5 Powerful Reasons Why Checking References for Consulting Is Crucial

by | Feb 26, 2022

If you’re on the hunt for a top-notch consultant or consulting firm to give your business that extra boost, let me tell you why checking references for consulting services is crucial right from the start. References can provide more information about the consultant or firm and 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 for consulting services; just read on to find out!

1.    Why Checking References?

Many businesses or companies do not bother checking references for consulting and instead rely solely on the consultants’ or consulting firms’ 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 gatherers. 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.

So, depending on what your project is all about, you might need one kind of consultant over the other. It’s super important to get a handle on the ‘flavor’ of consultants you’re working with. But let’s be honest, you’re not likely to find that kind of info on their website.Now, if you want to dig deep and find out if a consultant really nailed it in their past gigs, you have to go straight to the source. You’ve got to talk to their previous clients about how they performed. That’s why checking references for consulting services is not optional. It’s a must-do.

2.    When and How Checking References for Consulting?

Do not wait until you are down to a single consulting firm before checking references for consulting projects because the feedback you receive from previous customers will help you in your evaluation of 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 version of their offers.

After making a shortlist of consulting firms and initiating the RFP process, it’s time to check the references. Ideally, checking 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 should require a minimum of two references for the project.

Go ahead and call those references, but make sure you’re asking the right questions. Start by jotting down what’s important to you. Maybe you’re interested in how well they can transfer knowledge, how they gel with teams, or what kind of impact they’ve had on the company. Ask all your references and consulting firms the same set of questions. It’s a good idea to sprinkle in a few extra, tailored questions to clear up any confusion or uncertainties that popped up when you were going through the proposals.

3.    Three Things to Keep in Mind

When it comes to checking references for consulting, there are three crucial factors to keep in mind. These points will help ensure that you are making an informed decision based on comprehensive and reliable information.

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 organizational transformation 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 of the success of a consulting project is the project’s leadership and the expertise of those engaged. So you should always request references for the key members of the team. They must have played an active role in the referred projects.

Call the References – For Real

It’s surprisingly common for clients to request references and then fail to follow through by actually contacting them. This oversight allows consultants to potentially list anyone as a reference, even their neighbors, without fear of verification. Therefore, if you ask for references, make it a point to call them. There are two key reasons for this:

  1. Verify the claims: The primary reason you request references is to verify claims. By directly contacting these references, you ensure that you are not just taking the consultant’s word for it but are actively confirming their competence and the quality of their work.
  2. Assess the Quality: This is your opportunity to gauge if the consultants truly possess the skills and experience they claim. Speaking with someone who has directly worked with them gives you insights that are not visible through resumes or proposals alone.

Make the effort to reach out to these references. It’s an essential step not only for confirming the information provided but also for gaining deeper insights into the consultants’ ability to deliver on their promises. Checking references for consulting is not just for the aesthetics.

Don’t Accept Mediocrity

When evaluating potential consultants, demand excellence. Top references should come from companies where the consultants have delivered outstanding results. This not only ensures that you are choosing the best but also sets a clear standard for what you expect from the consulting engagement.

In your discussions with referrals, delve into specific aspects of the consultant’s performance. Ask about their ability to meet deadlines, their effectiveness in problem-solving, and how well they integrated with the team. For instance, if you’ve decided that cultural fit is an important factor for your project, ask the references how the consultants worked with their teams and how they handled any cultural differences.

Sometimes consulting firms might claim they can’t provide references due to confidentiality. In such cases, don’t just take their word for it. Insist on getting some form of validation of their past performance. Checking references for consulting is a must have, and if you can’t do it yourself, there are some third-party player, such Consulting Quest, that can you you to do in full confidentiality.

4.    Use of the 4R Framework to Make Sure These References Are Solid

With Consulting Quest, we developed the 4R framework to help you verify if a reference is legitimate and worth your time. Not all references are created equal. We’ve all seen presentations with 50 logos on a page and references that are copied and pasted from one deck to the next, year after year. You don’t want that. You need references that can genuinely confirm, “Yes, this consultant is good at” whatever you are trying to achieve.

The 4R framework is simple and easy to follow. The 4 R’s stand for Real, Relevant, Recent, and Related. Let’s delve into each in more detail:


Make sure you’re dealing with a legitimate reference. Don’t just assume; verify that the references are actual folks who’ve held relevant positions for your project. Cross-verify their names, titles, and backgrounds. This ensures that you are getting authentic feedback from someone who has truly worked with the consultant in a relevant capacity.


