Research the agency
Don't wait until the salesman is in front of you at the pitch to make your decision. Do your homework and ask specific questions that will reveal a lot about the company like:
What does the employee turnover rate look like over the last 5 years? – This may seem like a strange question to ask in such a professional industry, but is a good indicator of how the company treats it's employees and ultimately, the way they will treat you.
What is each team members specific role in your project? - If someone claims that they are a designer, developer, photographer etc... don't be afraid to request examples along with a brief explanation to reaffirm their claims. Some small companies like to act larger than they are and assume roles that they are not capable of performing.
How do they handle conflicts? - Ask if you are having a problem with the work performed, how the issue gets resolved. The only correct answer is for them to have a conversation with you about where they got off track from your original goal and to re-align themselves with your needs and push forward. This is where being prepared comes in handy, which leads to my next point.
This should go without mention, but I've seen it happen so many times that it's worth saying again. Don't go into a meeting knowing that you "just need a website/logo/branding". Often times, this is like walking into a used car dealership with "sucker" stamped on your forehead. You may be "sold" on some lofty ideas with loose definitions that will only come back to haunt you later. Take the time to think through what you're trying to achieve and how this new project fits into your growing needs, then describe your vision to the design agency and see if their approach matches up with your goals. Too much preparation is never a bad thing and will only make it easier to deliver exactly what you want, faster. This preparedness on your end will also help to identify any unique needs that your project may require and allow you to...
Ask for custom solutions to your unique problems
It's pretty common in the design/development industry to recycle certain aspects of different projects, and to a certain extent this will benefit you with faster delivery and lower costs. But when you have a unique problem, you will need a custom solution. Don't be swayed by the idea of a cheaper modified turn-key solution unless you are convinced that it will meet all of your criteria. I've seen this idea lead to less than desired functionality and more expensive developments in the long run, sometimes even being scrapped and starting over with a custom solution. To keep your sanity, and your checkbook in tact, be sure to...
Have a budget and plan for phase two
Having a budget outlined lets the design agency know that you're serious and helps keep unnecessary aspects of the project out of the initial phase. Planning for phase two allows the agency to become very involved in your project and encourages them to present new ideas to you for later implementation, as well as builds an established business relationship that might very well lead to phase three and beyond.
Ensure that upon project completion, YOU own the materials, not the agency
I can't stress this one enough and it is becoming more of a problem with small design agencies, and is extremely unprofessional. When you are reviewing the contract, if you do not see it stated specifically that all copyrights and ownership is transferred to the client upon completion of work, find another design group. This is a complete deal breaker and a scam to get you to pay more later when you are doing something wrong with "their" content.
Each of the tips above could be a discussion of their own, so if you want to expand upon one of the ideas presented in this article, post in the comments section below. If you would like consulting on Cincinnati design agencies, feel free to send me a message.
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