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RFI - asking for references?

  • 1.  RFI - asking for references?

    Posted May 08, 2019 15:30
    I suspect this issue is unusual, but here it goes...

    We recently received responses to a Request for Information (RFI) from providers who are able to support an existing Sitecore application. After narrowing down our selections to a couple of seemingly promising candidates, we requested references. However, our otherwise favorite of the two providers seems reluctant to provide these. For weeks, our contact has said that he's working on getting these references, recently indicated that his references "get a lot of requests", and has subsequently ignored our requests for such with follow-up attempts to meet to discuss the status of our decision and how to move forward.

    This is my first experience encountering a service provider either unwilling or unable to provide two or three references in a timely manner. Among other strengths, this organization has been around for nearly 15 years, has a large number of employees who specialize in Sitecore, and is a Certified Partner in this technology. With that, I'm surprised by this provider's non-response responses.

    I'm writing to ask...  Is it reasonable to ask for references? Is it reasonable for potential providers to refuse to provide references? It common for vendors to take the position that they don't want to bother their otherwise happy clients? Processing RFI's isn't something I do every day, so I'm wondering is this practice of requesting and expecting references is outdated? Should the inability or unwillingness to provide references be a deal breaker?

    I'm open to any and all feedback. Thanks in advance!

    Chris O'Connor
    Director of Information Technology
    Society of Biblical Literature
    Atlanta, GA
    2020 Nonprofit Technology Conference Logo  w/ Baltimore Skyline

  • 2.  RE: RFI - asking for references?

    Posted May 08, 2019 16:07

    Hi Chris,


    You absolutely not only have the right to ask for references, but the obligation. The size and length of time in business is often simply organic growth through name recognition, and may not mean that their clients are necessarily happy. I always provide references when requested, and do so quickly – name, title, email and phone – along with a summary of the project. My own opinion, and others may differ, is that this is a red flag. You want your potential vendor to show that they are responsive, not evasive.


    While this isn't an ideal suggestion, you may want to open your RFI again or consider another response from the first round. You probably don't want to choose the other vendor solely by default.


    Best of luck.



    Dori Kelner, MS | Managing Partner

    Sleight-of-Hand Studios LLC

    dmkelner@sohstudios.com | 703.758.7178 | http://www.sohstudios.com

    Get Relevant. Be relevant. Stay relevant.

    strategy - design - web - photography


    2020 Nonprofit Technology Conference Logo  w/ Baltimore Skyline

  • 3.  RE: RFI - asking for references?

    Posted May 08, 2019 16:18
    We always ask for references in situations like that. In particular I try to talk with the people who were in the weeds with the prospective vendor, and/or a person who is in a role comparable to mine.

    I agree with you and Dori, it's disconcerting that they're not providing this information when you ask. If people have been happy with their work in the past then the vendor shouldn't have any trouble finding a couple folks who are willing to spend a few minutes talking with you.


    Margaux O'Malley
    Senior Manager, Digital Communications & Web Operations
    Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
    pronouns: she/her/hers

    2020 Nonprofit Technology Conference Logo  w/ Baltimore Skyline

  • 4.  RE: RFI - asking for references?

    Posted May 09, 2019 12:42
    Thank you all for this great feedback! Again, I thought it was so odd this provider would be unable or unwilling to provide references that I had to reach out for a reality check.

    To be clear, we're in the final round of this process, as this vendor is well aware. In fact, we informed our contact that we expect to move forward with them upon review of the MSA and SLA and after checking references. We received all requested documentation… except references.

    At this point, among the factors to consider, is the fact this provider promised to provide references, but then would not or could not. The factors that led us to select this provider over the second place provider are substantial, but at the end of the day, our Executive Director will decide whether this reference/communication issue is a deal breaker. I certainly won't be making an enthusiastic recommendation.

    Thanks also for the advice to attempt to find client feedback online. I performed a cursory online review near the beginning of this process, but I'll definitely dig deeper now.

    Very helpful! Thanks again!

    Chris O'Connor
    Director of Information Technology
    Society of Biblical Literature
    Atlanta, GA

    2020 Nonprofit Technology Conference Logo  w/ Baltimore Skyline

  • 5.  RE: RFI - asking for references?

