Guide to finding a reliable agency or service provider
There’s plenty of guidance out there these days for HR departments and managers about the best ways to interview and hire employees. However, at most medium to large and enterprise-sized businesses, the employees don’t do all the work. That balance of work is accomplished by other agencies and vendors. Plus, sourcing and onboarding these partners isn’t generally aided by HR. Instead, it’s a procurement department or just a lone department director who needs the work completed. It can be like having to hire multiple people all at once.
We developed this guide to help you determine how to find any agency or vendor for virtually any area of expertise. For the purposes of this guide, we’ll focus on knowledge work and business service vendors.
First, your vendor must be reliable. That fact may be obvious, but determining if they fit that requirement is a challenge. To be reliable, your vendor must be good at the work, ideally above average. But, if you’re not also an expert at the work, how can you judge if they’re good at it? This guide seeks to give you the tools you’ll need to determine that.
So, what is reliability in this sense? It’s being responsible and doing what you claim in the time you claim for the cost you claim. It's also being able to rely on them to spend money and time in a way that works for you. And, it's being able to predict what will happen when working with them.
Do they feature past work online? Everyone is going to feature their best work and make themselves sound great, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a requirement. Look for providers that can show a variety of client work over the course of time.
Do they have thought leadership? Look for publications like blogs, white papers, videos or podcasts. Do they think about their area of expertise enough to produce content? They should.
Do they have past clients willing to vouch for them? These might be quotes on the website or collaborative case studies. If not, just ask if they can provide two to three references much like you’d do with an employee.
However, being reliable is more than just being able to do the work you need at a high quality. They must also be a good fit for your business. The rest of the guide focuses on uncovering those essential answers.
What work do they consistently need to do for you? Conduct research and ask questions that get to the core of what you need them to accomplish specifically.
What skills and services are used by the majority of their clients? How variable is that set of skills from client to client? (i.e. Are they flexible or haphazard?) Are your needs core to their offering or on the fringes of what they provide?
Do they need to do work that you don’t need? Do they have a video crew they need to keep busy - while you don’t need video? Make sure they are comfortable and truly willing to provide what you need and refrain from insisting upon what you don’t.
What is their process (they have one, right)? Many service-oriented businesses employ processes that can be pretty similar to their competitors. This is fine since most work has industry best practices that should be followed. It’s mainly important that they can describe their process in ways that you understand. As a bonus, ask them about what happens when they need to stray a bit from the process. It should be a balance of predictability and flexibility.
Yes, we stuck this one in the middle on purpose. Sometimes the fee can be 90% of your decision. But, it’s really only one aspect. Naturally, if they well exceed your budget it can be a deal-breaker. But, too little cost is also a flag to watch out for. Too cheap and something is probably missing.
How do they charge for their work? Do they charge by a commodity of hours? Price by the project? Is it based on the value of the outcomes? By retainer? Each of those can be a reasonable way to charge for work, but it has to make sense to you and fit your business’ needs.
What are the other costs? Cost means more than just an amount of money. It’s also time. Along with your budget, the calendar time needs to fit your schedule. (Though it’s good to make sure your timeline expectations are reasonable too). How much time and effort will they require of your team?
Even if they can’t tell you the fees and timeline at first, ask them what typical engagements with other clients look like to give you a baseline of what to expect.
Now we’re getting into the stuff that makes the difference between a one-time service and a long-term partnership.
Who will you work with? We’re not really looking for the individuals here; we need to know the roles you’ll be interacting with. Will they fit with your team’s counterparts (even if it’s just you)? Are those roles varied enough to provide expertise in all the areas you’ll need?
What’s the collaboration experience like? Does it seem like too many people (packing in those billable hours)? Or, maybe not enough people? How many meetings do they need with you? Too few and you won’t know what’s going on. Too many and you’ll feel like you’re working for them.
How well do they work with others? The work provided to you by most service businesses is rarely done in a vacuum. You have other experts in-house and other vendors too. Listen to how they describe working with experts outside of their team and in areas where their own expertise is limited. They should fit into your whole extended team.
What’s their current capacity? Good vendors keep busy, but they shouldn’t be too busy for you. Ask about their upcoming availability. Try to determine if you’ll be forcing them to operate above capacity. Even the most competent partners will struggle if they’re spread too thin. Alternatively, if they’re too open that might be a sign of other issues too.
Do they have a single point of contact? Unless you’re working with a sole provider you’ll be interacting with a team of their people. But, who is the bottleneck? Who is that one person who will either know the answers to your daily questions or be able to find out who does? They might have titles like “project manager,” “account manager” or “lead,” but you should know who it is (and they should have backups too).
When working with a partner like Solspace, knowing the technology we use seems like a given. But, virtually any vendor will utilize a set of technologies to accomplish their work.
What communication tools do they use? We’re all doing some level of remote work these days (In fact, Solspace has done it since 2000). Do they use Zoom, MS Teams, Google Meet, Skype (yikes)? Is it a platform that fits with your business? Are they willing to use one that does? In addition to meetings, do they rely on email or Slack? How can you comment on work asynchronously?
What task management tech do they use? Some work needs are more complex than others but everyone needs something to keep track of what’s happening. Is it Jira (what we use), Monday.com, Asana, Basecamp or even just a spreadsheet? Confirm they have something and then do your best to determine if your team can fit with it. Also, are they willing to engage with your task management platforms if that’s a requirement?
What industry-specific platforms do they use? Is there a specific CMS they need to know? Or maybe a public relations database or logistics software? Even tools like graphic design or CAD platforms can make a difference. Regardless of what they are, their tools should balance being both established and modern.
What are their hard skills? This is not quite the same as expertise, which deals with their level of quality and knowledge. Here you’re trying to determine what techniques or activities they rely on to get their work done. What are they good at? Plus, how can they substantiate what they know how to do? Do they keep up with their industry’s best practices and trends? Are they constantly learning and improving? They should be.
What are their soft skills? This connects back to work style a bit, but they should have the right non-technical skills too. Do they have the capacity to be fun enough to work with? You don’t want to deal with androids. Or, are they serious enough? If your industry is high-stakes, can they show respect for those stakes? Do you need them to keep things steady and boring or be open to a bit of chaos and unpredictability?
Proactive Value Creation
Finally, are they prepared to partner with you on continually adding value to your business?
Do they just take orders or offer ideas? Regardless of the service they are providing, your vendor should regularly offer you opportunities for enhancements to the products they work on for you. And these new tasks shouldn’t go back to that act of keeping unnecessary team members busy. Both you and they should be able to see how the updates and improvements they recommend can directly affect your revenue, efficiency, or brand positioning.
Are they willing to pull out the rulers and calculators? By this we mean, are they willing and able to measure success and failure? Will they be able to produce data to demonstrate what’s working and what isn’t? Not every new idea works; they should be willing to reveal that through data and offer alternative ideas. They should also be able to prove how something is successful so you can replicate and maintain that success.
There’s a lot to consider here and you likely won’t get all your questions answered before having to get to work. Take a look through these questions and determine which ones are most critical for your team and your work. Upon review, you’ll likely realize some must-haves.
You may not have the assistance of your HR department when onboarding a new service provider, but that doesn’t mean you have to feel in the dark when it comes to choosing a new partner. Be willing to ask the tough questions. And remember, you’re not getting married. If it’s not working out, you may need to make the tough decision to move on. Learn from the experience and you’ll be even more ready to find an even better partner the next time.
Hopefully, this guide will keep you from having to do that. Use it to find a provider that is a great fit for you and for them. So, let’s go out there and find some good folks and get to work.