Consultant’s References Should Endorse Competency, Character

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR May 21, 2008

It is not unlikely that a prospective client will ask for a reference list or contact information to gather background data that will help make a decision about using an HR consultant’s services. In anticipation of this likelihood, HR consultants should have a plan detailing what information will be provided, which can range from a list of suggested references or testimonials presented on the consultant’s web site to personalized responses based on each individual situation.

Opinions vary about what works best and what format is most appropriate. Most consultants have found that the system that is right for them depends on the type of consultancy practiced, as well as the clients that are sought.

Canned or Client-Specific

“A reputable consultant will already have references and testimonials on file and visible at their web site,” says Paul Davis, an executive consultant and coach in Orlando, Fla. In addition, such references not only provide an endorsement of results previously achieved for a client, as well as an indication of the efficiency and time within which the results were obtained, but also a sense of the consultant’s integrity, credibility and sincerity, he says.

For those seeking references, Davis suggests asking for at least five, securing them via phone and listening attentively to what is said or not said. “Ask the right questions, and if there is any hesitancy on the part of the reference, you’ll detect it,” he says.

But Rob Frankel, a branding consultant and the author of The Revenge of Brand X: How to Build a Big Time Brand on the Web or Anywhere Else (Frankel & Anderson, 2000), disagrees with the notion of posting references on publicly available web sites. “Never post client references,” because listing references on a web site can provide competitors with a list of prospective clients, he says. “Hand out references only at the point when they’re necessary to close the sale,” he says.

Frankel and others favor providing references on a project by project basis, not a one-size-fits-all format. “No matter what you think, each prospect has a slight variation,” Frankel says. “Giving the wrong reference could just as easily kill your chances— ‘Oh, I thought he did employee rights, not sexual misconduct work’.”

Sally Haver, senior vice president of business development for The Ayers Group/Career Partners International, agrees. “We usually give new or prospective clients a list of current clients that can be called that are their equivalents, and we match by industry,” she says. “So, if Random House is thinking of using us we’d give them our senior contacts at HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Fairchild,” she says. “If Morgan Stanley called, we’d give them the senior HR people we deal with at Merrill Lynch, DeutscheBank, Credit Suiss, and so on.”

Mary Key, a business consultant who heads the leadership practice for the Institute for Corporate Productivity in Tampa, Fla., says while some prospective clients are comfortable with copies of letters of reference or viewing statements from references online, the ability to provide references specific to individual client needs is critical. Consultants need to customize references for a prospective client so if the potential client requests a reference, the consultant should be ready to produce a list of references with contact information, she says. It is equally important to have asked for permission from those individuals before providing their names. When used, the consultant should give them a “heads up” that they might be contacted, she says. Most clients are accommodating, she adds. Even if a consultant has worked on a project that is confidential to the client, most are usually willing, on a selective basis, to endorse a consultant’s character, skill and professionalism when appropriate, she adds.

Expect Skepticism

Of course, when providing references, consultants should be aware that the names they provide may be looked upon with a certain amount of skepticism. After all, as with job candidates, it is highly unlikely that a consultant would provide a reference from a job that did not go well or with an individual the consultant does not have a strong, positive relationship with. So the consultant should expect more scrutiny from a prospective client.

Tasty Catering is a suburban Chicago-based corporate catering and event planning service that has been working with Chicago area corporations and organizations for more than 20 years. With 150 Tasty Catering employees involved with more than 10,000 events a year, the company often relies on consultants with HR expertise, says Julie Baron, who works in public relations for the caterer. When the company considers hiring a consultant, the firm always requests references, she says. “We ask for references and then check the references, knowing that we were only given the good references,” she says.

Yet, references are only a small portion of the hiring process, she adds. When considering an HR consultant, Tasty Catering will determine initially if the applicant is qualified, she says. Once it has been established that the consultant is qualified, the company then looks to see if the consultant matches the company’s culture, including morality and ethics. The key is to determine if the consultant can accept the company culture as a daily way of life, she says.

Aware that some clients prefer consultants who match a corporation’s culture, HR consultants should recognize that savvy prospective clients will go beyond the basic questions and pursue a line of inquiry designed to elicit information from references that say more about the consultant than what has been provided, says Lori Booker, CEO of CBR Public Relations in Maitland, Fla. When conducting reference checks, Booker asks questions such as “What task would you never think to have this person do again (and) why?” or “What work habit impressed you about this person, and what habit was perhaps annoying to you or others?”

Booker also does her homework to ensure that she knows what the right answers should be. For example, she works with consultants on hiring issues and needs those consultants to be up to date with respect to hiring laws. Prior to checking references, Booker researches the most recent laws and regulations and will then ask the references something specifically related to a new requirement.

Conversely, Booker depends primarily on referrals and references for consultant leads. “We always agree on the reference sources before the process begins,” she says. In addition, she ensures there is input to the questions that are asked and requires that there is an opportunity to ask follow-up questions should more information be required on any of the answers, she says.

However, all references carry some degree of credibility and need evaluation, Davis says. Careful clients will do their own homework to ensure a good fit, he adds. Ultimately, an HR consultant’s reputation is what it is, therefore having the confidence that any client contacted will provide positive support for the consultant’s work should be an evergreen goal, he said.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002).

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