    Posted May 08, 2019 17:14

    It is totally reasonable to ask for references. I've generally been able to get them upfront (and sometimes reference calls are my clients' first step to narrow the vendor pool) but some vendors respond as yours is doing. I hate that kind of response, but have never eliminated a vendor from consideration solely for that reason. You need to think about how hard you're willing to push them. Would you eliminate them at this stage if they don't comply? (I would absolutely require references before signing a contract.)

    I would also try other avenues for getting references, like asking about the vendor on this and other discussion fora, researching their client list, looking for reviews, reading any public filings, looking for news stories, etc.


    Robert L. Weiner Consulting
    San Francisco, CA
    Twitter: @robert_weiner

    Strategic Technology Advisors to Nonprofit and Educational Institutions

    2020 Nonprofit Technology Conference Logo  w/ Baltimore Skyline

  • 6.  RE: RFI - asking for references?

    Posted May 09, 2019 10:32
    Hi Chris,

    I agree with those that have responded. A request for references from a service provider is not uncommon.

    Further, It should be common business practice for your provider to share references with you.

    That said, I do believe that there is a right time in the evaluation process when it's appropriate to request more formal contact information and arrange for a conversation with references. And, of course, it's important to be respectful of their time.

    From what you have described, you are down to two vendors, correct?

    If that is the case, it is certainly applicable to obtain references at this time in the selection process & warranted to help in making your final decision.

    IMHO, you would be remiss and derelict not to obtain references.

    Chad Stewart

    2020 Nonprofit Technology Conference Logo  w/ Baltimore Skyline

  • 7.  RE: RFI - asking for references?

    Posted May 09, 2019 11:34
    Edited by Medha Nanal May 09, 2019 11:35
    Hi Chris,

    You have received a lot of really great responses here. I wish to chime in (in agreement): I see both sides of the coin. I totally understand why you would like to have reference check done before hiring the vendor, (in fact it's a part of due diligence). At the same time, as a vendor (consultant) myself, I can see why the vendor squirms each time asked for references: because one runs the risk of burning out their references if they overuse them. In your case, are you open to speaking to fewer than 3 references?

    Another possibility is that the vendor may be unaware of how close they are to getting the job.

    Personally, I always try to request my prospects to keep reference check as the very last step. This ensures that only those who are well-qualified prospects who have made up their mind on hiring me, are speaking with my clients, as the last step of the process. This reduces the traffic to clients and satisfies prospects in the best possible way.

    Another thing: in the era of LinkedIn and Social Networks, I see an increasing number of clients who will respond to request for reference with an offer to write a testimonial, either on LinkedIn or to be placed on website. Sometimes, this comes with an implicit expectation that this same client may not be willing to actually get on the phone. While a live human voice speaking on the phone is always welcome, written testimonials are a solid source, especially on social sites such as LinkedIn (because they are connected directly with the profile of the person who wrote it, and cannot be faked easily).

    As Robert suggested, running some "background checks" (my rephrasing) - using fora and other sources is a good way to check references.

    Medha Nanal
    Strategic Data/Database Consultant for Nonprofits (Fundraising, Operations, Programs)

    2020 Nonprofit Technology Conference Logo  w/ Baltimore Skyline

  • 8.  RE: RFI - asking for references?

    Posted May 09, 2019 12:51
    I'm on both sides of this fence as well, with a 30 year in-house IT resume and the last two years as a consultant. My take is that phone-based reference checks are a requirement for the vendor to provide when they are a finalist in the selection process and the dollars to be spent are considerable. As a vendor, I might pass on providing them for a small project, particularly if I can provide relevant testimonials, but I also do long term engagements that can both up rack the billing and present some risk: you want a CIO/consultant who knows how to work with a budget and manage a project. Requesting references who can provide context for the particular work is an absolutely reasonable request. A vendor who won't provide them for a sizeable project is highly suspect.

    Peter Campbell
    CIO for Hire
    Raffa - Marcum's Nonprofit and Social Sector Group
    Washington DC

    2020 Nonprofit Technology Conference Logo  w/ Baltimore Skyline

  • 9.  RE: RFI - asking for references?

