I've witnessed clients explore every method imaginable to choose a designer: requesting a price on a specific piece of work, asking for hourly rates; publishing a blanket Request for Proposals or; outright asking for speculative or free concept work as a test. Seldom, though, have I seen any of the above methods work efficiently in providing clients a quality long-term partnership—and isn't that the real intent?
Obviously I'm biased but anything that streamlines the process of clients aligning with designers, or any professional services firm, with the least risk and best outcome is in the best interest of both parties. This is a long post but it's such an important topic.
Right off the batt, I've never understood how price can be a reliable deciding factor, unless you're buying a commodity like a litre of milk or fuel. Every day people choose to pay more for real, or perceived, brand value. Unless you know exactly what each of the firms you are talking to actually does, and that their capabilities and skills are perfectly matched, how can price be compared? Similarly I've never understood the logic of asking for hourly rates. How does a low hourly rate equate to better value? While I might love the idea that a local mechanic charges $45 per hour, what good is that if he takes twice as long to diagnose my car's issue? Wouldn't I be just as good dealing with a faster, $90 per hour, mechanic? And if the higher priced mechanic, because he's more experienced, identifies ways to ensure my ride lasts longer—wouldn't I be even further ahead still?
Today's most popular tool for finding a professional services firm is the 'Request for Proposal'. I actually don't have a big issue with this method, if it's done well—but it seldom ever is. Done well, it's an opportunity to define your needs and your current position as clearly as possible. The more REAL information the better. Sadly most RFP's are vague requests requiring respondents to spend most of their time guessing what the issuer is actually looking for. They are often sent out to virtually everyone when only about three or four firms will be really be shortlisted. The issuer ends up being deluged with responses, many of which are totally off the mark. Why waste everyone's time?
I suggest clients start with doing some research. I know that sounds harsh but don't we all research before a major purchase, talk to friends and associates or even competitors about who they recommend? Make a short list of five or so firms who's work you respect, who you think you'd like to work with. You can even throw in a wild card, a firm or designer who might push you out of your comfort area.
Next develop a document that outlines what you'd like to accomplish over the next year or more. Assign a budget, a realistic one, of what it's worth to you. Send that document out to the firms you identified inviting them to meet and talk about the document. Meet with each interested firm for an hour: 10 minutes for them to present their credentials and talk about their approach to projects; 20 minutes for them to ask you questions about what you want to accomplish and; the last 30 minutes for questions about process, yours and theirs, and as round-table back and forth discussion about anything that comes up. The intent of this meeting is to find out who you connect with, who you enjoy interacting with, who seems like a good fit, who you trust.
So far, you haven't had to talk about price because you've already stated what you're willing to spend. By being upfront about your expectations and budget you've already positioned yourself as a desirable client and one that respects their partners enough to be honest.
After your meetings you'll have a good gut feeling about at least two of those firms... whittle your short-list down to no more than three firms. Now you need to have another meeting... at their offices. Treat this as a first meeting of a project, make sure all the people in the meeting are the ones on both sides that'll be working together on a day-to-day basis. Hell, agree to pay them a fee... the point is to make this as real of an experience as possible. Present a problem or opportunity you have and start discussing how to move forward. Be real, and expect them to be as well. This isn't about them selling selling themselves, this is about working together.
The right firm will be obvious. It'll be the firm that you connected with, the one that built on your energy and ideas.
Want some help preparing an RFP or finding the right firm? I've helped manage the process for numerous firm and I can even run the process for you... who better to evaluate the responses than someone who'd been writing them for years!
As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts on my thoughts. Or drop me a line with a question you'd like me to tackle... I love the challenge!