Originally Published MDDI November 2005
Originally Published MDDI November 2005
Outsourcing the Right Way
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Once you decide to outsource your industrial design work, it is important to be prudent in choosing a design partner. But how do you accomplish that? Here is a guide to help you get it right.
Referrals are the best way to get to a high-quality short list. Before soliciting referrals, though, develop a detailed description of the qualities and experience you want. When you get a referral, find out why your source is recommending the consultancy. The best sources will have direct experience working with the company they recommend.
The Internet is a good source of potential partners, but it lacks the important element of impartiality. Directories and trade magazine advertising can also add to the list. A team member should conduct telephone interviews to narrow the list before more of the team gets involved.
When interviewing consultants, search for the ones who listen to your needs and make suggestions that are problem-specific. Also, explaining your outsourcing situation to potential partners will help narrow the list to the most appropriate. For example, are you looking for a quick solution to an internal resource crunch? Have you had problems solving a specific design issue and need outside help to redirect the development team?
Remember that you are looking for a relationship that fits your needs. Each manufacturer has a different product development style. Your design partner must be comfortable and skilled working within your style.
Once you feel confident with your prospects, narrow your list to three firms. Then begin the proposal process. Keep your selection team consistent and representative of the overall team's character, so that all parties have a fair chance to evaluate the fit. For any significant project, or what might be the beginning of a long-term relationship, it is worth conducting face-to-face meetings. During this qualification period, meet suppliers in at least three places: their office, your office, and an informal setting, such as lunch or dinner. After an introductory briefing meeting, ask for a presentation tailored to your specific project, and be sure to meet the people who will actually work on the project.
Treat this presentation as a project and proposal planning exercise in which you interact with the consultants' team in a working session. This exercise will serve two purposes: first, you will gain an appreciation of the team's work style. Second, as a group, you will come up with the best way to structure the project from that consultant's point of view. Obviously, an important part of the proposal is the deliverables and price, but knowing how a designer arrives at the numbers is often more revealing of the project's likely success.
It is also a good idea to ask questions. How would the consultant deal with problems? What is its history of budget and schedule overruns? What have been the practical results of past projects? Is the consultant suggesting that your project is budgeted and scheduled in a similar manner? The potential partner should show examples that represent projects similar to yours.
In addition to the business questions, do not be afraid to ask personal and probing questions such as:
- What makes for a good client?
- What are the typical kinds of companies you bond well with and do your best work for?
- What proportion of your clients are repeat clients?
- For fixed-fee work, what is the typical increase in fees due to changes in scope during the project?
- We are asking these other two firms to bid the project. How do you feel you differ from those companies?
When creating a proposal, beware of overspecifying what you want. Define the project scope well, but give minimal information on budget and schedule expectations. You want honest feedback—not neatly drawn documents telling you what you want to hear. Financial and schedule goals are important, but ask questions about the consultant's previous projects to determine the likely costs and timelines before the proposal gets written. It is very common for firms to have different ways of approaching similar problems that yield significant budget and schedule differences. Nevertheless, there are also real constraints on what a consultant can do with minimal financing and overly aggressive timelines. Use the proposal planning stage to hash out what makes sense for your specific needs, and expect to ask for proposal revisions once the consultant has fully documented and budgeted these specifics.
After all this work, it is likely that a front-runner will have emerged—but diligence is still important. Ask for references from previous clients whose work was used to demonstrate the relevance of a particular consultant's experience to your project.
Ask references open-ended questions, such as how their project was structured and what was the character of the design team. Personal interaction with references is critical; therefore, avoid e-mail. If possible, ask each of the references to elaborate on what went well and what could have gone better, rather than stating the specifics of what you are after. That way, references will present pictures of their projects that will help with your due diligence.
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