    Posted May 09, 2019 11:43
    Product vendors should be able to provide references up-front and on request, at an early stage in the process. Service vendors should be willing to provide strong references as you get towards the end of a selection process.

    Speaking as a consultant, my willingness to provide references is based on weighing the value of my clients' time and goodwill against the opportunity presented. If the project is modest and we're early in a selection and there are still a dozen vendors, I'm reluctant to spend an hour of my clients' time. Sometimes, a reference is especially insightful and square on with the project I'm pitching for, and I might suggest that the client speak with a reference, even at an early phase.

    For me, the bigger red flag isn't the issue of references, but the communication. People act the way they act, and if a vendor is evasive and unresponsive in the sales process, it's unlikely to be better after contract signing.

    Isaac Shalev
    Stamford CT

    2020 Nonprofit Technology Conference Logo  w/ Baltimore Skyline

  • 10.  RE: RFI - asking for references?

    Posted May 10, 2019 07:27
    Lots of good answers here. Some random additional thoughts after 15+ years on the vendor side:

    1) RFI means to me you are just collecting information. If there is a dollar contract at the end of the process (which to me is not an RFI, but an RFP or RFQ) then let them know.

    2) a company can be good but a sales person can be bad. If everything else you know about the company is positive, escalate above the rep and find their boss and be honest - they are one of two, there is a contract, but there have been no references. If that doesn't move things, then walk away. Reputations are the past. Bad service is the present and a more likely indicator of future performance. Try to find if the bad service is systemic or just the one sales person (if it is the salesperson, do they become your account manager or does someone else take over after the contract?)

    3) be honest with yourself about what kind of partner/customer you are. Has your process squeezed the price margin out of the deal? Have there been sudden changes in the information requested such that it seems like you aren't sure what you want? Do you submit a lot of sudden demands for new information overnight (everyone does to some extent, but is it your operational mode)? For me, I seek to write good business that benefits both sides. I will walk away from problem customers, though I will tell them we choose to no-bid and not be passive aggressive. Think about your process and if there has been signaling (even accidental false signaling, which can happen) that your organization might be trouble to work with - which usually amounts to super high service demands, not knowing what you want, and always squeezing on price.

    if you do find the sales manager, or already have contact with them, ask for a meeting and be open and honest about your concerns. If nothing improves, then walk away. You need someone you can work with, and even if your organization has issues and they are passive aggressive about it, that's another reason to walk away. If they are open and honest, that might be a reason to continue exploring how to work together. Honesty is a valuable trait in the provider-client relationship.

    Bill King
    Principal Learning Strategist

    2020 Nonprofit Technology Conference Logo  w/ Baltimore Skyline

  • 11.  RE: RFI - asking for references?

    Posted May 10, 2019 08:21
    Thank you, Bill!

    To clarify, since we're looking for a long-term relationship with a provider to take over general support of an existing site already hosted in a private cloud, as opposed to seeking a provider for a development/hosting project, we didn't follow up with a RFP/RFQ. The support options were easily and thoroughly addressed in the RFI with responses typically outlining monthly retainers and/or monthly performance monitoring fees plus T&M. Since this RFI included questions about monthly fees and hourly rates, one might argue that it was actually an RFP, but in either case, we didn't get into project estimates.

    I'd like to think that we haven't shown ourselves to be a potential problem customer. In fact, I don't see how we could have made it simpler. They replied to a very short and simple RFI. We had a pleasant telephone discussion seeking clarification on some of their responses, selected one of the monthly monitoring options they offered, and requested MSA/SLA documents and references. For the record, the RFI clearly indicated that references would be requested.

    Truth be told, I was concerned that escalating this request to the sales rep's supervisor might flag us as a potentially problematic customer. However, I recently made yet another follow-up request, and if our rep continues to be unresponsive, then taking that approach can only help.

    Again, I really appreciate all the helpful feedback from you and everybody!!!

    Chris O'Connor
    Director of Information Technology
    Society of Biblical Literature
    Atlanta, GA

    2020 Nonprofit Technology Conference Logo  w/ Baltimore Skyline