered in their offer.
Now, you’d think, what can be these grey areas? When you examine the proposal, you may notice certain flaws or have reservations about the consultants’ ability to complete the job correctly and meet the criteria.
This is what I refer to as the “grey area.” You can build questions out of these reservations.
Here you go; you have your list now. Let’s call the references now.
How do you get genuine feedback?
The first step, always, is to give a few days to your consulting firm to contact their clients and inform them that you would like to check the references. It will ensure higher answer rates, and the former client will be more comfortable sharing their experience.
You can either ask for a traditional phone call, a Zoom meeting (or whatever platform you are using), or send an online survey. Everything works.
Be clear on your objectives and mindful of your interlocutor’s time. Remember, they often have high positions in their company, and you might want to consider this before contacting them. You can never ignore politics.
Let me tell you now how we check the references at Consulting Quest. Besides the above questionnaire, we follow a four-R reference check procedure. What does that mean exactly? The reference must be real, relevant, recent, and related.
1 Real: look at the background of the reference. Is it a real person? Have they worked in the company mentioned in the reference? Is it a client organization?
Yes, these are relevant questions because I have seen consultants giving some of their colleagues as references.
Of course, this is a huge red flag. Unless they were still part of the corporate world at the time, and that colleague was their boss. Then that’s another story.
2 Relevant: Ensure that the projects described are similar to yours. Because you don’t really care if they are good at pricing strategy if what you are looking for is a market entry study.
3 Recent: The referred project must have been completed within a suitable time frame (usually less than three years). Some companies give you tens of references.
But they are sometimes so old that the consultants didn’t take the time to update the logo on their slides.
4 Related: The reference must be about the project manager or team participating in the project. Consulting performance is strongly related to individual skills, particularly the project manager.
So what you are looking for is feedback on this particular project manager, not an anonymous guy who won’t participate in the project.
By checking references, you can reduce risks and increase the impact of your project.
Check out our Youtube video to have a visual idea about how to check the references.
Checking references is an essential step in the consulting procurement process. You will be able to collect precious information to make an informed decision on which consulting firm best fits your needs.
You build your questionnaire based on what’s essential to you (the primary criteria) and the flaws you’ve identified.
Remember to ask the relevant questions directly related to your problem and how a consultant with the right set of skills and knowledge can assist you in overcoming it.
And that marks the end of our podcast, folks. Next week, I want to talk about where the consulting industry is going in 2022? So, stay tuned.
Till then, stay safe and happy sourcing!
If you have other questions about the reference checks, remember you can contact me directly on LinkedIn or by email because I am always game for a chat!
Bye and see you next week! Au revoir!