Questions to Ask When Checking a Vendor’s References

Question marks

Written by Lori Gershaw

Lori Gershaw started her career in the event industry in 1989 as an Independent Meeting Planner and grew her business into a full-service meeting planning company.   In 2003 she founded her second company, GCG Event Partners, a nationwide network of Independent Meeting Planners and On-Site Meeting Managers.

July 14, 2014

As Independent Meeting Planners, we’ve all had to hire vendors. But how do we know they’re any good? Just taking their word for it may get us more than we bargained for, so we ask for references. Whether they are a caterer, an on-site staffing agency, an audio/visual company, party rental company, or a band, wouldn’t it be great if we could look into our crystal ball and know that they will live up to our expectations? References help us to get that insight. But we have to ask the right questions of the references… and listen very carefully between the lines. Presumably, most people will provide references they feel will give a good reference, so here are some tips to uncover their real feelings.

  1. Call the references at a time when you think they won’t answer the phone, either at lunchtime or before or after work hours. Then leave a message identifying yourself and the purpose of your call and ask that the person call you back if they feel the vendor was exceptional. Note the time you called and how long it takes the person to call you back (or if they call back). That, in and of itself, is a clear indicator.
  2. Ask the reference to describe their relationship with the vendor. You’d be surprised how many will identify a personal relationship. “Oh, Mary! She’s my best friend!” On the other hand, they may strictly have a professional relationship, which might allow you to get a non-biased reference with solid information.
  3. Ask the reference to give you a general idea of the services the vendor performed for them. Understand the scope of services you wish to hire the vendor for and match it up with the services provided to the reference. Make sure there is common ground.
  4. Do a little soul searching to bring to light any pet peeves you may have and address them with the reference. Make note of anything the reference says that reminds you of things you liked from previous vendors that worked well for you.
  5. Ask the reference to identify a time they were less than pleased with the vendor and ask how the vendor handled the situation.
Here are some questions I ask my vendor references. Please feel free to use any of them to help you in vendor selection:

  • What were you hoping to achieve by hiring the vendor’s services? Do you feel you achieved them?
  • What would you wish had been different about your project or your relationship with the vendor? If you could have changed one thing, what would it have been?
  • How long did it take before you saw the results of the project? Did the vendor stay on schedule?
  • How did you know when the vendor succeeded at what was promised?
  • How well did they understand your needs?
  • How did they handle conflict-resolution?
  • What was their response time to your questions or requests?
  • Did the vendor exceed your expectations?
  • Is there anything else I should consider before I hire this vendor?
  • Would you hire this vendor again? Do you have plans to hire them again?

Asking open-ended questions and getting the reference to talk provides you with the best information. Listen carefully for cues that may indicate that they may be glossing something over or trying to be nice because they don’t want to say anything bad about the vendor. If you hear any red flags, ask about them.

Always respect your references’ time and don’t linger on the phone. Thank them for sharing the information with you. Be sure to take notes so you can compare any notable words or phrases with other references you speak with.

What techniques have you found to be successful in getting informative references? Please chime in below…

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  1. michelle

    This is a great list. Thanks!


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