The reference needs to be about a project that’s similar to yours. This could be in terms of setting, objectives, location, or industry. Ensure the consulting firm has the know-how to get your project over the line. Relevant references give you a clearer picture of how the consultant might perform in your specific context.


Aim for fresh references. Set a cut-off for yourself – say, five years. Today’s industries and roles are evolving faster than ever. A project that ran smoothly a decade ago doesn’t really give us a heads-up about what could go down in the present day. Recent references provide insights that are more aligned with current practices and challenges.


The reference needs to be tied to the project manager or team who’ll be working on your project. In the consulting world, performance is often a matter of individual competence, especially that of the project manager. Seek feedback on this particular project manager, not some unknown player who won’t be part of your project. This ensures that the team proposed is capable of delivering similar successful outcomes.

Download the 4R Framework Template

Download the 4R Framework Template to ensure you’re asking the right questions and gathering the most relevant information when checking references for consulting. This template will help streamline your reference-checking process, making it thorough and effective.

By using the 4R framework created specifically for checking references for consulting, you can confidently assess whether a reference is worth your time and if the consultant has the track record to meet your project’s specific needs.

5.    Prepare Your Meeting: What Questions Should You Ask & How to Build Your List?

To begin with, 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 have the right expertise and have enough experience to solve the problem?
  • Do you think it will be possible for you and the consultant to work together?

Written proposals and slick pitches don’t always give you the whole picture. Checking references for consulting lets you dig deeper into a firm’s track record. Some of your questions will be broad, focusing on what’s most important to you and relevant to any consulting firm.

But others should target specific firms, maybe probing a weakness or some confusing area in their proposal that caught your eye. So, when building your question list, keep these things in mind. 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.

Maybe you’ve been burnt by a consulting firm before, and you’re looking to dive a bit deeper this time. You want to take a good look at how they build relationships and manage their clients. Sure, you’ll be checking if they’ve got their project management down pat, can stick to deadlines, and if they leave a lasting good impression.

But, let’s face it, even with all this, they can still seem a bit like a mystery. That’s where you start using any unclear parts of their offer to your advantage.

So, what could these murky spots be? Well, as you dig into the proposal, you might stumble on some things that just don’t add up or spark doubts about whether the consultants can really pull off the task as per your requirements. This is why it’s super important to check references for consulting. From these sticky points, you can whip up a list of questions to help clear things up.

A Quick Round-Up

Checking references for consulting should be a mandatory step in your selection process, particularly when you are not familiar with some of the consultants involved in the bid. Relying solely on your incumbents due to an existing relationship gives them an unfair advantage but doesn’t guarantee they are the best fit for your current project.

Even consultants you’ve worked with in the past or have heard of are not necessarily suited for your specific needs now. The success of your project heavily depends on the quality of the team involved. You need to ensure that the team presented in the proposal has previously tackled similar projects and excelled.

By taking the time to verify references, you confirm that the consultants have not only relevant experience but have also delivered excellent results. It’s as simple as that. This diligence protects your investment and sets the stage for a successful consulting engagement.


Why is checking references for consulting services important?

Checking references for consulting services helps verify the consultant’s claims and ensures they have successfully handled similar projects. This step provides insights into their past performance, reliability, and suitability for your specific needs.

When should I check references during the selection process?

You should check references during the final selection phase when you have shortlisted three to five consulting firms. This should ideally be done immediately after reviewing the final version of their proposals.

How do I verify the authenticity of a reference?

To verify the authenticity of a reference, cross-check their names, titles, and backgrounds. Ensure they held relevant positions and were directly involved in the project the consultant claims to have worked on.

What questions should I ask when checking references for consulting projects?

When checking references, ask about the consultant’s ability to meet deadlines, their problem-solving skills, how well they integrated with the team, and the overall impact of their work. Tailor your questions to address any specific concerns or requirements of your project.

What is the 4R framework, and how does it help in checking references?

The 4R framework stands for Real, Relevant, Recent, and Related. It helps ensure that the references are legitimate, similar to your project, up-to-date, and tied to the actual team members who will be working on your project. This framework ensures you get reliable and pertinent information.

What should I do if a consulting firm cannot provide references due to confidentiality?

If a consulting firm claims they cannot provide references due to confidentiality, insist on some form of validation of their past performance. Consider engaging a third party, like Consulting Quest, to check the references for you.

How can I ensure I am not accepting mediocrity when choosing a consultant?

Set high standards for references by seeking detailed feedback and avoiding excuses. Verify that the references are legitimate and relevant to your specific needs. Aim for top references from companies where the consultants have delivered outstanding results.




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