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The 5 Red Flags of Hiring a Design & Development Firm

Red flag with "For Hire" text

As a professional services company that deals with dozens of clients on a regular basis, we’re no strangers to the pitfalls that can sideline a project. Over the 12+ years we’ve been in business, we’ve worked to develop processes, best practices, and other habits to prevent as many of these issues from ever coming up. We wanted to share some of the bigger risks to customers who are scoping out the landscape when looking for a creative or development firm to work with.

We’ve identified what we feel are 5 of the biggest red flags when looking to hire a company to engage with. We hope it helps you find the right partner!

  1. No questions asked While a company can appear eager and enthusiastic about your project, it doesn’t mean they have the expertise to complete it. If you find that you receive little to no feedback after submitting your request for a quote, or receive a quote that doesn’t contain much detail about how they plan to provide you with a solution, be cautious. It’s not entirely uncommon for agencies and firms to do whatever it takes to secure a relationship, only to provide “change orders” at a later date which request additional budget due to unforeseen circumstances. A team that knows what they’re doing will always ask questions and try to mitigate risk, or get any assumptions addressed prior to committing themselves to a customer or project.If you do run into a firm or agency that isn’t asking questions, but you’re still considering them, be sure to ask your own questions instead. This should get them to divulge more information about their process and any other particulars about the project. Here are a few questions you should consider asking the next company you are considering for a project:
  • Ask your contact at the company to explain their project management process to you. Don’t be afraid to really dig in on this. Some good examples of questions to ask are:
    • How often is your team’s output audited or reviewed by peers for quality?
    • How does your management team ensure that estimates/quotes are met on time and budget?
    • Under what circumstances, if any, should I expect to be asked for more money?
    • Is your work guaranteed? If I am dissatisfied with what you provide, how will you ensure it is fixed?
  • Ask them to reiterate their understanding of the project goals to you, and to provide you with a list of what they see as the biggest potential risks to cost. Anybody worth their weight will already have a good idea of these risks are before they provide you with a quote.
  • Ask if there are any assumptions being made which could lead to misinterpretations about how the intended user experience and design is built, or how individual tasks are engineered or completed, and under what circumstance these might result in budget overage. The goal here is to make sure their team is not leaping to any large conclusions about how they might design or build something for you, all while setting themselves up to ask for more money later to compensate for poor planning.
  1. The price is wrong “You get what you pay for” and “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” are adages that most people understand well. Don’t jump at the first bid or the lowest bid. It may seem like you’re way ahead of the game by working with a company that promises a low-cost solution, but what you save in money, you’re very likely sacrificing in quality. Instead, look for at least 3 quotes from different reputable companies. If one of them is substantially higher or lower than the others, don’t hesitate to call them out on it and get more information about why their costs are structured the way they are.
  2. Poor (or no) reviews If the company has no reviews, then you have your answer… “Next!”. But if they do have reviews, here are a few questions you should consider when reading through their reviews:
    • Was [company] responsive to client needs and requests throughout the project?
    • Did [company] provide an accurate quote for the project? Did they complete their work within the amount of budget they asked for at the beginning?
    • Did the work get done on time? If not, what were their reasons for being late?
    • Did [company] do a good job of keeping their client informed as to the state of the project?
    • Was [company] consistent in their communication? If they said they would do something, did it get done within a reasonable period of time?
    • Would the client work with [company] again?
    • Would the client recommend that I work with [company]? Why?
  3. Hammer, meet Nail Some companies that specialize in just one approach, framework or technology will try to design everything for it, and build everything with it (everything looks like a nail when you’re a hammer). While it’s not necessarily bad to work with a firm that focuses its efforts in this way, it’s important to understand how they determine what makes a project a “good fit” for their service. A reputable company should be willing to turn work away in cases where their service doesn’t align well with the client’s need. Here are some good questions to ask if you encounter a specialty or niche firm:
    • Why is [company’s chosen technology] a good fit for this project?
    • How flexible is [company’s chosen technology] from a design and ease-of-use standpoint? How does it provide a superior user experience when compared to other platforms or options?
    • [Other company] recommended I use [alternative technology] for this project. Do you think that’s a good idea? Please explain.
    • Is your work product easily scalable? How much maintenance is required in order to keep it up to date and secure?
    • How often do you turn down projects because they aren’t a good fit for [company’s chosen technology]?
  4. Mushroom Management If a company is protective about their process, or is hesitant to involve you, then they just might have something to hide. A company’s reluctance to share details on their process should be considered a major red flag.

    Some possible reasons for lack of transparency:
    • They are trying to hide their lack of ability/skill/technical know how
    • The company is inexperienced, and trying to hide that behind a fog of buzzwords and half-truths (or in some cases, outright lies)
    • They don’t want you to know how far behind they may be on the project’s timeline. In this case, you should usually prepare to hear some excuses about how “busy” they are with multiple projects, or how a few of their better developers have been out sick lately.

Any company you do business with should want to involve you as much as possible in the process. It is, after all, your product/service that they’re going to be working on. If they’re disinclined to include you in the communication with the rest of the team, let them know that you would like better visibility into the week-to-week project status. If they can’t provide this, or neglect to come up with an outline of the work they’re doing or the progress they’ve made, don’t hesitate to be honest with them and let them know how you feel. And if, after all this, your efforts still aren’t bearing fruit, it may be time to let them know you would like a refund and will be looking for other vendors to replace them with.

Summary (TL;DR)

  • The company you’re considering working with should have a well-defined process that fosters success. Make sure they understand your goals, and are accurately estimating the effort (and risks) involved in what you’re attempting to accomplish.
  • Don’t automatically go with the lowest or highest bid in an attempt to save money or “get the best”. Get at least 3 quotes from reputable companies and try to understand the variables that drive the cost differences.
  • Research the company you plan to work with and look for a track record of performance. Good reviews are a great sign, but poor reviews (or a lack thereof) speak volumes. Don’t be afraid to ask for references of past clients.
  • Avoid companies that specialize in a single methodology or technology, unless they have a solid track record and you’re quite sure that your product or idea would benefit from being designed or built in that way.
  • Look for companies that require or promote the need for your active involvement in your project. A company’s reluctance to share details on their process or involve you in it is a major red flag. You should be involved with them on a weekly basis, receiving updates about the status and overall health of the project regularly.

Chris Toler