A sound strategy for selecting the right supplier

Freelance writers and other creative service providers are accustomed to taking calls about the services we deliver. While the calls I receive focus on learning more about what I do, they also give me great insight into the sophistication of the callers and whether I really want to do business with them.

Prospects often lack experience working with suppliers such as writers and graphic designers. Because of that, they base their investigations – and their eventual decisions – on factors that are inherently flawed or not well-thought-out.

For example, it’s not unusual for them to begin the conversation by asking for my hourly rate. When one does, I know that I’m not going to get his or her business. It isn’t that my fees are exorbitant; it’s that the prospect is shopping by price, and a veteran supplier with a healthy business is rarely going to win when hourly rates are the primary metric.
When you’re hiring any kind of professional, price should be secondary to expertise, knowledge, talent – and value. If you’re facing serious criminal charges, hiring the cheapest attorney isn’t likely to result in a happy outcome. If you’ve been diagnosed with some dread disease, you want the top specialist, not the most affordable. And when you need to look your best, you’ll walk right past that $4 barbershop. (If your argument is that writing is a commodity, and one copywriter is the same as another, I won’t get your business — and frankly, I wouldn’t want it, anyway.)

“Low hourly rates provide a form of false economy, too.”

Low hourly rates provide a form of false economy, too. Someone may charge half as much as I do, but if it takes them four times as long to handle the work, they’re actually twice as costly. Or they may lack the experience or talent to do justice to the project, so the bill will be cheaper, but the quality and results suffer accordingly.

You do need to consider your budget. As with so many things, your best bet is to seek the greatest value for your investment. Of course, value can be difficult to quantify during the selection process, but if you search by examining key factors, you’ll be able to recognize it.

Determine dedication. How long has your prospective supplier been in business? Has it been consistent, or does it appear that it’s only to cover gaps between jobs? What was he or she doing before going into business? And is he or she committed to staying in business? That last point is particularly important if you’re hoping to establish a long-term working relationship with the supplier. You don’t want to be left high and dry in six months when he or she takes a full-time job.

Business basics. A freelancer or small design business may not have an office in an expensive tower, but they should still follow practices that demonstrate they take their business – and yours – very seriously. First impressions such as well-designed, easy-to-navigate websites, professional-looking business cards, and the factors you consider when evaluating prospective employees (such as how they dress for an initial meeting, their eye contact, etc.) also count.
Others’ opinions. Ask for names and numbers of current (and even former) clients, and invest a little time to determine what they think of your prospective supplier. Don’t inquire about vague topics like creativity – focus on those business practices. Does billing match estimates? Are deadlines taken seriously? Has the quality of the work been consistent? Is the billing process professional? How have problems been addressed? And most of all, how have you been treated?

Peruse portfolios. Study some of the supplier’s past work for other clients, but be sure to look for the right things. It’s easy to get wowed by cool designs and clever concepts. While words and design are important, the thinking behind them is what really matters. Don’t just compliment the design – ask why the designer chose that approach and what he was trying to accomplish. Don’t just chuckle at a quippy headline – find out why the writer believed humor was the best tactic for the particular situation and audience. You want to see (and hear) evidence of strategic and innovative thinking built around the clients’ needs. That tells you your needs will be treated similarly.

Elicit experiences. Take it a step further by asking about challenges the prospective supplier has solved for other clients. Look for specifics, particularly where results are concerned. There’s a big difference between “I think it worked pretty well” and “this ad increased sales by 26 percent.” Also ask about projects that didn’t work so well and what the supplier learned from them. Have them tell you about the toughest problem they ever tackled for a client.

As you do this, listen for both candor and enthusiasm. The supplier should be proud of a job well done, and he or she should speak favorably and respectfully of the client. Watch out for a lot of “I did this” and “I did that” – instead, you should hear evidence of collaboration. If the supplier bad-mouths clients or attacks their judgment, he or she may talk about you in the same way.

Readily returning? Perhaps the best measure of a supplier’s success at serving clients is repeat business. While there’s always some client turnover, look for client relationships that are measured in years, rather than months. If a client continues to work with the same supplier year after year, it’s a sign that the supplier is doing something right.
Your ultimate goal is to have the confidence that the supplier will be focused on helping you further your business goals, rather than simply padding his or her portfolio and checking account. Asking the right questions and reviewing the right kind of information will go a long way to doing that.