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What happened to your online shopping skills?

When it comes to the process of reviewing companies for professional services, the research portion of your buying decision should be no different than your process for researching the latest and greatest product you want to buy. That’s right, use the Internet. The Internet is in your face all day long. It’s even living and breathing in your pockets. For a lot of us, it’s right on the screens in our cars.

Ah. Who are we kidding? We know you already know this. You love the Internet. It’s the first place you go in the morning. Often times, it’s even the last place you go before bed. And you find everything you want right there on that little phone, don’t you? In fact, you’re so good at it, that you don’t make a single large buying decision for your household without first consulting the Internet. Right? Right.

Yet time and again, we see businesses fail to execute a similar review for professional marketing-communications services. It’s like the business world’s Internet savvy goes out the window when it comes to purchasing professional services like branding, marketing and public relations.

When it comes time for you to find your next marketing partner, whether it’s an advertising agency, public relations firm, web site design firm or a combination thereof, don’t waste time. Know what you’re looking for – and not looking for in a partner and do your research to pre-qualify them upfront.

Shopping onlineStart by using the Internet to check out the firm’s website (aka its “mega storefront”). And know this: it’s not at all easy to create a thoughtful, informative, compelling and compliant website that’s full of well-written copy, a strong project portfolio, professional photography, expert biographies and that functions across multiple platforms (e.g., iPad, smartphone, desktop).

Be sure to read the firm’s Online Press Room too. There, you should be able to find more relevant, quick facts as well as stories that credible third parties have written about the firm. Keep in mind that whatever you see on their website is very much what you are going to get. Forget the expression that the cobbler’s children have no shoes. If, as communications professionals, a firm is disrespecting its own brand and website just imagine how they’ll handle yours.

Once you’ve pre-qualified the firm, give them a call to start a dialogue – and approach it as a conversation, not an interrogation or panic session. Ask about their process for starting a project and seeing it through to completion. Also ask how project management would be handled day-to-day and how involved the firm’s executives will be on your account. Get references too and be sure to call the references with probing questions. A good marketing firm will have references ready to give you at the drop of a hat.

The next phase can get tricky, so don’t over complicate it. We suggest that you sole-source to one firm based on their quality of work, references and the rapport you build with them initially. If you must conduct a competitive interview process make it very simple. Include no more than three firms, don’t ask for creative concepts upfront (there’s no greater buzz kill or time-suck and many firms simply won’t do spec work without a guarantee of bigger picture, longer-term work) and always be aware that you’re not comparing apples to apples when it comes to scope of work, pricing and quality of deliverable.

If and when you meet with firms be wary of the smoke and mirrors. Often times marketing firms or advertising agencies will put you in front of their executives or slickest talking snake oil sales people that wow you in the pitch and disappear when it’s time to deliver the goods – even if they say otherwise.

Save yourself the headache when it comes to picking your next marketing-communications partner. Do your research upfront using the online researching skills that you’ve honed since iOS v1.0. Pre-qualify the firm, qualify them further through 1-on-1 conversations with the firm’s partners and its references and seriously consider sole sourcing to the right company.