Here are 11 things to consider when narrowing your search.
Company size and location. How many full-time consultants does the firm have and how long has it been in business? The size of the firm determines the average size of the projects it may take on.
Very small firms (10 employees or fewer) will do projects that average $10,000 to $20,000 and often, $5,000 or less. Small firms (10 to 30 employees) are commonly in the $10,000 to $50,000 range in size of projects.
Medium-sized regional firms (30 to 100 employees) are generally in the $25,000 to $300,000 range for an average project, and large firms (e.g. Razorfish, Sapient, Scient, Big-5) look for projects in the millions of dollars. Choosing a firm in which the consultants must travel to your location typically adds another 15 to 20 percent of expense to the project.
Responsiveness and accessibility. Are the firm's consultants and managers responsive and working with a high sense of urgency? Because decisions and circumstances will move and change quickly, it is beneficial to find a firm that can grow and move in Internet time.
Find a firm that is hungry for your business, is accessible and provides high attention and service every step of the way.
Project methodology and process. Ask to see examples of templates, documented methodology for system requirements, test plans, content inventory and design questionnaires. Ask the firm to walk through its project management process and methodology.
What are the deliverables at each stage of the project? The explanation should be crisp and clear. Does the firm have a project management extranet? The better firms do. If it does, its project managers should be able to quickly go into more detail than you care to see.
Business understanding. You will want to find a firm that will use technology and the Internet to help your business increase revenue, decrease costs, increase customer service or create some new killer application.
Don't use a firm that just builds Web sites. Look for ones that have done their homework on your business and industry. They should be asking good, challenging business questions about customers, competitors, internal processes, business goals, strategy, growth opportunities and threats.
Competency and skill. All e-business firms have some mix of strategy, technology and creative talent. An easy way to determine where its real strengths lie are to ask it to break down its consultants (in terms of numbers and percentages) by discipline.
Also consider the origin of the firm's founders and senior leaders and how each migrated into e-business. The majority of firms have roots in either technology or creative/advertising. Most are best in one of the three disciplines and good enough in the other two.
Understanding your most critical need will help you find the right fit. Since e-business and the Internet are rapidly becoming more integrated into firms' systems and the systems between organizations in a supply web, strong system integration experience is becoming an absolutely critical component to most Internet initiatives.
Most creative focused firms have a disadvantage when it comes to deep systems integration or business to business integration.
Industry focus. Is the firm business-to-business or business-to-consumer focused? How much of its work is concentrated in different industries? Ideally, find a firm that has deep industry or process experience. This will help eliminate wild goose chases and increase ramp-up time by leveraging past experience.
If you have specific, complex process requirements (financial leasing calculations), you may need to search the country for the right firm or package.
Custom vs. COTS partnerships. What percentage of the firm's work is custom vs. Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) software packages? Ideally, find a firm that can be objective and recommend the best solution -- not just the solution that it specializes in or the one that is determined by its software partnerships.
Senior management's savvy & digital strategy. Can consultants from the firm hold their own with your senior managers? Now that e-business is reaching deeper and more strategically within businesses, find a firm that can work with your senior management team to determine a prioritized roadmap of e-business investments.
Do the firm's consultants understand online marketplace concepts and best practices? Can its account managers discuss your business issues and think strategically?
Fees and approach. Once a firm has listened to your needs or read through your requirements, how does it estimate the work and what its approach will be? Do the consultants understand your short- and long-term needs? There are many ways to solve the same problem with varying approaches.
You should think of this as an iterative discovery process. Many times, assumptions are made that cause estimated fees to vary widely. Review the proposals in detail to understand the approach, deliverables and assumptions.
References and prior work. Before committing to a firm, check at least two to three references and look at examples of its work. Because firms and their work evolve quickly, also look at work in progress to view its latest, most up-to-date concepts. Check references as a final part of due diligence -- after you think you have selected the firm.
Ownership. Who owns the work product -- the firm or you? Many consulting firms require that they retain ownership of the code and work products and offer an unlimited license. Some may not care. In either case, be sure to review your objectives with your legal counsel and clearly define your business reasons for why you want to retain ownership.
Also, ownership of code and work products may be relatively meaningless if strict development standards and documentation are not provided as well. Scrutinize the development process, system design documentation, coding standards and testing approach to ensure that what you want ownership of is worth owning. Leonard W. Pagon Jr. is president & CEO of NewMedia Inc, a professional services firm that provides middle-market organizations and Fortune 1000 divisions with the business and technical leadership needed to leverage the Internet and other emerging technologies. He can be reached at (216) 518.7900.