Chances are, you are starting a new project soon. It could be something small like adding a new shipping option to your e-commerce store. Or maybe it’s bigger, like a full site redesign or building a new integration. Regardless, you are likely going to involve an outside consultant of some kind. Of course, when you involve outside entities, things get more complicated. To get the outcome you want, you need to carefully define your project and write a good rfp (request for proposal).

Define Your Goal

To start, consider your goal in the project. Why are you considering this project? What do you hope to accomplish? Define your goals in general terms at this point. Try not to get caught up in your idea of how to accomplish your goals yet.

General: Increase Online SalesToo specific: Start an Adwords campaign.
General: Improve conversion rate.Too specific: Change button colors.
General: Integrate ecommerce software with fulfillment software.Too Specific: Create CSV export, Excel Macro, and Import.

Keep an open mind about how your goal can be accomplished. You may limit your expert by defining how to do the project and never find out that there is a better or easier way to do it. Also, your idea may end up not working even though the expert did exactly what you asked. More on this later.

Remember that you are the idea person in this process. No contractor will ever understand your business as well as you do. Developers, designers, SEOs, copywriters, and the like aren’t going to generate ideas for improving your business without some direction from you. You should be ultra-clear about your goals but looser about how to get them done.

Consider Value

Before you contact any contractors, consider the value of your project. How much time would it save you? How much extra revenue would it generate? Is it an optional project or has it become a necessity? Considering the value of a successful project will help you to determine a budget (early on when you are investigating you may not have a budget yet… that’s okay!). When the quotes come in, you can decide if it’s worth it.

Initial Research

Do some general research about your project. There are often forums or blogs where people talk about projects very similar to yours. Increasing your vocabulary will help you communicate your goals better. It will also help you ask better questions and understand the things your contractor is trying to explain.

Explain

When you explain your project to an expert, be thorough and specific. Take the time to explain what you want and why you want it. Give any surrounding details that you think would help (and try not to be frustrated later when they ask questions you already covered in your initial description). If there are examples you can share, bring them up.

If the contractor has lots of clarifying questions, that’s a great sign! Pay attention to what they ask as this often helps clarify for you what’s possible.

If they say “sure, no problem”, but don’t ask any questions, that’s a bad sign. Many contractors don’t take the time to fully understand your needs and assume they’ll be able to figure it out. This often leads to frustration once they get started and find out they can’t do it in your timeline or budget or like they said they could.

When an expert won’t take the time to understand you, move on. If they listen to you for 2 minutes and then start explaining their solution for you (the same one they offer every client), they aren’t going to be a good fit.

Talk To More Than One Expert

If at all possible, meet with more than one expert. This is especially important if your project is large or if you will have an ongoing relationship. Why?

  • It will help you negotiate price.
  • You can see if the experts all generally say the same thing.
  • You can find who you like working with the best.

Prepare a list of questions for each contractor. Ask all those questions in each meeting, even if you already know the answers from earlier meetings. This will help you compare better. If everyone says the same thing, you can feel more confident about the answer.

Make sure to mention that you are meeting with several experts and that you’ll be choosing the best overall fit. This is only fair to the contractors who are giving you their time. It also helps your negotiating position.

Solution Specific Expert?

Do you need a contractor specializing in your software/project or will a general contractor work?

Specialized:

  • No learning curve, already familiar with the work.
  • Often more expensive.
  • May be inflexible if they have a standard service they want to sell you.

General:

  • Larger pool to choose from.
  • Will need to spend time learning the software/project.

For example, I’ve done several projects involving custom development for a BigCommerce store. There are numerous BigCommerce partners that can do development. After meeting with several of them, I was ultimately rather disappointed. They wanted to get our company into their out-of-the-box (and expensive) services. I had some more custom requirements in mind and I was comfortable handling routine things on my own. My team met with several developers and chose the one we thought was the best fit. He had to spend several hours becoming familiar with BigCommerce but it was well worth it since the relationship is ongoing. I now work with him regularly.

Though I often prefer general experts, there are times when specialists are the best (or only) option. If you aren’t sure what’s best, meet with both! You can sometimes test the waters with a small project and decide after that if you’d like to continue.

Cautionary Tale

Much of this post comes from painful mistakes in my own past. One in particular inspires my comments about defining your goal.

Years ago my company used Storefront for e-commerce and Dydacomp M.O.M. For order fulfillment and inventory management. We were manually inputting orders that came in online into M.O.M. This was time consuming in the extreme. Integrating the M.O.M. and Storefront was our holy grail.

M.O.M. is SQL based and doesn’t allow CSV order imports. We found a company specializing in integrations and they assured us that they could create an integration. They said that they could create an export from Storefront and a custom SQL import that would add the exported orders into M.O.M.

In the contract they didn’t say that they would create an integration for orders from Storefront to M.O.M. They talked specifically about the button they would create and the SQL query they would write.

After about a year of working on it, it was clear that the integration wasn’t going to work. But, per the contract, they’d provided exactly what they promised. They’d never promised a working integration after all, just a button and a query.

I made the mistake of only meeting with one company. I also made the mistake of letting the contract be too specific.

We ended up meeting with a M.O.M. Expert who easily created an integration for a fraction of the price. In this case, the specialist was definitely the way to go.

Get Started

With a bit of research and planning, your project can be a huge success. Define things clearly and take your time finding the best consultant possible. Taking some time to do things right at the start will save time and wasted money down the line. So, what are waiting for? Time to get started.

Have other RFP tips? Horror stories? Drop a line below.